Dancing to the Spirit of Africa in Brazil

Bale Folclorico da Bahia
Bale Folclorico da Bahia

Dancing to the Spirit of Africa in Brazil

By Sheila Mary Koch

Photo courtesy of Fogo Na Roupa
Photo courtesy of Fogo Na Roupa

Africa’s spirit dances through the cobblestone and dirt streets of Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. African-rooted traditions have so shaped Bahia’s culture, that the northeastern Brazilian state has earned the name “Africa in the Americas.” Born of this spirit, the soul-invigorating pulse of Afro-Brazilian music has ignited the rest of the world.

San Francisco, California is where it found me. Something buried deep inside me burst into life when I heard those drums. After taking African-Brazilian dance classes for several years, I traveled with my dance teacher and other students to Salvador, Bahia’s capital city, to discover for myself the source of this wonderful sound and spirit.

Salvador’s historic Pelourihno district was our home base. Women wearing billowing white cotton skirts and blouses with color beaded necklaces sat on street corners frying bean fritters called acaraje in iron cauldrons of dende or red palm oil. The twang of the bow-shaped berimbau echoed off brightly-painted 17th-century colonial buildings as people of all ages gathered in large circles to do Capoeira, an acrobatic martial art used by African slaves for self-defense.

Here, our group studied traditional and popular Afro-Brazilian dance and percussion. One of our master teachers was Mestre King, a pioneer in the study and stylization of the sacred orixas (pronounced or-i-sha) dances from the Candomblé religion. The movements originated to honor the Brazilian deities or orixas who represent aspects of life and nature to Candomblé practices.

Candomblé is a spiritual way of life based on traditions of ancestor and nature reverence practiced by the West African slaves and the indigenous people of Brazil. An estimated 80 percent of the people living in Bahia can claim African heritage. Many, including devoted Catholics, still hold religious beliefs from the Yoruba culture of West Africa.

We learned dance steps for several of the orixas. For Ossain, the deity of the forest and herbal remedies, we concocted a intoxicating potion; for Oxum, the goddess of the sweet waters, we flowed sensually like water; to represent Ogum, the orixa of iron, we fiercely swung our arms as if holding machetes; and in honor of Exu, we writhed on the floor as if ailing from a terminal disease.

Heat and humidity saturated the air of the third-floor dance studio even in the relatively mild weather of October. Within a half hour, the linoleum floor was slick with sweat. To keep dancing through my exhaustion, I concentrated on the repetitive drumbeats, letting them penetrate my bones and lull me into a semi-hypnotic daze. Our teachers shouted in Portuguese above the drumming. The language barrier didn’t keep us from learning–we just adopted the traditional African practice of imitation.

The lessons outside the classroom were equally remarkable. One evening, Mestre King invited us to a Candomblé ceremony in the hills of Salvador to witness the dances we’d been learning in their original context. Inside the Candomblé house, tiny strips of white paper hung in rows from every inch of the ceiling. Men and women were ushered to opposite sides of the room and sat hip to hip on sawdust-covered benches around the open floor.

The ceremony began and the whole building resounded with the raw vibration of ten tall, wooden drums hit forcefully with L-shaped sticks. A group of girls chanted in Yoruba along with the rhythms. Forming a big circle, men, women and children danced to the rhythm with movements much subtler than those taught in class.

They weren’t performing for an audience — they seemed to be moving from deep within themselves. Some even seemed to go into trance. After about three hours, they took a meal break then started again. When our group left exhausted after midnight, the dancers and musicians were still going strong.

Salvador da Bahia Brazil
Salvador da Bahia Brazil

At the other extreme, we attended a flamboyant dramatization of the orixa dances by internationally-renown Bale Folclorico da Bahia. Professional dancers dressed in exquisite satin costumes brought such super-human grace and power to the movements that they could’ve been mistaken for the gods themselves. The small, tightly packed audience sat so close to the stage that we collectively shuddered in fear and awe as the dancers threw fire, leapt and flipped above us. One thing remained unembellished — the forceful, driving rhythm that shook the walls.

Back in town, drumbeats echoed through the neighborhoods and dancing bodies filled the streets and patios almost every night. In large groups called blocos, we imitated young, self-proclaimed masters in popular street moves — many of which reminded me of orixa and hip hop dances. In a synchronized wave of energy, we moved across the ground, jumping, turning and gyrating together like one body. In such a tightly packed group, our well being depended on everyone staying on the rhythm. Everyone did, with ease and laughter.

Dancing as part of such a passionate and harmonious humanity was deeply moving. Perhaps this was a taste of what the Candomblé participants experience, I’ll never know. Still, I felt as though I’d gone beyond just discovering the source of my beloved Afro-Brazilian music and had connected to its spirit.


While music and dance is easy to find throughout Salvador da Bahia, if you want to take concentrated lessons or have an insider’s experience of the religion and culture, I would recommend going with a cultural exchange group such as Fogo Na Roupa. Many of the experiences I mentioned wouldn’t have been possible without the connections the group already had in Brazil.

Do aerobic exercise (Brazilian dance classes are particularly recommended) prior to leaving so you have enough endurance to enjoy the non-stop abundance of music. You won’t want to sit still!

Bring a water filter or extra money for buying expensive bottled water. Dancing in the heat and humidity of Brazil necessitates drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated. It is unsafe for tourists to drink the tap water.


  • Fogo Na Roupa is a cultural exchange program with year-round dance and percussion classes in the San Francisco Bay Area geared toward annual participation in the San Francisco and Oakland Carnival parades.

Fogo Na Roupa Director, Carlos Aceituno, leads semi-annual dance and music study tours to Brazil giving students of all levels a unique experience of Afro-Brazilian culture-including Carnival — from the inside of Bahia’s dance and music community.

Tel: (510) 464-5999

  • Tania Santiago, a native of Bahia leads trips from San Francisco at least twice a year, including Carnaval.

Tel: 415-752-0186

  • Tropical Travel
    Offers tours and individual trips to Brazil
    Tel: 1-888-7BRASIL
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