Samba: From Berkeley to Brazil

I love Sunday mornings.  Often I wake to the smell of coffee and know that the New York Times awaits me on the dining room table, but these enticements don’t get me out of bed. I rise to dance the samba. For no matter what the weather is in Berkeley, California for one hour, I am transported to a warm Brazilian sandy beach, a Carnaval parade line moving in unison, or a spontaneous Latin street party.  

At 11:00 in the morning I take my place in Elisita’s Afro-Brazilian dance class at the downtown Berkeley YMCA.  I rush to get my spot in the dance studio — behind and slightly left of her so I can watch Elisita’s every move. It’s in the second row so that, thankfully, someone blocks my view of the mirror. I am not fond of mirrors in general, and even less so when I wear spandex and no makeup.


A smiling Elisita Castanon-Hill. Photo by Liza Dalby.

I take off my gym shoes. My bare feet, liberated, feel the hardwood floor give as I step from side-to-side. I stretch while waiting for the music to start. I dance to escape my daily concerns and leave my worries behind. I dance rather than remain at home writing. If I arrive at class stressed or frantic, I won’t feel that way when I leave. 

Elisita takes her place in front, presses the play button, and begins to move.  I hear the drums, flutes, and tambourines and feel the Samba beat —1-2-3. Da, da, da. Ba, ba, ba.  Elisita does not have a flat stomach, small chest, or firm butt. She is, instead, a big woman whose bulging stomach rolls over her spandex waistband. She has a large lumpy behind and full limbs. But when she dances her jiggling skin transforms into a taut figure of strength, grace, and beauty. And when she smiles her entire face radiates.

At first I don’t take my eyes off her. The other dancers and I follow her movements and step in unison. The room transforms from a sleepy den to a raucous party. She warms us up by isolating movements of her shoulders, arms, legs, hips, and butt. We moved side-to-side, back to front, down and up, and toe to heel. Her body parts travel in different directions simultaneously; I start with only movement in my legs. Then, once confident of the steps, I raise and sway my arms. Eventually, my legs, hips, and arms moved in distinct ways but unified by the beat. My piece de resistance is when I swing my hips while I step. No easy task!  

I pretend Elisita and I are linked together by invisible thread, my body pressed up against hers. How she moves, I move. I fantasize that I stand on her feet and she lifts my legs as if I am a marionette. We merge into one fluid motion that keeps the beat. Left right left. Right left right. 1-2-3. Da, da, da. Ba, ba, ba.  

“Get lower, cross behind, start on left,” she cries. Sweat collects on the back of my neck, pools in my cleavage, and appears on my shirt under my ribs. My heart pounds like an additional drummer although I haven’t moved more than a few inches in any one direction. 

I concentrate on raising my left hand with my left hip out. But should I lift my right hand with my left hip out? It never matters to Elisita. She wants us to enjoy the music and the moment. But I want to be her shadow, right in time with her, my feet perfectly positioned.    


Janet Schneider in dance class with Elisita Castanon-Hill. Photo by Liza Dalby.

We dance the steps over and over again. With the muscle memory in place I feel the music.  1-2-3. Da, da, da. Ba, ba, ba. My brain shuts down. 1-2-3. Da, da, da. Ba, ba, ba. No longer someone’s wife, mother, daughter, sister, employee, or student, I forget my to-do list. I am pure body awareness. I am dancing in front of parade watchers, café patrons, or couples out for a stroll in the Brazilian evening. I barely touch the street, the sand, or the stage with my bare feet. I smell the sea along with the Sao Paulo street vendors’ fried shrimp, savory black beans, and smoked meats. Wearing a brightly colored tight tank top and a long flowing skirt, I feel drafts of ocean air caused by my movements. When the song ends it’s as if I’ve awakened from a dream.  

When Elisita notices how seriously we take ourselves she shouts “Be Happy” and “Smile.”  She makes me shimmy my chest and swing my hips. I am not comfortable dancing seductively. Yet, when I do I feel sexy, desirable, and alive. When I catch myself grinning I realize the joy I get from rolling my hips, twirling my arms, and moving my feet to the 1-2-3 samba beat.

Elisita dances to get through the hard times as well. Like me, she dances to forget loss, reduce anxiety, and avoid disagreeable tasks. Her mother died recently and dancing got her through the worst moments.  This year I danced to reduce menopause-induced anxiety. 

When I tell her I feel guilty for dancing instead of writing she tells me it’s good to take time to dance. I’ll not only be healthier but more creative for doing so. She always thanks the class for dancing with her. I always thank her for taking me to Brazil for an hour each week.

Janet Schneider is a writer who lives in Berkeley, CA, and looks forward to dancing the Samba in Brazil. 

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