A small taste of Carnival


Every year, Carnival takes place at several sites in Brazil in the month of February. Salvador da Bahia is one of the biggest. And from November to February, the groups that perform at carnival give small practice concerts, usually every Sunday. When Anderson and Ivaldo invited me to something they billed simply as “carnival party”, I just assumed it was some gay dance party with a carnival theme, but it was instead one of these practice performances (by a group known as Motumba). We got inside and the crowd was milling about on the floor, waiting for the show to begin. I took the opportunity to have the best damn spicy acaraj√© ever, sold by a woman in a crazy white dress and the nicest smile.

While I was woofing it down, the band came on, and it was quite a large ensemble of dancers and singers and instruments, probably about 20 in all. They launched into the highly rhythmic music, and it seemed like just about every song they played was well known by the crowd. People were moving and dancing and smiling, and then something kind of amazing (to me) happened. A kind of space opened up in a line in the crowd, and several people took turns leading the crowd in incredible dance moves, everyone mimicking everyone else, legs back and forth, hands moving, pretty complicated looking (to me anyway). A kind a wave of people spread out from this center line, all dancing the most amazing and happy, infectious way. There were little groups all over the floor that broke out in similar movements, or in twos and threes and fives and tens. And the movements which looked so professional to me seemed so natural for everyone here. And they are. Anderson was explaining to me how much they grow up with this, and there is a kind of cultural memory that everyone has here for types of movement, music and dancing. It totally made me want to live in Brazil for a while, hoping for a point when this would become as second nature to me as it clearly is for them.

Ivaldo in particular was amazing to watch dance. He would grab any random woman from the crowd and turn her and himself around, at one point flipping a woman over his head, who seemed to be loving it and put the moves on Ivaldo at one point shortly after. This was one of the features of the crowd that I loved, a kind of complicity between strangers, an instant friendship in sharing the spectacle.

The show lasted a couple of hours, at which point another kind of marching band came in, and along with the main band, danced and played and sang their way out of the performance area with the whole crowd in tow. What an amazing way to end a concert, everyone dancing out of the venue and into the street. It started raining on us as our procession left the performance area, and it was glorious.

I think this is the first time that I have ever been able to truly (begin to) understand the logic of carnival. I always got the idea of a big party and dancing before a period of austerity, but the communal connection was missing. And without that piece, you can’t really appreciate it. And it is not something you can intellectualize very well either. It is something you feel and participate in, something that connects you to a common humanity.