The samba is trouble. That's all anyone can think, watching a class in progress at the Allen Street Dance Studio.
Oh, the room is warm and pretty, with twinkling Christmas lights in the window, polished wooden floors and the soft, hippieish aroma of incense. But that dance! Shaking their skirts, the dancers sashay aggressively in sharp zigzags from one end of the room to the other. They laugh loud, challenging laughs. In one particularly frightening move, they plant their feet apart, bend their knees, stick out their hips and hop backward, right arm extended, hair flying.
This dance is worlds away from the polished Brazilian ballroom samba we're used to. This dance looks like a curse.
No wonder samba has suffered from some bad public relations. "Samba has its roots in voodoo," film director Orson Welles once shuddered, describing a strange experience he had making a movie in Brazil (see accompanying story).
Mention that to Cathy Skora, though, and she laughs. Skora, who runs the Allen Street Dance Studio, has traveled all over the world in her pursuit of ethnic dance. Samba, she reminds us, is an Afro-Brazilian folk dance. Nothing more, nothing less.
"In sambas, there are ceremonies, there are tributes to gods and goddesses. Like many cultural dances, it was based on practical, magical reasons," she shrugs. "You had dances to bring rain, dances to promote life, dances to make the crops grow."
Should the samba look wild and strange, Skora points out, it's because people in our contemporary culture aren't accustomed to such forthright moves.
"In the Western world, if we're used to seeing only ballet, we're not used to seeing parts of the body move in circular motions - like the hips, like the rib cage, that you see in other cultural dances," she says.
"We may call it something risque, but it certainly is not," she adds. "That's what I like about cultural dance. It uses the body movements very naturally."
Frank Desiree, however, who is playing drums for the class, is more loose-lipped. Desiree, who grew up in Haiti, doesn't deny the music's traditional association with magic.
"Everything is connected to nature. Everything you do," he says in his rich, accented voice. "Whatever you do," he advises ominously, "make sure you do it not to the negative. The negative is there also. You will learn from the negative. It will go back to you. You think: Next time, I will not do that."
Whatever one believes, Skora and her samba dancers are sure to add to the ambience of the Day of the Dead, a festival to be celebrated at 8 p.m. Saturday in El Museo Francisco Oller Y Diego Rivera, the gallery next door on Allen Street.
The Day of the Dead is a Latin American celebration that could be seen as mirroring All Souls' Day. The samba dancers will be leading a procession with a shamadan - a headdress with candles traditionally used to light the way for a bridal couple. Skora says with a bright smile: "We're going to illuminate the meeting of the living and the dead."
A startling thump
Undoubtedly, some of the power of samba comes from the rhythm of the dance.
Desiree came to Buffalo from Haiti for family reasons - specifically, for the sake of his small son, Isaiah, who has tagged along with him to the studio. In a twist of fate befitting a dance wreathed in legend, the drummer met Skora simply by walking past her studio.
"I was passing by here, and I was looking for a place to drum," he says. "She was right here. She said, "Come on in!' " he recalls, laughing. "Isaiah, sit down," he calls to his son, who is doing his own samba a little too close to the dancers' feet.
Desiree, who leads a musical group called Asakivle and also joins other local bands from time to time, has an outrageous range of beats. Some are thundering and raging, and others are wooing and murmuring. He likes Skora's samba workshops because they allow him to explore a wide range of possibilities. "She gave me a chance to mix traditional and modern," he says.
He begins beating a steady rhythm as the dancers stride regally across the floor. The beat grows more demanding as they begin a series of high kicks. Desiree punctuates the movements with a sharp palm to the drum, producing a startling thump.
"The dance is in the music. It connects with the music," Skora has explained. Now, she responds to Desiree's challenging drum roll by swaying, her arms over her head. Head down, hair flying, she looks as if she is in a trance.
"When you're a drummer, you love rhythm. You don't get tired," Desiree says. "Physically you might, after hours. But when you're playing in public, there is a language, what the public is feeling. You give me a good vibe, I will return it to you."
That exchange involves trust, he adds.
"To play for another person is to respect that person's space," he declares. "For you to invade that space, you have to come with a wave of sound that matches that person."
Occasionally, Desiree confesses, even the drummer can fall under the dance's spell.
"The vibration of the drum will get you," he confides. "You may totally go to a different place. You can leave your drum and watch yourself play.
"Sometimes I have found myself dancing and watching myself playing. I'm going, "OK . . .' But I cannot stop it."
"Leave the world behind'
Something about the samba can get under a person's skin.
Terri Simmons, a paralegal, started samba lessons only recently. She took up the dance, she says, for the sake of exercise. "I never thought to take dance classes as a child," she says. "I don't know the moves."
She began tentatively with Middle Eastern dance but soon was seduced by samba. "The first time I saw samba, I thought, what a great workout," she says. "There's a great energy. And you're having so much fun you don't realize you're working out."
For the sake of beginning students like Simmons, Skora likes to keep the dance classes unintimidating. "A lot of people want to come just for exercise," she points out. "But I think they're a little intimidated, because they think they can't dance."
Skora herself didn't begin dancing until she was 18. "I started taking yoga, and then I went on to Middle Eastern dance," she says. "I started studying with a wonderful Syrian woman."
She went on to dance with Buffalo State College's Gemini Dance Company and to study dance in New York. It was empowering, Skora recalls, to find herself in classes with dancers from, say, the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. "We're all human beings, we all have the same body," she remembers thinking. "It's that commonality that's comforting and amazing."
Over the years, Skora has shared performance spaces with exalted company. She danced once in Pamplona, Spain, on the occasion of the running of the bulls. Once, at Buffalo State College, she danced in a production called "Shango" with the Katherine Dunham company. It was a small part, but she treasured it. "To be part of the ceremony, to learn about the ceremony," she says.
Skora has danced the samba for over a decade now, and she travels regularly to Greece to lead samba classes. "Everyone loves samba," she says. "Once people see they can do it, and they can relate to it, because it is so natural, they embrace it. And it's beautiful to watch people blossom with it and to see them connect to the dance. Because ultimately, we dance for the feedback we get from within."
In today's world, no one sees samba as a way to make the crops grow or the wind blow. The dance fulfills other purposes.
At the start of a samba class, Skora guides her students through stretches. "Take a cleansing breath," she tells them. "Leave the world behind."
Samba helps people do just that.
"You have to totally remove yourself," Desiree says. "You can't be timid or shy. You have to be open. Let the music get inside of you, and you will dance."
It's almost like magic.