From Tough to Inspiring – Dancing in Honour of the Gods

The streets of Salvador, Brazil, are narrow and difficult to negotiate at the best of times (often it involves facing an on-coming car and backing up for a few blocks). On Saturday night it’s worse. There are people everywhere, carrying glasses of beer in plastic cups, herding about on the sidewalks, on the roads, unconfined by any bar or restaurant. They’ve taken over the streets.
Luke picks me up to go to the ceremony. He is wearing ordinary street clothes, a sweatshirt and kaki pants. Around his neck is a long string of large beads which declare his status as a member of the candomblé.
Candomblé means “a dance in honour of the gods.” He explains that the religion originated in Africa and was developed in Brazil in the 1500’s, when thousands of slaves were brought to work in the sugar industry. For years, the candomblé was exclusively practiced by women, and men were not allowed to participate. The basis of the religion is spirit possession. Remarkably, concepts of good and evil have no part in the beliefs; rather, each person has their own destiny to fulfil. And, as Ruth Landes notes, “their gods love a certain amount of trouble.”*
Fittingly, Luke says, “I’m attracted to all religions. I can’t help it. I just wish they wouldn’t fight.”
We pick up Lisa in front of the catholic church.Building in Bahia

Our route takes us away from the crowds and into dark and serpentine streets. We park in a cul-de-sac, walk half a block, and then descend between cinder block buildings. A plastic bag is animated by the wind and flutters ahead of us.

Along the steep alley-way, children are leaning out between the bars of tall iron fences. They are looking at us and they are looking down towards the bottom of the street.
In one enclosure there’s a doll, four feet high, with chocolate dark skin and bulging eyes, as though frightened by what it is seeing. The doll is dressed as a candomblé dancer, its skirts billowed by crinolines.
We’re entering an underworld.
I think of Rilke’s “Orpheus, Euridice and Hermes”: “That was the deep uncanny mine of souls… Like veins of silver ore, they silently moved through its massive darkness.”
Except we are not silent. Lisa is in the lead, occasionally erupting in inexplicable laughter.
For me, superimposed on the sight of Lisa is the presence of that room which is her home. [See previous Catch]
More children peer out from between iron bars as we descend. They live along this alley-way, the avenue to a place where the gods can enter a dancer’s body.
Finally we are at the bottom. In an open courtyard people are sitting on chairs, drinking beer and smoking. Women are cooking food over charcoal grills.
Although we are two hours late, Luke speaks to someone and then tells me that the ceremony hasn’t started yet. Spirit is always late, I think.
We pass through a corridor of people standing on either side of a doorway, and enter the terreiro, the cult centre. It’s a large rectangular room, perhaps 35’ x 40’. There are wooden benches around the periphery of the space, the women on the right, the men on the left. All the places are occupied by people sitting still, quietly waiting. At the centre of the room is a round structure, almost like a small bandstand, decorated with large shimmering swaths of blue and yellow fabric fashioned into a bow at the top and then flowing down to the ground. The cloth half covers two large dolls, both with bulging terrified eyes. In a corner there is another array of offerings on a stand: more dolls, a bottle of champagne, I don’t know what all.
Against one of the walls are three drums of different sizes.Candomblé drums
Luke says he is going to sit with the men, and directs me to the women’s side of the room. Lisa has found a small space on a bench for me, and, somewhat reluctantly, I sit down. She stands behind me. I’m the only gringa in the room.
A man comes through the cloth covering a doorway on the wall opposite me. He is wearing what might be, if you were to design such a thing, pyjamas for a prison inmate. They are square and baggy with wide blue and white stripes. His body is large and egg-shaped; he’s perhaps thirty-five years old, and he has a mincing swish in the way he walks, in the way he kisses the hands of the men and women he greets. He is the queen. We are his subjects.
Then another man is there, in pyjamas of the same cut but with a floral design. He is even taller and larger than the inmate, and has similar Truman Capote affectations, although slightly grander.
This is a liminal space at the entrance to many worlds. Ambiguities of all sorts find a purchase here.
A procession now comes into the room, men and woman dressed mostly in white. People clap, just a little, and everyone stands. The drums start, and the dancers form into two circles, an inner one and an outer one, moving around the central stand. They strike me as being on a divine merry go round, each dressed so differently, because they are dressed for their gods. And there are many gods.
As I look at the feet of the dancers, I am conscious of my own. I am wearing red shoes, like desert boots; my toes are curled inside, as though I am gripping onto a branch.
In the next Catch, I’ll describe what happened when I let go of that tentative grip.

*Landes (1908-1991) was in Salvador, Brazil, in the late 1930s, studying the candomblé. Her work was eventually published as The City of Women. She was mentored by Ruth Benedict and Franz Boas, her teachers.