Art as Medicine - How Samba Saved Me
Updated: Apr 27
Quarter-inch wide strips of elastic sewn onto soft pink fabric by our mothers held our ballet slippers onto our feet. We, the other girl children of the professional class of the island of Trinidad and I, wore "flesh tone" tights on our little brown legs.
My parents spoke of dancers Beryl McBurnie and Geoffrey Holder. They openly admired writers like C.L.R. James and Derek Walcott.
I don't think however, that my parents, a doctor and a nurse, expected me to take their messages about the importance of such things quite so seriously, the result of which was that I would go on to become a poet with a propensity for dancing.
At university, I studied science, as was expected by family tradition. However, as I fumbled through the years of formulas and equations, I danced with two university groups - Caribbean Cayenne and the Ballet Club. I still held those pliés in my legs and fingertips. Any hopes that my parents had of me going on to medical school were dashed when I got a job in a lab between classes. When one of my duties became cleaning up radioactive isotopes spilled by sloppy fourth-year students, I then had the last bit of information add to my arsenal of reasons to quit.
I did not enter a dance studio again, however, until decades later. When I did, it was with a sense of urgency. I'd been part of Escola de Samba, a Toronto percussions ensemble that played music from Brazil. I played tamborim, a very small drum on which you play complex rhythms at high speeds with a nylon stick. After years of this, my hands hurt. I was also disoriented: post-divorce, frightened, and worn out by the relentless search for emotional safety and material survival. The band would often perform with samba dancers. They looked fabulous in feathers, eyelash extensions, glitter, and heels. They moved powerfully and sensually through space. "I need some of that," I thought. I laid down my drumstick and went looking for a dance class.
Samba Fundamentals was taught by an Italian-Canadian woman who'd studied herself out of ballet and into considerable expertise in Afro-Brazilian dance. "Women in the north cannot move their hips," she said. "I'm from the Caribbean, I've got this," I thought. Yet I looked in the mirror and saw stiffness as I moved my own ample hips side to side. Ballet had not prepared me well. I did not have it. The instructor told us that we were all beauties, that we were goddesses. She said that our bodies were luscious and glorious. "Your hips are to be shaken. If the flesh on your thighs is not jiggling, it is not samba!" she yelled.
I learned about the origins of samba in the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé. When I danced the Orixa, Iemanjà, I became the goddess of the sea, mother, protector; fluid and sensual, with the infinite power of the waves. As Oxum, I was coquette, yet wise. When I danced Xangô, the god of thunder, lightning, fire, and justice, I threw bolts of lightning at the sky. I was fiery, direct, and clear in my intentions. I was Ossaim, the medicine man who drank too much. I stumbled around and yet made brilliant medicines out of plants from the forest. In these movements we explored how to be one thing and yet another - fierce and generous, resilient and wild, to hold a multitude of selves. The movement vocabulary started to inform how I lived. When needed, I could swagger with the embodied armour of Ogum, the warrior, protecting myself or my daughter, through times of fear, bewilderment or dismay.
Through dance, my joints and muscles became supple. I learned to move courageously, joyously, taking up space in my worlds. I was re-energized, re-discovering resilience, balance, sensuality, and joy. I never did put on the feathers and heels. But I learned to move through the world as if I was powerfully, playfully, sensually wearing them.