Dubbing samba the “movement of resistance,” Ana Laidley, creative director of the professional group Samba N’ Motion, rejects stereotypes of Brazilian culture through the steps she choreographs. For Laidley, samba dance and music serve as a translator of Brazil’s rich history and often misunderstood culture.
“Unfortunately, we have this image of always happy Brazilian women in bikinis and feathers, but if you look at the history of Brazil, it’s really sad,” Laidley said. “We keep going, but it hasn’t always been happy and fun, and that’s what I try to convey through dance.”
As part of the Fowler Museum at UCLA’s Summer Concerts on the Green, Samba N’ Motion will take the stage at the UCLA Art Council Amphitheater on Sunday. The performance of contemporary and traditional samba will be accompanied by Laidley’s musical troupe, Bola da Vez.
Samba N’ Motion’s performance will stitch together several historical and culturally significant events in Brazil through specific choreography and costumes. Re-enacting religious processions and Carnival, a major annual Lent celebration, the show will share the contrastingly religious and secular dichotomy of Brazilian culture, reflecting the exhibition currently featured at the Fowler Museum, “Sinful Saints and Saintly Sinners at the Margins of the Americas.”
“We have a very contradictory culture,” Laidley said. “We are very religious but we have this image of fun and drinking.”
The performance will also incorporate other facets of traditional Brazilian culture, such as capoeira – a Brazilian martial art, and the origin of samba.
Laidley, who has been teaching traditional and contemporary samba to adults throughout California for more than 20 years, formed Samba N’ Motion in 2006 after several requests from her students in her Los Angeles-based studio. Valuing samba’s storytelling ability, Laidley said she was disillusioned by the focus on sensuality rather than the “heart” she observed in other contemporary samba groups. Also intrigued by her studies of men and samba in the ’50s, she decided to create and dance in Samba N’ Motion.
“In the ’50s, many men were studying samba because they could run and do tricks. It made me think; I didn’t have bikinis or feathers, but I could dance as a man,” Laidley said. “Only at the end of performances would I reveal that I was woman.”
The group, which Laidley no longer performs with, has transformed to include both male and female professional dancers whom she has recruited from her classes in the last eight years. Many of the group members came to her with no prior dance experience and only basic exposure to Brazilian culture.
“They’ve really connected with the culture. They’ve started from zero, not really knowing samba, to becoming really involved in dancing and choreographing today,” Laidley said. “There are several professionals in the group that dance with several groups, but they all started with me.”
The troupe, which is composed of about 10 professional dancers, has been performing for eight years in arenas all over the world, from the Brasil Brasil Cultural Center in Culver City to venues in Australia and Japan.
For Quisha Walker, a dancer in Samba N’ Motion, professional dancing was an unexpected turn in career path that began through taking Laidley’s class as a hobby.
“I didn’t really think about dancing professionally. I just liked the class because it wasn’t too technique-based, so you could bring your individuality to it,” Walker said. “One day (Laidley) said, ‘You need to start dancing.’ So it went from becoming a hobby to becoming a full-time thing.”
Walker said dancing to live music performed by Bola da Vez brings a new kind of energy to the show.
Bola da Vez, which was recently formed by Laidley, will also play classic and contemporary Brazilian music and use traditional instruments, such as the cavaquinho – similar to a ukulele – and the pandeiro, a tambourine-like instrument.
“There are so many other bands here, and everyone says they play Brazilian. We decided that now is our turn to show people,” Laidley said. “And that is what Bola da Vez means: It’s your turn.”
The troupe is set up in a traditional Brazilian format that is percussion-centric and somewhat unfamiliar to mainstream American culture, said Ryan Knudsen, a percussionist in the ensemble.
“I like to say it’s a style of music that you can’t not dance to,” Knudsen said. “In American culture, you can sit in an auditorium and listen to music. But here, dancing is your applause.”