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Beyond Headdresses, Bikinis and Heels: How Viver Brasil Empowers Black Bodies Through Afro-Brazilian Dance

Viver Brasil performing their piece "Mothers and Son" choreographed by Rosagela Silvestre | Courtesy of Viver Brasil
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See how dancers have been breaking physical boundaries during the pandemic on "Southland Sessions" E4: Dance Break. Watch now.
E4: Dance Break (Media Manager)

One could say that Viver Brasil was born out of passion. Its co-founders and artistic directors, Linda Yudin and Luis Badaró, first fell in love with swirling shapes of samba de roda (or “circle” samba) and other Afro-Brazilian-based dance forms in the Brazilian state of Bahia, then with each other while teaching the dances to local youth in Los Angeles.

“I loved his passion. I really did,” recalls Yudin, originally from Danville, Illinois, over the phone. “I loved his passion for what he was for doing for the culture.”

“She too had this same passion and love for Afro-Brazilian culture that I had,” says Badaró, a percussionist, choreographer and native of Salvador, Bahia, with Yudin translating.

The couple married and together formed Viver Brasil in 1997 as a vehicle to perform, teach and share contemporary Afro-Brazilian music and dance rooted in the spiritual traditions of the Candomblé religion and orixa deities, and foster cultural exchanges between Los Angeles and Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, which are sister cities.

On Saturday, Dec. 12, the group hosts a virtual fundraiser featuring dance solos, storytelling, testimonials and interviews to help continue its mission into 2021.  

Due to the pandemic, “we lost a significant amount of income,” says Yudin, who notes that Viver Brasil has enough funds to get by for the next six to nine months but hopes to raise $15,000 by year’s end. “If we’re going to work virtually, or work on whatever it means to be back into a theater on a stage [then] we can begin to be prepared.”

The fundraiser aims not only to continue building momentum in the middle of the pandemic but to continue opening up the circle, so to speak, of Viver Brasil’s mission.  

 “I always say that what Viver Brasil has done in our sambas is that we’ve opened up the circle, so that you can learn to see what’s inside the sacred space, inside the sacred circle,” says Yudin, who trained in dance ethnology at UCLA and had a “rebirth” in Bahia while studying Afro-Brazilian dance there in 1986. As a white Jewish woman, she feels a “huge responsibility” and “passion to share what was so generously given to me, as beautifully as possible and as authentically as possible.”

“Passion has fueled us throughout and commitment,” says Yudin.

A Viver Brasil dancer in resplendent yellow dress | Courtesy of Viver Brasil
A Viver Brasil dancer in resplendent yellow dress | Courtesy of Viver Brasil

For Badaró, who came to know Afro-Brazilian music and dance as a means of survival and salvation after losing his parents at just age 13, the intention of the company remains the same: “to pass on this culture… and also to make sure that the others that have been trained by us also have this desire to pass the culture on.”

Viver Brasil expands the circle of Afro-Brazilian dance and perception of samba beyond feathered headdresses, bikinis and heels in several ways through arts education, teaching and performance, embracing diversity and multiculturalism throughout its organization, and transcending physical borders even during a worldwide pandemic.

Since March, the group has held weekly Zoom community dance classes (some streamed directly from Brazil), started hosting biweekly Instagram Live sessions featuring interviews and activities with Viver Brasil’s artists and cultural consultants. The group has also collaborated with The Ford on online programming and done virtual residencies with junior high students from LAUSD’s James A. Foshay Learning Center and Audubon Middle School.

Right before March’s COVID-19 shutdowns, Viver Brasil had just finished touring Alabama. The group not only worked with Alabama State University dance students but also brought its signature community engagement program Samba in the Streets to local schools and communities in the state and crossed the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge for the second time, just months before the death of Congressman John Lewis, who famously led the Selma to Montgomery Civil Rights march on Bloody Sunday. The visit carried great meaning for Viver Brasil’s members because of the company’s connection to blocos afro or Afro-Brazilian parading groups born out of the 1970s that continue to push for equity and social justice through the celebration of Black culture during carnaval processions.  

A "Samba in the Streets" workshop at Leimert Park led by Laila Abdullah | Courtesy of Viver Brasil
A "Samba in the Streets" workshop at Leimert Park led by Laila Abdullah | Courtesy of Viver Brasil

“It’s emotional. I cried,” remembers Viver Brasil dancer Laila Abdullah, who says the experience helped her get in touch with her “Afro-fusion” heritage.

“It’s, I think, one of the most powerful tours that I’ve gotten to be a part of,” adds 14-year Viver Brasil company member and choreographer Shelby Williams-Gonzalez. “Because when you really think about it, like Samba in the Streets is about Black affirmation and really celebrating the carnaval movement, and that itself is about amplifying people’s voices or making space when people didn’t want to look your way, right? And that idea was inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, which, started in the South. So… it was nice to come back to the South. It’s our way of saying thank you. The work that was done in the ’60s and continues to be done in the South, in regards to empowering the Black body and sort of shutting down racism… it’s rippled out, and it’s happening in Brazil, and here we are bringing that back.”

“That was transformative for all of us,” adds Yudin. “To be able to walk in the footsteps of the Civil Rights leaders, knowing that there was much suffering and much violence that occurred in that very first march across. And we talked to elders about how challenging it was to register to vote. … I would say that all of us got our own education. Most of us in the company had not been to Alabama, so it was really special that way.”

Bridging Afro-Brazil and Los Angeles

Touring nationwide and building a “living bridge” between Salvador, Bahia (a cultural center of Afro-Brazilian music and dance) and Los Angeles are two ways that Viver Brasil connects with the African diaspora.

The group organizes cultural exchanges between Bahia and Los Angeles by bringing Brazilian guest artists to the Southland and taking its company members and amateur dance and music enthusiasts who wish to deepen their knowledge of Afro-Brazilian percussion and movement on two-week-long cultural immersion programs to Bahia. On the tour known as Dancing at the Source, participants take classes in Afro-Brazilian music and dance with local master teachers and visit bloco afro headquarters and clubhouses where cultural programming is held. They observe traditional religious festivals and ceremonies and visit Afro-Brazilian and Indigenous communities. 

“We meet with spiritual leaders and visual artists and political activists. … It’s very important for them [the dancers] to also study at the source,” says Yudin. “It anchors us… having this anchor in Salvador, Bahia but also having an anchor in Los Angeles.”

“Even though the company is based in Los Angeles or was created in Los Angeles, it’s positively connected to Salvador, Bahia,” says Bahia-based Associate Artistic Director Vera Passos. She notes that Viver Brasil’s programs provide an opportunity “to drink from the fountain” of Afro-Brazilian music, dance and ritual.

“Oftentimes, when I’m watching Viver Brasil dance, I feel like I’m watching Brazilians dancing on the stage,” says the protégé of the contemporary Afro-Brazilian dance pioneer Rosangela Silvestre, whose eponymous modern dance technique is among the styles from which Viver Brasil pulls. 

Viver Brasil performing their piece "Mothers and Son" choreographed by Rosagela Silvestre | Courtesy of Viver Brasil
Viver Brasil performing their piece "Mothers and Son" choreographed by Rosagela Silvestre | Courtesy of Viver Brasil

“The Dancing at the Source program is just amazing,” says Williams-Gonzalez. “Going to Candomblé ceremonies, or just seeing all the artwork and seeing how the movement is just even in public art… Especially for African Americans, like there’s a certain magic when you go to Bahia. Bahia is a Black state within Brazil… There’s definitely a deeper connection to the African diaspora. I’m getting to it through Brazil.”

“It allowed me to come back to the States and start living the dance,” says Abdullah. “Because at first, I felt like I was mimicking the dance. Because I was just taught it, but now I’m studying it. I’m looking at it. I’ve accepted it. And although it’s not my religious background, the Candomblé is a way of living that I can respect and understand.”

Going Beyond Europe at the “Happiest Place on Earth”

For former Viver Brasil company member Katiana Pallais, studying Afro-Brazilian dance in Bahia not only helped her connect with her African roots, but also deepened and expanded her dance practice, leading to a life-changing gig working with the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim.

“It started to help me really gain a sense of global awareness that I didn’t have before,” says Pallais, who trained as a classical dancer before joining the company but had never seen “anyone really fusing Afro-based dance with modern dance and contemporary dance forms.”  

“Bahia has so successfully held onto their African roots, through their culture, through dance, through music, through food, through art and fashion in ways that no other [region] has in the world,” she continues. “It definitely helped me gain a larger global perspective. But on top of that, it helped to ground me as a dancer. Because everything else I was doing was so Euro-based beforehand that it helped. It just added a depth to my own personal dance performance that I’ve carried with me throughout the years.

"Although a lot of the company members are American, we are rigorously trained by Brazilians," she adds. "Viver Brasil is like a little taste of Bahia in Southern California."

Watch the ¡Viva Navidad! Street Party at Disney's California Adventure in 2018.
¡Viva Navidad! Street Party 2018 | California Adventure

In 2013, the Disneyland Resort approached Viver Brasil about creating choreography for what would become Disney California Adventure Park’s ¡Viva Navidad! Street Party parade featuring the Three Caballeros — Panchito Pistoles, the Brazilian parrot José Carioca and Donald Duck — and dance stylings from Brazil and Mexico. For the Brazilian portion, Pallais was given the opportunity to choreograph for the collaboration.

“I was excited! Excited for the opportunity to be part of the ‘Disney magic,’ excited for the exposure that Afro-Brazilian culture would get from a platform like Disney, excited for the exposure the company would receive and excited for the doors that could potentially open for the company,” shares Pallais. “I was intentional about incorporating flavors of samba de roda, samba reggae and samba afro within the choreography. It is visible in the footwork and arm presentation along with the exquisite Afro-Brazilian Baiana-style costuming that we were adamant about having. … Working with so many bodies and creative leaders and ultimately molding something that maintains a sense of Afro-Brasilian authenticity while still appealing to a Disney audience was challenging, but so much fun!”

“The idea of putting Afro-Brazilian culture at ‘The Happiest Place on Earth’… crossing over into the commercial world was really... very interesting for us,” says Yudin. “We had this opportunity to contextualize this ancestral wisdom into a contemporary parade at a large corporation like Disney.”

Click right and left to see photos from the parade:

Laroyeana, a Viver Brasil dancer, during Disney California Adventure Park’s ¡Viva Navidad! Street Party parade | Courtesy of Viver Brasil
1/3 Laroyeana, a Viver Brasil dancer, during Disney California Adventure Park’s ¡Viva Navidad! Street Party parade | Courtesy of Viver Brasil
A colorful dancer in swirls of color during Disney California Adventure Park’s ¡Viva Navidad! Street Party parade | Courtesy of Viver Brasil
2/3 A colorful dancer in swirls of color during Disney California Adventure Park’s ¡Viva Navidad! Street Party parade | Courtesy of Viver Brasil
Drummer Steve Hernandez during Disney California Adventure Park’s ¡Viva Navidad! Street Party parade | Courtesy of Viver Brasil
3/3 Drummer Steve Hernandez during Disney California Adventure Park’s ¡Viva Navidad! Street Party parade | Courtesy of Viver Brasil

The group had to make a small compromise to work with the House of Mouse — wearing shoes for dances traditionally performed barefoot in order to dance on the cement streets of California Adventure — but the group never wavered on presenting authentic Afro-Brazilian music and dance through its diverse company of dancers.    

“What do we think of immediately when we think of Brazil? Samba. And we think of scantily clad, beautiful dancers, and what Viver Brasil brings is a different kind of authenticity, a different kind of experience from Brazil that has this incredibly important, necessary, you might say, rich tradition that was brought from parts of West Africa,” says Yudin. “We are a variety of ethnicities. We're a variety of races. We're a variety of sizes. We're a variety of genders. …

“The reality is that we’re a diverse nation, and Disney has embraced that,” continues Yudin. “And I have to say that we were thrilled that it was through dance and music traditions that we have been able to perhaps break down prejudices.”

“The first time I saw a child crying those tears of joy from that, quote, unquote, ‘Disney magic,’ because of our parade, not because of a princess that came out, but because of a samba dancer… you know, that's beautiful,” says Pallais.

Because Disney’s California parks remain closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Viver Brasil will not be performing in ¡Viva Navidad! this holiday season, but it remains one of the group’s proudest achievements.

“I have to say that our Brazilian family and collaborators and professionals are very proud of the fact that we have created a spectacle that honors these ancestral traditions in a contemporary performance,” says Yudin.

“I feel a lot of pride,” adds Viver Brasil Executive Director Dr. Giavanni Washington, who has performed in the ¡Viva Navidad! parade as a drummer. “We're exposing literally thousands of people every year to … parts of culture that are not from the European diaspora. To me, it gets no better. It was a highlight of this decade for me.”

The hope is to continue these dance and musical traditions well into the future with even more cultural exchanges between Bahia and Los Angeles and ultimately a professional tour by the company in Brazil one day.   

“It's really important for us that we have constantly been able to give opportunities to teach and to share this ancestral and contemporary culture that we're so passionate about,” says Yudin.

“This will be our fourth generation of dancers and musicians that we’re working with,” she says of the group’s 23 years. “We want to see them thrive, and we want to see them feel that their voices are being uplifted, and that their creativity is being uplifted.”

Top Image: Viver Brasil performing their piece "Mothers and Son" choreographed by Rosagela Silvestre | Courtesy of Viver Brasil

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