How Carnival Tourism affects Brazilian Samba Dancers

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A samba dancer participating in Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil | Photo by GTSA South America (Flickr/Creative Commons)

As January comes to an end, people are excitedly preparing for the upcoming music festival season. One of the largest, most extravagant events in the near future is Brazil’s Carnival, most popularly celebrated in Rio de Janeiro (amongst other places).

According to the Rio Carnival website, the event is 5 days long and happens in February before the beginning of lent (in which “one is supposed to abstain from all bodily pleasures”), so it “could be interpreted as an act of farewell to the pleasures of the flesh.”

At the heart of Carnival is Brazilian music culture, and Rio Carnival states that samba makes up the vast majority of the music played. Its yearly Carnival programs include watching and interacting with street bands, popular dances, concerts and parades — all related to samba.

(To clarify, samba is both a dance and a style of music, and Oxford Dictionary defines it as: “a Brazilian dance of African origin.”)

Unfortunately, the complex culture of samba dancers is one that is rarely mentioned and not widely-known outside of Brazil. A 2012 ethnographic report by Natasha Pravaz titled “Performing Mulata-ness: The Politics of Cultural Authenticity and Sexuality among Carioca Samba Dancers” highlighted how women participating in samba culture struggle with racism and objectification in their careers.

As evident in the study, this is important to people hoping to go to Carnival as tourists, since it is often the tourists that perpetuate these problems.

All the excess and celebration of Carnival attracts an increasing number of tourists each year. In 2015 alone, Rio Carnival saw about 977,000 tourists (nearly one million), earning the city $782 million in American currency (from a report by the Secretaria Municipal de Turismo).

The problem, as Pravaz explained in her study, is that many of the tourists attending Carnival are men that fall for and feed into stereotypes about Brazilian women being beautiful, biracial and sexually-promiscuous.

This is furthered by Brazilian men (many of them also preferring the over-sexualized image of Brazilian women), all creating a difficult environment for the women due to these expectations.

“Ultimately, samba remains contested territory, a stage upon which the economic needs, embodied desires, and ethnic identities of local Brazilian women clash and collude with the neo-colonial dreams of tourists and cosmopolitans alike.” — Pravaz

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Tourists and locals crowd the streets during Carnival in Recife, Brazil | Photo by Raul (Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons)

In the world of samba dancers (who typically perform in revealing outfits), Pravaz said there are two main categories of women, with a high amount of tension between the two:

  • Passistas (“she who makes steps”) are “those who perform as solo dancers in Carnival parades,” and are recognized for their hard work, skill, practice and genuine passion for samba. They are often seen in a better light than the other category by Brazilians.
  • Mulatas (“brown-skinned women of mixed Afro-Brazilian and European descent”) typically dance in nightclubs and are “are usually associated with certain physical attributes that make them attractive” (seen negatively from the viewpoint of passistas, who think mulatas only dance for money and have neither skill nor love of samba).

Pravaz described how mulata women (aside from personal desire to do so) feel pressure to dance samba in Carnival, since they embody the physical expectations of the male audience, though they fear not being considered on the same level as passistas and being seen instead as immoral if they don’t perform well enough.

In fact, the mulatas who fail as dancers are often forced to resort to prostitution:

“Women who occupy this subject position express their struggles with the threat of prostitution and attempt to achieve a modicum of respectability as they manipulate the objectifying gaze of Brazilians and foreigners to the best of their ability” — Pravaz

Still, some women wish to dance in Carnival as a positive expression of their sexuality.

This pressure for mulatas to express themselves in a sexual nature to please the male audience, mixed with personal desire to reclaim their sexuality is actually related to the broader topic of feminism.

Dr. Lizzie Lamoree, a lecturer in the Women’s and Gender Studies and Ethnic Studies Departments at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, said that the issues raised “about being sex-positive and expressing sexuality overtly in the public sphere” in relation to “concerns about objectification and hyper sexualization of women’s (racialized) bodies has a long history among feminists and anti-feminists alike.”

Lamoree insisted that there’s a “common ground” or grey area where these all intersect, and that a good way to approach the situation is “to look at the issue of power.”

In this case, it’s the economic and racial power of the tourists and the social power of Brazilian men that they hold over the women.

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Close-up of a Carnival samba dancer | Photo by Carnaval.com Studios (Flickr/Creative Commons)

So, what is the main reason these women want to dance samba in the first place?

Pravaz found that mulatas who “engage in highly unequal relationships with local and foreign men manipulate these men’s desire by exercising a seduction that might even help them realize their ‘Cinderella dream’,” which is to meet men who will take the women abroad with them.

This ‘Cinderella dream’ is driven by racial pressures, as Pravaz added: “In pursuing this dream, women of color are hopeful not only of improving their lot financially but also of actively participating in the so-called bettering of the race through an explicit pursuit of whitening, producing lighter-skinned children.”

She credited the foreigners’ ideal image of a Brazilian woman being mixed-race (tanned, but not too tanned) with a perfect body as a primary reason why these mulatas feel so pressured to have light-skinned babies.

They want to live up to these racist expectations by people from different countries (and that are also evident amongst Brazilian society due to these external pressures) in hopes that it will make their lives easier.

Those who are considering attending Carnival based on sexual desires rather than an earnest interest in experiencing and understanding the culture behind the event seriously need to rethink their vacations. Hopefully, with the knowledge of just how much tourism affects these dancers by perpetuating these issues of racism and objectification, they will make the right decision.

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