There are plenty of places in New York where you'll find gringos swapping stories of trips to Brazil and their latest Portuguese class, but one place you may not expect is in the halls of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, one of the top dance schools in the country. Through the Ailey Extension, which offers open classes to absolute beginners and seasoned dancers alike, students can learn samba from the indefatigable carioca Quenia Ribeiro. To the beat of five excellent percussionists (which is quite a thrill for an open dance class), students learn samba no pé and Bahian-style samba to the rhythms of samba carioca and samba-reggae as well as maculelê, afoxé, maracatu, xaxado, and frevo.
Not only is Quenia's class incredibly fun and suitable for a variety of levels, but like other classes at the Ailey Extension, it's really judgement-free, unlike other big dance schools that offer open classes in New York. Quenia's something of a samba ambassador; she runs her own samba group in New York, and has performed in Brazil, China, Greece, and throughout the United States.I spoke to Quenia about her experience teaching samba in New York and her perspectives on Americans' interest in Brazilian culture.
Where did you study ballet, and why is it important for learning samba?
I studied classical ballet for 18 years in Rio de Janeiro. I started dancing when I was six. Some of the schools I attended were Teresinha Goulart Escola De Ballet in Tijuca and later at the Escola Estadual de Danca Maria Olenewa. I also received a scholarship at Dalal Achcar.
In response to your question, you don't need to have a ballet background to dance samba. For me it helped and I feel a firm background in ballet is helpful for dancers in general. I always tell students of all ages that they need to keep their minds open to all forms of dance; just because you dance one thing it does'nt mean you shouldn't try and learn from other genres of dance as well.
When did you move to New York? Why did you decide to move?
I moved from Rio de Janeiro to New York City in 1995. My mother and brother were already living here and I was always very close with them. I think I inherited my mother's adventurous spirit and I wanted to be in a new place that had a lot different cultures and people of different interests and backgrounds.
When did you begin giving classes at Ailey, and why did they decide to start offering samba?
I have been teaching at the Ailey Extension for about seven years. At the time, the Ailey Extension was interested in expanding to include more ethnic dance forms and I had been teaching at various studios in New York since 1997. I was approached by the director of the extension to teach samba and Afro-Brazilian and I have been there ever since.
What brings students to your class: interest in dance, in Brazil, or both? After taking your class, do students consider going to Brazil?
My students attend classes for a variety of reasons. Some of them have a great passion for various forms of dance and a solid dance background, whereas others are looking for a fun upbeat way to exercise that has some history and substance attached to it. As a student, you don't necessarily have to have direct roots to the culture to appreciate, learn, and participate; just a real interest.
During your time living in the United States, have you noticed any changes in Americans' perspectives on Brazil?
In my environment in the United States, people were always really interested in Brazil. When I moved here, I started taking capoeira classes, so there were a lot of people from the U.S. and from Europe, Japan, etc. who were already very interested in the culture of Brazil. Now, I think in general people are really more clued in to Brazil as an economic and global player through the media and that has expanded people's ideas and consciousness as well.
Many foreigners tend to think of samba and soccer when they think of Brazil. What's your take on that?
Brazil is really famous for samba and soccer so they're always going to be associated with Brazil in many people's minds. That is not say that Brazil does not have a lot of other things to offer as well. I think in general people don't really understand the cultural power or significance of samba to many Brazilians. It's a social phenomenon: it's something that came from simple people that transcended color and monetary and social barriers. The thing is that samba and soccer are a combination of a lot of different elements and that is why they are so recognizeable to non-Brazilians. They are both living art with many colors and variations, highly developed and evolving, but firmly connected to the roots and history of Brazil.