• Charis Railey

Thoughts on Passistas

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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