Shall We Dance?

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Cariocas may go to church on Sunday, but the rest of the week they prefer to celebrate the divine gift of life through dance. All my discussions with Cariocas quickly turned into a debate over which was the best nightclub in Rio. So, for the morning of the participatory journalism portion of my tour, I signed up for a samba class.

A cab deposited me in front of Casa de Dança in the Botafogo section of Rio. It was a narrow, two-story structure with a cafe in the courtyard. My opinion of the school was greatly enhanced when it became clear I was the only foreigner in the place. In the front office was the weekly class schedule: samba, salsa, forro, tango, hip-hop, beginner’s ballet.

Professor Rodrigo, a slight man with an easy smile, led me upstairs to a tiny room with a blessedly large air-conditioning unit for my $30 private lesson. He shuffled through several CDs, looking for the appropriate samba tune.

“In samba, you have to listen to the pulse,” he said, as he snapped his fingers and looked at me with a bit of concern in his eyes. “You dance samba from the heart.”

Not to be defensive, but for an Irish-Catholic boy from the Midwest, I possess a fairly decent sense of rhythm, which I realize is a little like saying that for a midget I’m pretty tall. I can hear a beat, and, as long as I’m not chewing gum at the same time, I can find and keep it. I snapped along with him. He smiled in relief. This wasn’t going to be a remedial class for the rhythmically challenged.

That turned out to be my best moment of the lesson. The rest was pretty much downhill.

Samba is built on a quick three-step shuffle. I counted along with the good professor and was fine as long as I looked at him. A glance at myself in the mirror was cause for horror, however. Rodrigo’s body was loose, his center of gravity low, he shuffled on the back of his feet. He was dancing from a spot far lower than the heart—what the Hindus refer to as the second chakra. In contrast, as I stepped on the balls of the feet, head forward, my arms plastered against my side, I looked like Michael Flatley’s untalented younger brother after a four-day caipirinha bender—the Dissolute Lord of the Samba.

By the end of the class, professor Rodrigo’s eyes were not quite as bright, nor was his smile as easy. I was too tired to care. But, after I recovered, I decided the second part of my experiment in participatory journalism would focus on one of Brazil’s two unique martial arts: Capoeira or Brazilian jujitsu.

Capoeira is the only martial art created by slaves, and in its more acrobatic version, it looks like a precursor to break dancing. Groups would gather in a roda (circle) with instruments, in particular a berimbau (a single-stringed musical bow). Two players would face off in the center of the circle and begin a ritualized dance that led to a contest of sweeping kicks and gymnastic flips, the goal being to outmaneuver one’s opponent. According to legend, the circle served to shield the combat training from the eyes of the slave owners, who, if they came closer, would find the fighters pretending to be dancing.

It is a beautiful art, but one better suited to shorter, more muscular frames than mine, so I wasn’t crushed when several attempts to arrange a lesson ended in failure. I turned instead to Brazilian jujitsu, which has its own fascinating history.

In pursuit of its colonial strategy, imperial Japan exported hundreds of thousands of workers across the world with a special focus on South America and Brazil, where at least 190,000 settled between 1908 and 1941. The vast majority were agricultural workers, but a few cultural ambassadors were also dispatched. One was Mitsuyo Maeda, an expert in traditional Japanese judo and jujitsu who had developed a style that focused on ground fighting and submission holds, and he promoted it through open challenge matches. His most prominent Brazilian student was Carlos Gracie, whose descendants would blow the collective mind of the American martial arts community with the dominance they displayed in the early years of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Japan’s impact on Brazilian culture can be seen in Rio’s dozens of judo and jujitsu schools, which are very popular with middle-class Brazilian teenage boys.

I decided on a school in Barra Shopping, about 20 miles from the city center, because it’s one of the biggest malls in South America, roughly equivalent in size to Rocinha favela, and a little window-shopping always cheers me up after being on the receiving end of a good thrashing. And, let me tell you, when I walked into the jujitsu class in Companhia Athletica’s vast health-and-wellness center, the eyes of six Brazilian teenagers lit up like slot machines. Here was an honest-to-goodness American that they could tie into painful knots without any fear of repercussions.

Before I go on, I suppose I should dispense with a common misconception. Brazilian jujitsu has been called the “gayest sport” in the world by none other than the writing staff of Emily’s Reasons Why Not in the show’s first—and last—episode. This is no doubt because Brazilian jujitsu’s two most important positions—”the guard” and “the mount“—are, according to the Kama Sutra, “missionary” and “cowgirl,” respectively. However, Brazilian jujitsu can’t be the most homoerotic sport because that honor belongs to pankration, an ancient Greek (natch) Olympic sport in which two contestants fought each other in brutal no-holds-barred matches while completely naked. Furthermore, when your arm is being bent to the breaking point or your neck is being choked to the point of unconsciousness, sex is the last thing on your mind.

As Luis twisted me into the kind of stress positions employed by interrogators at Gitmo, my mind focused on how much better I used to be at martial arts before the injuries and the Big Macs. Clawing at Luis’ arm as his grip tightened around my throat, I briefly played with the idea that my situation was not unlike Ronaldo’s, minus the fame, the tens of millions of dollars, and the talent. After tapping out, I mentally apologized to the big guy for making fun of him.

When class was over, I wandered around Barra Shopping, watching the charming, stylish, beautiful, friendly, and completely unselfconscious Brazilians buy their luxury goods. I imagined them rushing back to their apartments overlooking Ipanema Beach. And I changed my mind about something. Up until that moment I had been convinced by A.A. Gill’s argument that Italian males had won life’s lottery, but no longer. If I ever decide to lead a good and productive life, and upon my death God asks me what I want to be reincarnated as, I will tell him, “A wealthy Carioca, preferably a footballer.”