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Folk Dance

Brazilian folk dance and folk drama are rich forms of popular artistic expression. Subject, rhythm, costume, and choreography reveal the three principal components of the nation’s culture in a complex interaction. There are dozens of Brazilian folk dances – everything from dramatization of the early wars between the Portuguese and the Indians (Caboclinhos and Caiapós performed in the states of Pernambuco and Alagoas), to the Cavalhada of Pirenópolis in the state of Goiás, a theatrical pageant, lasting three days, which depicts the fight between the Christians and the Moors on the Iberian Peninsula. The Cavalhada survives from the tradition of medieval tournaments.*


Capoeira, a ritualized, stylized, combat – dance, having its own music, and practiced primarily in the city of Salvador, Bahia, is a characteristically Brazilian expression of both dance and martial arts. It evolved from a fighting style that originated in Angola. In the early slave days there were constant fights between the blacks, and when the owner caught them at it, he had both sides punished. The slaves considered this unfair and developed a smoke screen of music and song to cover up actual fighting. Over the years this was refined into a highly athletic sport in which two contestants try to deliver blows using only their legs, feet, heels, and heads – hands are not allowed. The combatants move in a series of swift cartwheels and whirling handstands on the floor. The musical ensemble that accompanies capoeira includes the berimbau, a bow-shaped piece of wood with a metal wire running from one end to the other. A painted gourd which acts like a sounding box is attached at the bottom of the berimbau. The player shakes the bow. While the seeds in the gourd rattle he strikes the taut wire with a copper coin which gives off a unique, moaning sound.*


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Carnival's roots go back to the ancient Romans and Greeks who celebrated the rites of Spring. In the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church tried to suppress all pagan ideas, it failed when it came to this celebration.  The Church incorporated the rite into its own calendar as a period of thanksgiving.  The nations of Europe, especially France, Spain, and Portugal, gave thanks by throwing parties, wearing masks, and dancing in the streets.  All three colonizing powers carried the tradition   with them to the New World, but in Brazil it landed with a difference.  Not only did the Portuguese have a taste for abandoned merriment, (they brought the "entrudo", a prank where merrymakers throw water, flour, face powder, and many other things at each other's faces), but the Negro slaves also took to the celebration.  They would smear their faces with flour, borrow and old wig or frayed shirt of the master, and give themselves over to mad revelry for the three days.  Many masters even let their slaves were grateful for the chance to enjoy themselves, they rarely used the occasion as a chance to run away.*

Rio de Janeiro's Carnival

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Prior to 1840, the streets of Brazilian towns ran riot during the three-day period leading up to Ash Wednesday with people in masks hurling stink bombs and squirting each other with flour and strong-smelling liquids; even arson was a form of entertainment.  In 1840, the Italian wife of a Rio de Janeiro hotel owner changed the carnival celebration forever by sending out invitations, hiring musicians, importing streamers and confetti, and giving a lavish masked ball.  In a few years the masked ball became the fashion and the wild pranks played on the streets disappeared.


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Today Rio de Janeiro has the biggest and best known pre-Lenten carnival in the world - its most colorful event is the Samba School Parade.  The Samba schools taking part in the parade are composed overwhelmingly of poor people from the city's sprawling suburbs.  Every carnival Rio's Samba schools compete with each other and are judged on every aspect of their presentation by a jury.  Each Samba school must base its effort around a central theme.  Sometimes the theme is an historical event or personality.  Other times, it is a story or legend from Brazilian literature.   The costumes must reflect the theme's historical time and place.  The samba song must recount or develop it, and the huge floats must detail the theme in depth.*

* Source: "Brazil in Brief" , published by The Brazilian Embassy, Cultural Section. Information provided by the Permanent Mission of Brazil to the OAS.


Updated: 19 March 2008


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