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Brazilian Bodies & their Choreographies of Identification

Part of the New World Choreographies series, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015

Series edited by Rachel Fensham and Peter M Boenisch - Published: August 2015


Carmen Miranda is one of the most powerful, yet controversial, symbols ever produced about Brazil. Beyond her exotic costumes, the sensuality with which Miranda moved her hips to the rhythm of samba has given international visibility to a particular kind of bodily syncopation that, in Brazil, is commonly known as "ginga" (swing, swayed action). In the monograph Brazilian Bodies and their Choreographies of Identification, Cristina Rosa retraces the presence of ginga across three specific and distinct scenarios: social dance (e.g. samba), martial arts (e.g. capoeira angola), and concert dance (e.g. Grupo Corpo Dance Theatre). For Rosa, ginga is the foundational element within a system of bodily organization and knowledge production anchored on Africanist principles such as polycentrism and polyrhythm. Subsequently, in each chapter Rosa maps how ginga aesthetic has disciplined bodies to cultivate a particular way of interacting and formulating ideas about the world, which is central to Afro-Brazilian heritage. 

Carmen Miranda, circa 1940s.

"Dance de la Guerre," lithograph by Rugendas, 1835

Employing choreography as a theoretical lens, Ginga is taken here as an entry point for a set of socio-historical and transcultural reflections regarding embodiment, knowledge production, and processes of identification. On one level, this book offers an analysis of the geopolitical significance of non-verbal discourses within colonial and postcolonial contexts. Within Portuguese archives, for example, ginga is often identified as an uncivilized and immoral behavior, hence a source of shame. In spite of that, migrant Africans and their descendants continued to choreograph discourses where Ginga evokes ethnocultural pride and self-esteem. 

In Brazil, the co-existence of these antagonist definitions has generated a set of complex (and unresolved) ideas that Rosa recognizes throughout her book as a pride-and-shame conundrum. On another level, this project also offers an insight into modern processes of identity formation in Brazil. Since the 1930s, arenas such as samba, capoeira, and (later) Grupo Corpo have contributed to the consolidation of a new regime of intelligibility, whereby qualities of movement associated with Afro-Brazilian heritage (e.g. Ginga) are recognized as valuable commodities, while the producers of such cultural goods (e.g. Africans and their descendants) remain largely invisible or objectified. Commonly known as the “democracy of races” ideology, this body politics has choreographed ginga into fixed choreographies of national identification performed at global stage arenas from world dance festivals to cinema (e.g. Carmen Miranda).

In this diagram  I illustrate the primary characteristics of the Africanist system of bodily organization and knowledge production that I call ginga aesthetic. They are 1) propellers (feet), which have the double role of dislocating the body in space and keeping its (base) rhythm; 2) The horizontal pairs of scales (hips and shoulders), which subdivide the core of the body in 2 apart playing centers responsible for dynamically shifting the bodily weight from side to side; and 3) the flexible vertical axis (spine column), which connects the two pairs of scales, as well as the head to the tailbone, thus facilitating the articulation of both polycentrism and polyrhythms.

In Afro-Brazilian practices such as samba and capoeira, bodily syncopation may be understood as the articulation of call-and-response dialogues between different parts of this polycentric and polyrhythmic body, especially feet (propellers) and hips (primary pair of scales). 

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