Samba: The Heart of Brazilian Carnival Culture in New Jersey

She strutted on the empty stage in five-inch heels and began to stomp her feet to the banging of the Bahian drums. “One, two, three. One, two, three,” she mumbled behind her smile. Keeping her back straight and her arms flailing from left to right in perfect synchronization with her feet, she hardly thought about the pain tingling through her toes, the wire bra pinching her ribcage, or the four-pound headpiece weighing down her body.

Three minutes. Just three minutes of dancing. But three minutes of pain will never compare to the pain endured by African slaves brought to Brazil nearly 500 years ago. Malaïka De Walodjol is one of many samba dancers worldwide who train day to day to uphold the history and culture of this South American-born dance.  

Samba is a dance form born in the city of Salvador. Salvador is the largest city in the state of Bahia in the northeast of Brazil. De Walodjol, who was born and raised in Normandy, France, has taught Samba and Capoeira with University dance Professor and owner of the Afro-Brazilian Cultural Center of Bloomfield, New Jersey, David Morgan, for the past two years at Montclair State. Morgan and De Walodjol also work together at William Paterson University, where they have built a large following of samba dancers and “capoeiristas.”

Capoeira, another art form born in the heart of Salvador, Bahia, is an aggressive martial art disguised as a dance using flips, throws, kicks, and other stunts. Samba was created through capoeira.

“During the times of slavery, capoeira was forbidden,” said De Walodjol. “When people saw the masters coming, they would switch [from capoeira] to samba, so it [would] look like they weren’t fighting; they were dancing.”

Before the abolishment of slavery, in the late 1800s, Samba was used to hide the dangerous fighting moves of capoeira from slave masters who banned the martial art out of fear of an uprising or a rebellion among slaves. Samba was then used as a distraction technique from authority figures.

After slavery, capoeira became an outlawed form of dance until it was repealed in 1933.

“I began capoeira by mistake as most people do,” said Morgan. “I used to teach karate. I had a dojo and then in 1999, I went to Brazil to do a little fighting and I discovered this magnificent art called ‘capoeira’. I came back from Brazil, closed my karate school, began learning capoeira, opened a capoeira school, and my goal is to get capoeira into many universities as I can.”

Brazilian carnival is held in the country’s capital of Rio de Janeiro every year before Ash Wednesday. But the end of carnival does not mean the end of samba. “Samba Carnaval,” the most popular style of samba dance in Bahia, is taken seriously on an immense level by those who work hard to perfect it. Samba Carnaval is a year-long commitment in this Brazilian state.

As Brazilian Day draws near, students and faculty at Montclair State of Brazilian and Portuguese descent prepare to celebrate the country’s thriving culture. Though, samba and capoeira are South American dance forms, they have had an impact of non-Portuguese-speaking individuals like De Walodjol, who teaches Samba in Bloomfield with Morgan.

“Capoeira is one of the best things ever,” said Morgan. “It is physical, it is emotional [and] it is spiritual. Aside from exercising [and] aside from doing something that makes your body feel good, it involves you in a community of people, which makes your soul feel good.”

For the Brazilian Day, capoeira will be performed at the Montclair State Student Center by Morgan and a few of his students. Though, samba will not be performed on the campus at the event, samba schools across the country, including at the Afro-Brazilian Cultural Center are preparing for many Samba and Brazilian culture events for the summer.

“Samba s an Afro-Brazilian art form,” said De Walodjol. “And because I’m half French and half African, it brings me closer to my African roots.”

Montclair State | New Jersey

Amanda Williams

Journalism senior at Montclair State University.