Everyone at the Social Services had seen or heard about me dancing on our first night and knew who all I danced with and who the girl was that tried to teach me. They said I was really funny to watch, and they were all hoping I would go to the next dance. All I could do was laugh at myself with them, but I could feel my face flush and I tried to think of something I could say to change the subject. I thought about lying when I got home, telling my friends that I danced the nights away with grace. Here's what really happened instead:
I was in Brazil with other volunteers taking surveys of people living in the coastal fishing village of Sao Joao de Pirabas near the mouth of the Amazon River. The ultimate aim was to determine how the encroachment of television into private homes was affecting the social traditions, viewpoints about gender roles, and trust in the community. The project leader, Roberto, wanted us to integrate into the social functions. So every time there was a festa happening, we all went, a giggling glob of white amid a palette of bronze and black skins ... we stuck out conspicuously. In fact, there was at festa our first night in the town.
The men from the boat were there (read about the boat adventure HERE), and Iki asked me to dance. I was promptly introduced to Brazil through the soles of my feet. Our clasped hands, my hip under his palm, his shoulder under mine: all these body parts I generally used to lumber around the world, through airports and cities, up and down stairs, now they were thrown in the ring, tossed around the floor to unfamiliar music.
As a child I took dance lessons for about seven years. I learned to tap around the floor, shuffle and flap out all kinds of rhythms. I learned the classic lines of ballet, the five positions, how to sweep and leap through the air. In college I spent every Monday maneuvering my limbs into the riffs of blues at J.J. McCabes, every Thursday thrashing around in the gothic dungeon of Ground Zero, and every Tuesday throwing myself at whatever music accompanied the 49-cent beers at the Dark Horse. I was not a stranger to my body.
Until Iki took my hand and led me onto the dance floor. (these are old pics scanned from film, I could only find tiny versions of the scans)
The Brazilian couples sailed across the courtyard with their hips wiggling and their feet in perfect harmony stepping forward, backward, sideways, in complicated patterns that I could not keep track of. The music was fast and their feet were blurred in a whirl. Two seconds onto the dance floor I was already completely lost and Iki was virtually dragging me around the floor as I laughed and stepped on his toes. He was very sweet to me, trying to teach me, but eventually he had to give up — I just couldn’t get the hang of it.
Despite the comedy, I secretly wallowed in the fact that it was me out there, the first one to dive in. A girl then came up to me and offered to give me a lesson. Her long black hair fell down her back in gentle waves. She started out slow, half time, and charted out the steps very carefully and deliberately, but every time we sped up I got flustered and lost all coordination. This is the girl, but picture from a different night.
By now, some of the other girls of our volunteer group were out dancing, too. They lurched around in fits and starts and spasms of laughter, and when we passed each other on the dance floor we screamed like kids on a roller coaster.
I danced with Allen from the boat, and then another man cut in and whirled me away across the dance floor. He held me so close and so tight that I was really forced into each step. Our bodies touched along the whole length of our trunks and our limbs, everything save our heads. We covered the entire dance floor in one continuous motion. My feet were his. I felt like a tango dancer with our bodies so close, or as if I was at a royal ball the way we swept around the dance floor. I was beginning to fly, and it was fun as hell, until he suddenly dipped me, bending my spine, so that my head fell back and his followed, and his lips fell on mine. For a second I thought it was an act of dramatics and that he’d pull me up to my feet and then bow as if it had been a pleasure. But that didn't happen, he didn't let go, and for some reason I thought then of vampire bats. I’d read that in some area of Brazil they’d gone rabid and were biting people; twelve people had died.
Marianna, one of our translators, who was twirling herself around the floor waving her flashlight like a magic wand, saw my compromised position, and she came to help me wrench myself away from the man. I wondered if in this nook of the world men still carted women off over their shoulder.
We would see him, who we labeled naturally enough, “The Creep,” now and then around the village. I wonder what propelled his lips toward mine. My pale skin? My sudden appearance in his provincial world like a flare in the night? My bumbling amidst a natural grace like someone small and helpless? A tiny atoll in the village ocean whose sand must be tasted?
Perhaps he was a pink boto. They are said to be dangerous in Amazonia, unlike their counterpart, the black river dolphin, who is friendly and helps save people from drowning. But during the June celebrations, when people are distracted with festivities, the pink boto appears transformed into a handsome man. But he is always wearing a hat, because his transformation is not complete and his breathing hole is still at the top of his head. Like a gentleman, he flirts, enchanting the first pretty young woman he sees, and then takes her down into the water ... The Creep didn’t wear a hat, but he was very tall. Perhaps he didn’t need one because no one else was tall enough to see the top of his head.
Anyway, the dip-n-kiss was a minor bobble, and it was quickly just something to laugh about. All the other men in town were nothing but kind and respectful. A couple days later we were interviewing a young woman, Rose Angela, outside her little bar. She had a pet parrot named Maroqua that she fed and showed off for us. The parrot liked to bite my hair, and eventually he just all-out attacked my head, got tangled up in my hair, and had to be extracted by Rose Angela. While we were sitting there, Allen from our boat ride rode by on a bicycle, called out my name and waved. I was excited to feel like I already had friends in town, even though it was a bit tempered with embarrassment over my inept dancing. But clearly, he had overlooked it and considered me friend anyway.
After this we poked into the Office of Social Services and asked if we could interview someone there. One of its main functions was to hand out food staples once a month to the most needy families in the area. It kept rudimentary statistics about the townspeople and their needs. The sparseness of this office, one of the more visible and “official” buildings in town, was a little comical. Considering the rest of the buildings in Pirabas, it was fairly large, significantly larger than many homes. It wasn’t partitioned; it was just one rectangular room. The only things in it were a small bookshelf against one wall, with two or three books and a few bulging 3-ring binders trying desperately to make the shelves look useful; a small cupboard/counter in a back corner for making coffee; in the middle of the room a table and five chairs at which three women sat quietly, and a tiny desk with a typewriter covering its whole surface, where a man sat typing ever so slowly, his two index fingers alternating to hit one key at a time. With its sparse furnishing, the room seemed rather cavernous and the steady punching of the typewriter overrode the murmurs of the women at the table, becoming the dominant sound in the building. We were welcomed inside warmly and plied with the local hospitality of a cup of strong coffee. (you can read about my coffee trials HERE) And then the women confided their dearest hopes that I would attend and participate in the next festa.
When the next festa came around, indeed we were all there and I felt a little pressured to keep up the entertainment for the benefit of the locals! Perhaps I made some progress in learning the dancing, but not much. The other women volunteers seemed to have made much bigger strides than I had toward becoming competent Brazilian dancers. To be honest, I think there may have been some sort of bet circulating in the village on who could successfully turn me into a dancer, haha. Because as the clumsiest one, I was still one of the first to be picked by the locals to dance with, all the way to the end of our time in the village ... men, women, teenagers -- everyone wanted to give it a shot with the clownish foreigner. .
One night we went out to a club with our teenaged neighbor with whom we'd become friends, Maria, to a bar swamped with teenagers. It had a small courtyard in the back and played techno music. On the one hand I was disappointed; it was kind of like finding a McDonald’s. But the teens were dancing like modern teens everywhere in any urban club, and, though culturally void, we were all a bit relieved to dance in a way that we knew how, and did so with abandon.
Yet, to my delight, as the evening progressed, their dancing traditions persisted, and eventually we girls ended up paired with young men, pressed against their sweaty chests, still trying to teach us (and perhaps particularly me!), whirling around to the incessant beat of modern music. They queued for us, and when we finished with one young man, before we could sit down, another had his hand held out. I put on my best smile, but I still felt like a total moron, stepping on toes, losing the beat, tripping over my own feet. It did seem that no one could teach this old dog a new trick. But in contrast to my physical clumsiness, my spirit soared in a graceful dance through the muggy heat of an Amazonian night.
I would learn to dance, I told myself. This dance. This choreography of two individuals merging into one. I would integrate my body with my spirit so my whole being was graceful and nimble. I felt as though some secret was embedded in this grace. That if only I understood how to follow the contours of the music simultaneously with the contours of the other body holding mine, I would also grasp a some greater contour in the universe. Some curve of primal happiness in the temporary merging of bodies, falling into the fabric of music and movement where conscious thought is a hindrance, transcending above all the white noise of history, to reconnect with the things that first touched us as humans, the things that inspired us to stay awake at night long after our physical needs had been met -- music and dance.
Progress report: None.