Jessica Hahn-Chaplin smiles for cameras while wearing the beautiful yellow clothing and high heel shoes of passista samba dancers. She is in Rio de Janeiro to study the techniques of passistas through the Paraiso do Tuiuti samba school.
In Rio and other cities across Brazil, the weeks before Carnival are filled with the lively rehearsals and parades of samba schools. All of it is in preparation for the big day itself, which happens this year on February 23.
Paraiso do Tuiuti has been a home of Carnival culture for people in the working-class area near central Rio for over 60 years. But Hahn-Chaplin is not from Brazil. She comes from Bristol, in England.
The 31-year-old is part of a movement of foreigners who come to Brazil each year to train in the ways of samba dance. During Carnival season, these dancers spend a month or more at the samba schools. At the world-famous celebrations in Rio, they will dance for more than an hour through the massive Sambadrome parade space. Each year, 70,000 people fill the seats to enjoy the show. Tens of millions of people watch the television broadcast from their living rooms.
After the parade, the non-Brazilian dancers return to their home countries and share their passion for samba.
Samba dance classes
During classes, students dressed in athletic wear can be seen moving their feet in the quick samba steps as their arms make circles. Their hips go to the right and left as they keep their heads and shoulders as still as possible. Doing these things well together is important to the dance form.
On the floor in front of the dancers lies a soft, thin object which they must avoid touching with each step as their teacher calls out the tempo.
These are no classes for beginners. All foreigners have passed a difficult exam to join this high-level course and train with Brazilians who have danced samba since childhood. The course is free. But leaving their jobs for long periods is not. It is evidence of their loyalty to samba.
Once a week, the students join the full Paraiso do Tuiuti for a rehearsal on the road leading up to the school. Passistas and drummers, all wearing yellow clothing, temporarily turn the dark street into a small Sambadrome.
“It is very intimidating,” Hahn-Chaplin told the Associated Press about dancing as a foreigner in front of several hundred people at rehearsals. “We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make the mark.”
Unlike dances from other Latin American countries, samba has largely stayed inside Brazil’s borders but has become hugely popular in recent years. These days, samba schools are being launched throughout the world as far away as Australia and Russia.
Samba’s music and dance have roots in Africa, specifically Angola and Congo. The custom started in what is now Bahia State, in northeastern Brazil, then spread throughout the country.
Foreigners at Rio’s Carnival
Back home in England, Hahn-Chaplin works as a language teacher and also teaches dance. In Rio de Janeiro, she is one of 15 foreigners who came to study this year with teacher Alex Coutinho. The best dancers join Paraiso do Tuiuti in its official parade on February 23.
Coutinho, who is 30, said foreign participation in Carnival grows every year, with dancers returning again and again to learn the latest moves.
“Samba dancers, as with any other profession, need to recycle themselves. Every year, there will be a new thing: a different arm move, a different step,” Coutinho said. “They come here, do classes and return to their countries with the skills to pass on to their students. They’re propagating our culture.”
Hahn-Chaplin, for example, dances samba every year in Bath, England. Another dancer, Sashya Debrito, heads a samba school in Australia and performs shows in Sydney. She says samba gets more popular there every year.
Rie Tankana came all the way to Rio from Japan, where she performs at Tokyo’s yearly Carnival celebration.
“It’s happiness in my life. It’s healing,” said Tankana, who is 33 years old. When she is not dancing, she is a jobs recruiter in Osaka.
A 2019 video of Tankana in Kobe, Japan, shows her front and center, leading a group of Japanese samba dancers with shiny wings on their arms.
She first found Paraiso do Tuiuti School on Instagram in 2019 and is participating for the first time this year.
I’m Alice Bryant.
Anna Jean Kaiser reported this story for The Associated Press. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
rehearsal – n. an event at which a person or group practices an activity to prepare for a public performance
passion – n. a strong feeling of enthusiasm or excitement for something or about doing something
hip – n. the part of your body between your waist and legs on each side
tempo – n. the speed at which a musical piece is played or sung
drummer – n. a person who plays a drum or set of drums
intimidating – adj. having a frightening, overawing or threatening effect
recycle – v. to use something again
propagate – v. to make something, such as an idea or belief, known to many people
recruiter – n. a person who finds suitable people to join a company