The International Samba Congress has been my main source of embodied learning of samba over the past three years. Aninha Malandro, Patrick Carvalho, and Rodrigo Marques have put together an amazing cultural education organization that gifts us American sambistas with the meaning, history, and philosophies of samba culture. This year they have been posting infographics about the elements of a samba school's Carnaval parade, such as the different alas, or “wings.” This post on Passistas caught my eye:

“Passista é símbolo da alegria que envolve o Carnaval, potencializa o significado do samba. Nem sempre percebidas pelo público, causam encantamento quando descobertas. São ao mesmo tempo estrelas e coadjuvantes.” - International Samba Congress Facebook post March 2, 2021

In English:

“Passista is a symbol of the joy that envelopes/wraps Carnival, [they] potentialize the meaning of samba. Not always perceived by the public, they cause enchantment when discovered. They are both stars and supporters.”

The word “potencializa,” or “potentialize” gave me pause as I was trying to translate to post to share with my dancers. What does it mean that passistas “potentialize the meaning of samba”? I find this word choice deliberate and powerful. So instead of just leaving you with a word-for-word translation, I would like to explore the etymology and some various usages of the word “potentialize.”

To make or give something potential


From Late Latin potentialis, from Latin potentia (“power”), from potens (“powerful”)

  1. Currently unrealized ability Even from a young age it was clear that she had the potential to become a great musician.

  2. (physics) The gravitational potential: the radial component of a gravitational field

  3. (physics) The work (energy) required to move a reference particle from a reference location to a specified location in the presence of a force field

The physics related definitions interest me as metaphors for the role of passistas in Carnaval. A definition from Khan Academy on gravitational potential energy says that it “represents the potential an object has to do work as a result of being located at a particular position in a gravitational field.” The article gives the example of a pulley holding up an object:

“If the force were to be removed, the object would fall back down to the ground and the gravitational potential energy would be transferred to kinetic energy of the falling object.”

I was listening to an ISC live interview yesterday with Aninha Malandro and Carlinhos Salgueiro. From what I heard, the passista wing is not actually scored in Caranval! Click here for a description of how schools are judged.

All of their late night hours of training, smiling, and performing in full hair and makeup, painful heels, and often tiny uncomfortable costumes, are not officially counted towards the school’s score. Yet the image of passistas joyfully dancing samba no pé is what so much of the world envisions when they think of Carnaval and their energy contributes to the overall feel of the school’s parade performance. It seems to me that the passista’s role in Carnaval is in line with the metaphor in the above image of gravitational potential energy. If it were to fail, it would contribute to an overall drop in joyfulness and quality of performance. It is also interesting because a big chunk of international participation in samba culture is driven by people wanting to learn and perform samba no pé (as well as the percussion element). Why aren’t passistas given the respect they deserve for the work they do? And what can we do about it?

I don’t have all the information or answers. I do encourage everyone to take samba classes and follow ISC on social media to learn more. My knowledge is always evolving and I am happy to learn. My goal is to be a messenger for and a pathway to Afro-Diasporic arts :)

When you can, pay for classes with Brazilian dancers and choreographers of various passista wings to show your appreciation for the culture. The pandemic has been stressful and traumatizing, but we have also gained a level of connectivity with artists around the world. We don’t actually have to travel to Brazil to take class (though we should! Embodied experience dancing is important in Afro-diasporic arts!) anymore. This month ISC is having a ton of classes, live discussions concerning Carnaval and how it is built. Don’t miss the opportunity to learn directly from the source! Click here to register

(Disclaimer: I'm not associated with ISC, I just find them a wonderful source of knowledge and am a huge fan.)

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Updated: Jul 22, 2021

I recently wrote a paper for school looking at Mangueira's 2019 performance at Carnaval (they won!). I love love love the lyrics of the enredo and the whole theme. Our main #stlsamba choreography that year was to their song. I realized that the sources I used for my paper on Mangueira are a great intro to samba history and samba's cultural context! I start this resource list with a video for those who haven't seen samba danced, then move on to history and end with the parade from 2019. Enjoy!

What Samba Looks Like

“Brasil Samba Congress 2018 Equipe Rodrigo Marques.” YouTube. . This performance choreographed by Rodrigo Marques, one of the founders of the International Samba Congress, includes two African American dancers who have studied samba! Nicolea Pettis ( ) is the one in orange. Amrahu Ibraheem ( ) is the tallest in white.


Chasteen, John Charles. "The Prehistory of Samba: Carnival Dancing in Rio De Janeiro, 1840-1917."Journal of Latin American Studies 28, no. 1 (1996): 29-47. This article is an extensive exploration of some of samba’s movement predecessors, mainly lundu and maxixe.

“About the Rio Samba Parade During Carnival.” Rio.Com - Rio de Janeiro, Brazil Hotels, Accommodations, Tours, Vacation Rentals.

“About the Sambadrome.” About the famous Rio de Janeiro Sambadrome.

Raphael, Alison. "From Popular Culture to Microenterprise: The History of Brazilian Samba Schools." Latin American Music Review / Revista De Música Latinoamericana 11, no. 1 (1990): 73-83. doi:10.2307/780359. An older look at samba schools. There seems to be a gap in the literature that doesn’t cover the last couple decades. Anyone know of more recent work in English (or work in Portuguese that I can slog through with a dictionary)?

Gilman, Bruce. "The Politics of Samba." Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 2, no. 2 (2001): 67-72. Really good (and short 😊 ) examination of the intersection of politics and art in samba.

Mangueira’s 2019 Presentation

Carnavalesco, Redação. “Mangueira 'Reescreve' História Do Brasil Em Desfile Transgressor e Entra Na Briga Pelo Título De 2019.” Carnavalesco, March 5, 2019. Article in Portuguese discussing Mangueira’s 2019 performance. Use Google translate function if necessary!

“Mangueira 2019 CAMPEÃ Desfile.” YouTube. YouTube, January 5, 2020. Video of the whole parade. I enocurage you to watch this split screen with Google so you can type in all the historical figures, it is super dense and full of historical information! Notable moments: Beginning/scene describing the overall idea at 9min 35 sec. Float critiquing the violence of colonization 24min 5 sec. Float highlighting African historical figures 28min 35 sec. Passistas 30min 22 sec. Queen/Bateria 31min. Bahianas 33min 30 sec


“Marielle Franco Murder: Two Rio Ex-Police Officers Held.” BBC News. BBC, March 12, 2019. For context regarding the Marielle Franco/Marielle Presente references in the performance.

My favourite book about samba:

Samba: Resistance in Motion by Barbara Browning if you're one of my students or colleagues in St. Louis let me know if you'd like to borrow it sometime!

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I came across a neat article about oral cultures and memory! I started thinking about how it applies to dance.

Memory and Dance Class

If you've taken any salsa or samba classes with me you know I'm not a fan of students taking videos at the end of class. If you haven't heard my mini rant about oral tradition in the African diaspora it goes something like this:

"Alright so we're not going to take videos today. I have found that when I take videos of class combinations I let them sit in my Google Drive. It's like a digital graveyard of dance knowledge. These dances we are learning are born out of the African diaspora. Many cultures of the African diaspora pass on information using oral tradition. In oral cultures the people's histories, genealogies, religions, and scientific knowledge are passed down through music, spoken word, song, stories, and dance. We are going to honor that tradition and hold these movements and knowledge in our minds rather than letting them sit in the cloud forever."

In salsa specifically, shine combinations aren't meant to be learned from someone else and regurgitated verbatim. What is that expressing about *me* if I do someone else's exact choreography at a social? Maybe I'm saying a little bit since my anatomy and movement instincts are different than the choreographer's, but ultimately I'm not saying much! I like to use combinations from class as I'd use source material for a research paper. I read it, make sure I understand it, then I figure out what is relevant for me to reference in my own work.

But I Didn't Get The Combination!!

It may feel scary when you don't think you fully got the "understanding" step. Well if you don't understand it now, how is re-watching without any input going to help? If you don't understand a lecture, you go to the professor and check in with them! That is so much more effective than stewing over it alone. Ask the instructor to watch the class do it and give pointers if they haven't already.

Now don't get me wrong, I don't hate technology. Videos are super useful if you use them well. Ask if you can send them a short video of YOU doing it and get a tip or two. I took a private with Shani Talmor last time she was in Saint Louis and she told me I could text her videos as I practiced. This was before I switched my mindset about taking videos and I didn't take her up on that - I had my little recording of her doing the combination and figured "ehhh that's good enough." Kind of arrogant right? I passed up an opportunity to a) reconnect with someone with more knowledge than me and b) make sure I understood what I paid her to share with me! So as another method of understanding movement from workshops, ask if you can send them short videos and get a tip or two! Most dance educators would love that - it confirms that they gave you something valuable.

Memorizing Movement Without Video

I memorize movement through repetition, creating a story, or associating moves with words/sounds/phrases in my head. When there is a pause in the flow of class I do the movement again and again. I pay attention to what in my body makes sense and what doesn't. I try to ask smart questions about what I'm not getting. "When does my weight shift to start that step?" "Is that hip sway an isolation or is my whole body moving?" Really make the most of class by being a proactive student. I will say if it's something simple like "is that the right foot or left foot" just use your eyes as to not waste time ;)

Now, for the article that inspired this post.

"Aboriginal elders explained to her how they encode knowledge in song, dance, story and place. This led to a theory that may revolutionise archaeology.
It has long been known that the human brain has evolved to associate memory with place, referred to as the method of loci. This means that we associate memory with a location."

Location is a method I haven't thought of! Can this be scaled down to a dance studio? Can we associate that bump in the floor with the memory of feeling our foot sliding over it and remember that phrase of movement? Or remembering that our head direction changes because we saw that crack on the ceiling when we looked up?

Does it still work once we take ourselves out of that original space? I don't know. The article is referencing cultural groups tied to locations. Indigenous Australians using the stars as "memory spaces" is such a beautiful concept. The knowledge they remember (flora, fauna, geological history, navigation) stays in that physical context though so it's possible that it isn't applicable to choreography that has to be put in different contexts... But I'll be trying it and you can be sure I'll mention it in class if it works!

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