Some of you may know her as Swan Lake Samba Girl. Tonya Plank won us over with her light hearted style of writing and earnest, humorous attempts at a new dance.
Feeling stressed at my job lately, I needed desperately to bring my anxiety level down a notch. I’ve been taking Latin ballroom classes in New York for two years now for just that reason. Samba quickly became my favorite – because of the mad-fun beat of the exotic-sounding drums and the mellifluous Portuguese -- though it’s by far my hardest dance – those pelvic undulations are just so foreign to straight-hipped former ballet-student me! Ballroom lessons have become quite expensive, so I opted for a street Samba class, which the Alvin Ailey studios recently added to their open adult curriculum. I normally hate open classes, but figured I might actually know something about street Samba from ballroom.
Wow, I never knew how much I didn’t know! Class was taught by this other-worldly, seemingly beyond human, absolutely impossibly amazing dancer, from Brazil of course, named Quenia Ribeiro. Without teaching us any stationary basic in front of the mirror, Ribeiro started with a dance line, beginning with these wild hip-swaying, pelvis-contorting, inexplicably impossible traveling moves. The class was supposedly for beginners! Very first step was an African-based one where we had to open arms and legs widely stepping sideways while bouncing forward, which Ribeiro somehow did while also rocking her pelvis back and forth and front to back in this beautifully sexy way. I tried and tried and TRIED to imitate her, but couldn’t in any way, shape, or form compel my midsection to do anything at all approximating hers. I at least managed to figure out where my feet were supposed to go on the floor. The second I was thinking “okay, I look like an enormous idiot, but at least I know which direction to go,” the drummers began (they had a live Brazilian band — how they managed not to laugh themselves silly watching us, I’ll never know) and Ribeiro started moving AT THE BEAT THEY WERE BEATING TO — basically, the speed of light. In trying like crazy to keep up, I flailed about wildly, smacking this poor Asian woman next to me right in the face. She later stepped on me, though, so I didn’t feel so badly! Those of us in back were spending more time apologizing to each other than anything else.
Took about two turns down the line for me to realize it was just not going to be happening with me. Ribeiro moved in ways that I didn’t know possible. Her pelvis was darting every which way so fast it was just a blur. I had to grab onto the back barre to steady myself while watching her. This was NOTHING like the ballroom Samba I know! In ballroom, every movement is so contained – it has to be lest you whack your partner’s face with your arms or crotch with your rear. Street Samba was so exotically intriguing to me, but I just felt that, as a thin white girl, I will never be able to move like the full-figured Ribeiro.
After I finished my rotation squirming down the floor I stood back and watched. And, apart from a few advanced students, no one was really dancing Samba. Everyone was, however, rocking out madly, and laughing hysterically and obviously having great fun — unlike me, who just couldn’t get over the fact that I couldn’t do it properly. They may not have been dancing Samba but they were most definitely dancing. I, on the other hand, looked like a girl put together with Popsicle sticks, sullen and sad in the back of the room. I realized then that so much of dancing is about having fun, letting loose, and feeling the music, not about stressing over getting it just right.
Though I felt like giving up, I forced myself to see it through — just kept assuring myself that, though I was making a gigantic ass of myself, people were having far too much of a blast to fixate on me. This reasoning worked until I looked out the window and saw, to my horror, about twenty people outside staring at me, bemused looks covering their faces. Turns out the covering on Ailey’s ground-level windows is not really a curtain — if outsiders walk up close, they can see everything inside. And since Samba is so much blasted fun, the music pouring out through the windows and onto the sidewalk, we attracted the attention of nearly every passerby. Ugh, I’d thought I was smart to stay in the back by the window and far from the mirror!
About ten minutes until the end, when everyone was applauding the band and I thought we were done, Ribeiro announced we’d completed the Bahia part of the class; now it was time to learn the Rio style. Good lord, I thought; there’s more? Funny thing was, Rio turned out to be much closer to ballroom! There was still a lot of upper-body arm and torso movement, and hips were looser and steps bigger, but I actually recognized some of the moves! I saw bota fogos, voltas, cruzado walks and bachacatas — my favorite! I nearly peed my jazz pants! Legs were kept a little closer together than in Bahia, and Rio was, to little white ballroom me anyway, more familiar to my body, more jazzy, more Latiny, just more me. And I swear, Ribeiro looked right at me when I was coming down the line this last time. She just kind of smiled, as if to recognize that (though there were a good 25 students in class), she could see how much trouble I was having with Bahia (you’d have to have been blind not to); and now here I was doing something not completely ludicrously wrong! So, at least now I know that Rio is the kind I like, that I can aim towards even if, with my body type, I may not ever look completely right doing it. Throughout class, I kept thinking how much I just wanted it to end, how I’d look back on this and laugh but would never ever come back. But after Rio, I reconsidered. Maybe I will visit Ribeiro again, especially if she spends more than the last ten minutes on Rio! And, during Bahia, I will try to let loose and just have fun, and hence, DANCE!
Image: Quenia Ribeiro