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Dancing to the beat of another country

In their trips to their choreographic countries of origin, Viver Brasil and other L.A.-based troupes give participants cultural exchanges through movement and music.

March 22, 2010|By Rachel B. Levin
  • Members of the Los Angeles-based Viver Brasil dance group are transported by the music during a visit to Bahia.
Members of the Los Angeles-based Viver Brasil dance group are transported… (Jorge Vismara )

Margit Edwards vividly remembers the exact moment she understood how to dance the samba.

On a beach in Brazil — swept up in the power of an impromptu samba beat, a little cachaça (made from fermented sugarcane) and the feel of her feet on the sand — she was hypnotized by watching the dancers' midsections and realized: "It's all in the bellybutton!"


FOR THE RECORD:
Dance tours: An information box accompanying a March 21 article on L.A.-based dance troupes that take trips overseas said airfare was not included in the Bahia travel program of Los Angeles-based Viver Brasil. The $3,350 price, based on double occupancy, includes round-trip airfare to Salvador Bahia, Brazil. —

Edwards, an arts administrator in L.A. , had traveled to Brazil to live out her "dance fantasy," as she calls it, as a participant in the Los Angeles-based dance company Viver Brasil's Bahia travel program. For the last 11 years, the group has brought dance and drum enthusiasts to Salvador Bahia for two weeks of intensive classes and cultural immersion.

And now, other local dance companies are following in Viver Brasil's footsteps, taking similar trips to their choreographic countries of origin. Contra-Tiempo, whose brand of urban Latin dance theater blends salsa, Afro-Cuban and hip-hop, began leading trips to Havana and Santiago, Cuba, in 2008. The Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project, whose choreography melds postmodern and traditional West African techniques, last year led an inaugural trip to Burkina Faso. No matter the destination, the common aim of these programs is authentic cultural exchange through the intimacy of music and movement.

"Studying dance allows you an immediate view inside of a culture," says Ana Maria Alvarez, founder and artistic director of Contra-Tiempo, who will take a group to Cuba again in January. "The way people dance is a way of listening to each other's bodies and really connecting with one another."

That possibility to help cultivate deep connections between Americans and Cubans — rare given the chilly political relations between the neighboring nations — appealed to Alvarez, who is Cuban American, as an extension of her company's mission to bridge cultural divides through dance.

Besides master dance classes in rumba, salsa and folkloric forms, her travel program incorporates excursions to meet Cuban visual artists, tour medical clinics and dance in social clubs off the beaten tourist track.

Despite such a heady cultural itinerary, opportunities for spontaneous dancing abound.

"It sounds very cliché, but people are dancing in the streets, literally," says Alvarez. "Cuban dance is such a part of life."

From impromptu street parties to Santeria ceremonies, the group encounters dance around nearly every corner.

It's not surprising that dance figures prominently in both secular and sacred aspects of Cuban society, given that many of the country's dance forms evolved from the traditions of West Africans, who were initially brought to the island as slaves.

In Burkina Faso, says Esther Baker-Tarpaga, co-founder of the Baker & Tarpaga Dance Project, dance is "interwoven into the fabric of life in all sorts of rituals," from weddings and birthday parties to the colorful nightlife in open-air music bars in Ouagadougou, the capital. Olivier Tarpaga, her husband and the company's co-founder, who hails from Ouagadougou, led a group to his hometown last summer, where participants took dance and drum classes from the same teachers who had taught him.

"That's how 80% to 90% of people on the continent become masters of dance and music," he says. "It's in the community."

To showcase that sense of community, Tarpaga invites participants to take part in his family celebrations. In the classroom, Americans on the trip learn West African dance, such as kassena, an ancient warrior dance, and djembe percussion alongside students from Burkina Faso. The mixture allows for moments of cultural dialogue that couldn't possibly be planned.

Participant Halie Kampman of Venice recalls the moment when her group joined a roomful of teenage girls from Burkina who were choreographing routines to American hip-hop music. Spontaneously, the girls pulled them into the dance. "They wanted us to do hip-hop; we wanted to see them do African [dance]," she says. "It was the essence of the exchange that we went for."

Through such experiences, Kampman began deep and lasting relationships with the people of Burkina. After the two-week program ended, she stayed on in the country to volunteer and helped start a women's bead-making collective; she now sells the beads locally to benefit them.

"Going [to Burkina] with Olivier and having him show us the culture and the people … instilled a love for me," she says.

Making participants feel as close as family is also a strong goal in Linda Yudin's trips to Bahia.

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