I’ve heard people call the 24th of July “Mormon Mardi Gras,” but other than being a big parade it’s not that much like the one in New Orleans. The 2012 Days of ’47 theme is “Pioneers—Building on the Dream,” bound to generate a parade of sunbonneted women in modest gingham dresses and beauty queens in white prom attire who look like they are heading first to the altar and then to the Celestial Kingdom.
Catholic Mardi Gras is a different ball of wax. It’s the last hurrah before Lent, those 40 days before Easter when good Christians are supposed to be even better to prepare for all that good behavior, you have to pack enough fun into a single day to last for over a month, and that’s what Carnival is all about.
Mardi Gras is on February 21 this year, so mark your calendar! The largest Carnival celebration in the world takes place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where fabulous Samba queens parade through the streets in bikinis that range from teeny-weeny to practically invisible on towering high heels, clad in glittering beads and fluttering ostrich feathers, leading fantastically costumed samba-school drum bands.
Like the United States, Brazil historically suffered the curse of slavery but also gained the blessing of African cultural influences. Samba music, drumming and dancing comes directly from African traditions, and nowadays Samba is an ingrained part of Brazilian cultural identity. Lorin Hansen, artistic director of the Brazilian dance company Samba Fogo in Salt Lake City explains, “You have Samba schools that are large organizations of drummers and dancers. They spend all year gearing up for the next Carnival with new costumes and floats. Each year they have a song and a theme. Every school has a queen at the very front of the parade, and she’s the best dancer at the school that year. It’s an old tradition, and it’s a big deal to become a queen.
The word fogo means “fire” in Portuguese. Hansen, who despite her enthusiasm for Samba is not from Brazil, says the name came from the fact that before she learned Samba she performed with fire. “I started as a fire dancer and then found modern dance at the University of Utah, and then discovered Brazilian dance and folded it together in one big show. And it’s working.”
It takes self-loving confidence to get out there and perform. “We call it a celebration of self, and we emphasize that in our dance classes,” she says.
Samba Fogo doesn’t have a Mardi Gras gig this year (they are busy moving), but you can see them perform in the Ring Around the Rose children’s series on February 11. If you want to be a Samba queen yourself, you can enter a competition/fundraiser on March 10. The contest is open to anyone. “You get two minutes with the band and choreograph a little solo for yourself,” says Hansen. “We invite people from the Brazilian community and dance community to be on the judging panel. We are going to invite Mayor Corroon, too.”
And what if you want, but don’t happen to own, a jeweled bikini and a set of ostrich plumes? No problem. Samba Fogo has outfits to rent for $50/night, a real bargain compared to the thousands of dollars it might cost to purchase.
It takes more than a costume to win, however. You have to be the best dancer, and you can practice at Samba Fogo’s Thursday night dance lessons. Hansen encourages newcomers to give it a try. “It’s open to all levels,” she says, “ We get people from all different backgrounds. It’s a welcoming, nurturing community, and you can come and dance your butt off.”
Samba Fogo is also looking for percussionists, especially experienced drummers. “We’ve had so much growth, and we want to expand our program but we need more experienced drummers to come and play with us and get excited about Samba and spread the word, ” says Hansen, adding, “We are willing to train.”
So maybe Salt Lake City could learn something from Brazil: If you want to have Carnival-level fun, you have to put some real effort into it. Frankly, I’m hoping to see some Samba queens dancing in the Days of 47 Parade one of these days. u
• CLASS: Afro-Brazilian—Thursdays, 6:30-8 pm, SLC Arts Hub, 663 West 100 South
• CONCERT: Samba Fogo at Ring Around the Rose concert for kids; Feb 11, 11 am, Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, 138 W Broadway. rdtutah.org/forkids.html
• CONTEST: Samba Queen Contest. March 10. SugarSpace
• FESTIVAL: Utah Brazilian Festival, March 2012 (TBA): utahbrazilianfestival.com
Amy Brunvand is a librarian at the University of Utah and a dance enthusiast.