Oberlin Blogs

Samba: It's More Than a Dance

January 13, 2022

Charlize Villasenor ’23

The first time I took a dance class, I was about five years old, and I took ballet at the local recreation center in my hometown. I remember learning the different moves and their names, wearing a soft pink leotard and dance flats, and practicing dances with the others in my class. I took ballet classes for those few months and had not taken a dance class since then. That is, until this year. I grew up shy when it came to dance, so I didn’t dance much at weddings or quinceañeras (besides my own) and only learned some line dances like Caballo Dorado, the Cha-Cha Slide, Cupid Shuffle, and a few others. Dancing is a big part of Latinx culture, including dances such as Folklorico, Bachata, Salsa, Banda, and more, so I wanted to take part more as I got older. What constantly held me back were feelings of shyness and embarrassment because most people my age had been dancing since they were younger, and I never gave myself the opportunity to learn those dances. Over the summer semester, some friends had taken Capoeira Angola in the dance department and had told me how much fun they had. I saw them perform with other dance classes such as samba, and I had become a bit interested.

After talking with friends and finding out they had also become interested and registered to take samba in the fall, I emailed the professor and asked to be placed on the waitlist. As you could tell (considering I’m able to write this entry), I got off the waitlist and took the course for the semester. Even though some might criticize dance courses as non-academic or filler classes, that was the opposite of my experience taking dance at Oberlin. The class took place on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. On Mondays and Wednesdays, the course was movement-based, and we learned and practiced our samba steps. On Fridays, we discussed the assigned readings, podcasts, and films surrounding topics such as how knowledge, especially cultural knowledge, is learned through movement, the history of samba, and its implications for the people of Brazil. In some of the discussions, we discussed how race is viewed differently in Brazil compared to the United States, the fetishization and exoticism that is forced onto many Latinx people, and how samba has evolved and spread throughout the world. Although in the beginning, I registered for this class so I could learn how to dance samba, I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to learn so much about its history and context. I was especially happy as I had never learned about dance as an academic subject until this semester. I even enjoyed working on my final project for this course. Our assignment was to write a research proposal on any topic related to the class and to present our early findings. Even though I don't think I typically care much for numbers outside of economics, I realized that the reason I appreciate economics is because it can be tied into so many topics. So although it was done unintentionally, I discussed money, GDP, and data from Statista in my presentation. Some presentations discussed the origin of samba costumes, race in Brazil, gender identity and expression in samba, and more. The topic of mine was the foreign perception of Brazil and the role that Carnaval plays in that perception. It was interesting to see how the last few years of studying economics has helped shape the way I see and understand the world, even when the topic isn't explicitly about markets or statistics based research.

Outside of the information intentionally included in the curriculum, I learned about myself. I’ve hated being applauded and performing in front of friends and family for years. One of the requirements for this class was participating in the end-of-semester performance, where my friends would inevitably be there and clap for my classmates and me as we danced alongside other classes in the dance department. I had accepted this from the beginning but grew nervous as the days grew closer. Once the performance was over, I realized performing wasn’t so bad. I felt a little vulnerable since I had never danced in front of a crowd before, but I was glad I could do so in a supportive low-stakes environment. I also learned that, most importantly, I actually like dancing. I’ve always been the type of person who would quit if I wasn’t immediately good at whatever new activity I tried. Considering I registered for this class and it would end up on my transcript as a W if I withdrew, I wasn’t willing to quit just because I realized I wasn’t immediately great at dancing samba. I knew I had to show up to class in order to improve my samba, so that’s what I did. I’ve written before that I’m far from the perfect student and have plenty of absences, but I was glad that I could see and feel my improvement from the beginning of the semester to now. It can be difficult to see life improvement at times, especially when much of it takes the same form over and over. I’m incredibly grateful I had the opportunity to take a dance class at Oberlin, especially considering the academic history dance has at Oberlin. Even if you aren’t super interested in a particular department or class, I would still highly recommend taking a course that is outside of your comfort zone; you might even learn something new about yourself.

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