By Gisella Ferreira
I dance samba to bring in light. Through Samba I heal my spirit and help others find healing & joy. Samba for me is the celebration of the spirit that dwells within the body temple. It’s about connecting my body, mind & spirit and creating something bigger than myself. It grounds me with the Earth and opens me to the ancestors and community.
How I started
I have been dancing Samba as long as I could walk. I’m not even joking. I started as a toddler. My dad would hold me around my waist and say “Samba Gisella”. As I did my baby steps, he would help me shift my weight and sway my hips from side to side. My dad would put on his old Samba records and we would dance. As I grew up Samba was one of my main ways of connecting and relating to my dad.
I’m so grateful to him for teaching me from an early age and for dancing with me throughout the years. I also samba to make him proud and show him what a powerful impact he has had on me.
What made me decide to become a Samba dancer?
It was never a decision to dance and become a Samba dancer. It was an inherent passion that I grew up with and later trained hard daily to develop. Growing up here in the U.S. I was surrounded by Hip-Hop culture and so naturally I spent my youth performing, competing and teaching Hip-Hop dance until one day I realized that I had to stop putting my Brazilian roots on the back burner. My love for Samba was something that grew more and more and I could not ignore how wonderful and lifted I felt when I would Samba. I realized that I could no longer down play who I was. I stopped caring about fitting in and being the same as everyone and embraced all of who I was, both Brazilian and American. In high school I started adding Samba to my Hip-Hop choreography and eventually started choreographing whole Samba routines and teaching Samba at local studios.
Samba was my passion and something I wanted to share. I think as I grew into feeling good in my own skin as a young woman, I got in touch with the essence of who I really was and what brought me the most joy which has always been Samba.
Is it just feathers, jewels and a booty shake?
For me dancing Samba was never about the feathers and bikini or being glamorous. It was always about dancing with my heart and sharing joy.For me it has always been about the soul connection. Growing up it was me, just being me and connecting with my dad and family and being Brazilian. I performed in traditional samba Baiana white top and long skirt growing up, until I came to Los Angeles for UCLA’s World Arts & Cultures Dance major. Living here in LA, I experienced many Brazilian events in which there were women wearing Samba costumes, few of which danced samba…and I remember thinking “This is not right”. It felt awful to see Brazilian culture misrepresented and appropriated.
I soon started getting calls from people asking me to perform Samba in the feathers & bikini. Funny thing actually, I remember a few good friends asking me “Would you ever perform like that in the bikini?” And I said “NO!” I turned down many jobs until one day I decided I wanted to perform more of what I loved and I would wear the traditional Rio style Samba de Mulata style costume. I decided I would perform Samba with an intension of spreading joy and I would dance with integrity and respect. It was a dramatic shift in my thinking, but I realized it was something I felt comfortable with as a grown woman, 21 at the time and was happy to dance samba and perform more, sharing my joy and the true essence of my spirit.
My perspective changed more as I came to understand that dancing in the bikini was also part of my culture and a celebration of the body and sensuality. Around the time of deciding I wanted to perform Samba more, I decided that it was no longer enough to dance samba as I had growing up casually and for fun. I had to train harder to take my dancing to the next level. I started practicing every day, taking classes, traveling to Rio and I decided to dedicate myself to the art of Samba.
So when people say “Samba is just booty shaking”… well there is a lot of shaking going on, there’s no doubt about it, but there is so much more to it! In samba we shake and move our hips, our booties and our shoulders and our feet and arms keep the time, which is at times rapid. Samba is a polyrhythmic dance, so there is so much to accent and shake and much of the shaking comes from Samba’s rich African roots. For me dancing samba is a way of relieving stress. As we shake and move we are literally moving the energy in our bodies and thus stimulating our body’s ability to heal. It’s easy to understand if you think about energy flow in the body, when you sit for long periods of time or hold onto negative energy your energy is not flowing, when you are shaking from your toes to your head you open up energy flow and make room for the body to circulate properly.
Samba is an art form that has a rich history and culture. It is the dance of freed slaves in Brazil. Samba is the dance of resistance. Through Samba we let go of limitation and transform the sorrow of oppression into the joy and triumph of the human spirit. Samba’s roots stem primarily from Africa, as well as Native Brazilian peoples. There is also influence by the Portuguese who colonized Brazil. It’s a dance that celebrates the body; freedom of expression and it is a dance that transcends negativity and for many in Brazil a very harsh reality of daily life.
For me dancing samba is a transformative experience with or without the fancy costumes. I have a wonderful time dancing and letting go to the rhythm of the drums. Samba is a feeling of freedom. When I do perform wearing the Samba feathers and bikini, I enjoy the transformation in appearance; I change from looking like everyone else into the extraordinary jeweled Samba dancer. My 9-year-old little brother calls me a “Samba Super Hero”.
It’s an incredible feeling to dance in crystals, Rhine stones, beads and beautiful bright colored feathers. The costume really emphasizes my movements as I dance. As I dance the beads around my waist jingle in rhythm and my feathers make it look and feel like I’m taking flight…the feeling is pure magic. I love dancing in costume and performing for people, inspiring them to get up and dance. It’s a priceless feeling. But there is something also equally as beautiful in dancing Samba barefoot with a towel under my feet to mop the floor, as my grandmother in Rio does. Samba is me, the music and the Earth beneath my feet.
*Gisella Ferreira teaches daily at Brasil Brasil Cultural Center in Los Angeles. She is the Samba Queen U.S.A. She was the Musa of Brazilian Day San Diego 2014, and is on the cover of Soul Brasil magazine (Issue Aug 2015). For more info on Gisella visit: www.gisellasambista.com – Facebook: Gisella Sambista – Instagram & Twitter: gisellasamba