Samba school dancers: The strength and self-esteem of black women

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Note from BW of Brazil: You’ll all seen them. Even if you don’t know their exact title, you’ve seen these women and they’re most likely the symbols of Carnaval that most people think of most when Brazilian Carnaval comes to mind. We are speaking of the passista, the frenetically gyrating samba dancer that one sees during the Carnaval procession, usually some shade of brown skin, in high heels and attention grabbing outfit that sometimes features, feathers and glitter. In the book Carnaval!, Econ, Ivanov and Rector defined the passista as “one who dances the samba as a member of an escola de samba, or samba school. The difference between a ‘passista’ and a ‘sambista’ is that the ‘passista’ is an outstanding dancer, performing special steps.” A lot more could be written about the history of these dancers and their roles and importance in the history of various samba schools, but today’s article has a very specific purpose. 

Carnaval time in here and as such, this is the time of year when these women will have their time in spotlight to show off all of the work they’ve put in preparing for the big show since the last Carnaval. As numerous articles on this blog will attest, the symbol of the passista is a bit of a bitter pill to swallow for many black Brazilian women activists. The passista puts in work, is very talented, usually very beautiful and usually a black woman. As such, these women deserve the respect of any woman who dedicates herself to her craft. But the other side of the coin is the fact that, die to Brazil’s ultra-Eurocentric, racist media and society, the few weeks of Carnaval rehearsals and about four days at center stage is all black women get in the spotlight before they’re pushed to side in favor of the blondes and brunettes that Brazil’s media prefers for the rest of the year.

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Another detail to consider is that, as Brazilian society has long defined the Afro-Brazilian woman according to her perceived sexual attributes and performance, the image of scores of negras and mulatas to TV screens around the world also brings a type of attention, that of the male gaze, that many in black and feminists movements would prefer didn’t exist. Yes, these women should be respected for their crafts, but the fact is, nearly naked gyrating female flesh, particularly of the brown-skinned variety, continuously cements the connection between African ancestry and sexuality in the imaginations of millions testosterone-charged males around the world. Brazil’s media seems to live to continue this representation of the black woman as we’ve seen with the recent controversy surrounding the TV series Sexo e as negas and the Globeleza figure whose commercial broadcast several times per day on Globo TV signals that its Carnaval times once again!

Recently, numerous black women activists have posted articles online expressing their concerns with the what these images represent and how they affect the lives of black Brazilian women throughout the year, everyday, year after year. But is there another side to the story? Can there possibly be a side of this story that represents struggle, empowerment, history and positivity for these women? In a thought-provoking piece below, Monique Britto Eleotério makes this argument and speaks with pride for the passista whose voice is rarely heard.

Female Carnaval dancers: strength and self-esteem of black women

I have thought a lot about the meaning of being a passista (Carnaval dancer). For some extraordinary reason people are extremely surprised when they find out I’m a samba school passista. But only people who know me in academic areas, of work or militancy, in other words, people who see me express my political views and positions. For these people, as much as they don’t say it, being a passista goes against all these positions. For these people being a passista is very little or is inappropriate for those who “have consciousness”.

by Monique Britto Eleotério

Passistas femininas - resistência e autoestima da mulher negra

Being a passista in the thought of these people is to correspond to a sexualized stereotype of black women, it is to encourage the sexual thought of foreign tourists, it is to show and sell yourself. And that is a great and serious mistake.

The passistas came about within the culture of the samba schools as the recognition of the women of the community who best represented the samba dance. These women basically have the function of defending the flag of their school and winning the sympathy and admiration of the public. Representing the flag of a school means representing an entire community, a region and the work of many, many people. And we do this through our dance and our bodies. One must remember that in Brazil the conceptions we have of body and clothing are informed by predominantly European values. In other words, our habits and customs were the result of “mixture” of black, indigenous and white culture, but it was the white values that moralized this construction, by an obvious question of domination. So today, even in a 40° (Celsius, 104° Fahrenheit) heat we wear long pants and sleeved shirts in so that we are “social” is by the European morality imposed on us. If today we have dances such as ballet considered as classical and funk and its discriminated movements, we thank this morality that ranks as classic and cult that which comes from the white culture and as inappropriate and inferior that which comes from black culture.

Criminalization and the degradation of black culture have always been present: the samba which is today exalted, has already been marginalized and criminalized. The issue is that the resistance of popular cultural manifestations makes that the ruling class, seeing that you cannot destroy them, continue to go on appropriating them. And this happened with samba and its symbols. And when there is such appropriation another strategy used is the emptying of the meanings of the elements of cultures. That is, it attempts to distort actual representations that those elements have to that community, thus seeking to take its revolutionary potential.

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The samba school passistas have a revolutionary potential: against racism and sexism as well. Being a passista is the high point in the self-esteem of many black girls and women, often time the only. It’s the moment that we black women assume our post (right) of reference and pride for our community. It is the time when our younger girls look at themselves and see themselves to construct their femininity. It is the moment when our men recognize our beauty. Being a passista is a space of resistance of the black woman.

I understand and agree when Lélia Gonzalez says the parades of the samba schools are a time to update the myth of racial democracy, because we become princesses for four days and then came back to the stereotype of the domestic. They act as a safety valve for social tensions. But we know that it was not us black men and women, our habits and traditions that created this myth. Racism through the myth of racial democracy appropriates certain cultural aspects to say that there is equality. Besides this, what you need to understand is that one is not also a passista for four days and not from December to February. Whoever is a passista, is a passista 365 days a year. Being a passista is not a simple activity that develops, is a reality of life. The body, the mind and the feelings of a passista are particular of a passista. The dedication, relationships, work, study, all of our life at some point and in some way are connected to this art that we carry. And it’s pride of this art which often sustains and strengthens us to fight the violence of an unequal society. It is the pride of this art that makes it that as much as they try to make us to look at the ground and that we are subordinates, we continue looking up, facing prejudice and cultivating our inner royalty.

It is very difficult for a passista to live off her samba financially. But even on a small scale to be a passista promotes changes in the lives of black girls and women. A simple presentation may cause a black girl of the community to circulate for new spaces in the city and we know that overcoming these limitations that the precariousness of transport and security impose on us it’s a most important step. Belonging to a group also promotes major changes, as it’s been proven in adolescence that black women suffer greatly from the difficulty of insertion and acceptance in social groups and have more self-esteem problems. Participating in a safe, collective environment and the exchange of knowledge in a pleasurable experience is also a differentiated opportunity for young and black women that, we know well, generally do not have access to the vast majority of cultural activities of the city. In other words, being a passista brings opportunities and empowering experiences for the black woman.

About sensuality, well, we must understand that one of the characteristics of this patriarchal society is to punish and judge women who have their bodies and their beauty as they want. The use of sensuality is condemned; the freedom to express it is punished violently. The moralist/Christian thought that permeates the foundations of the social imaginary demonizes sensuality and sexuality. Black women were sexualized, their bodies animalized, their postures and gesture characteristics ridiculed. But this is an external process to us and it’s also part of that story up there of the appropriating of a particular culture and emptying its symbols. At this point a very important strategy of resistance is not thinking our bodies, our sensuality and our sexuality from moralists Eurocentric principles. Criminalized and demonized, especially by the Christian faith, beauty, sensuality and sexuality in this patriarchal society should only be used for the satisfaction of men or in the construction of accepted social institutions (marriage, childbearing). However using beauty and sensuality has always taught us through the Itans da Yabás as a memorable and effective strategy to fight, besides being respected characteristics, considered essential blessings for the construction and the balance of the world.

Again, being a passista is an act of resistance of black women. It’s a way to maintain ourselves in the spaces of our culture and appropriate the opportunities that they offer today. It is a way to fight so that the real meaning of being a passista is not lost. It is a way of going against everything and everyone that say that we have any right over our body, that our art is not classic, and that our culture is not appropriate. It is a way of thinking about our black girls and their glances of admiration and our older black women and their looks of longing and fulfillment.

I pray sincerely and from the heart that we never give up on passing our message, how WE feel, how we learn, how we live. In the way that WE inherited it. However much the TVs and newspapers interpret and deconstruct it. However much foreigners “mix it up”, however much our own men rebuke it. I ask that we keep our pride in being black women, representing black culture, waving the flag of blacks and the poor.

The myth of racial democracy makes for the society, that we have “four days” as queens. And we must not give them up. What we need is to shove down the throats of our society our crowns and robes in the other 361 days of the year, with not a single step back.

Source: Portal Geledés

About Marques Travae 3747 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.


  1. and I keep reading on this site where they don’t want the sistas of brazil to be looked at as objects of sex,well you can forget about that! ive never been to brazil but im guessing ill make my way south soon enuff but someone needs to give me a true definition of what carnival is/its meaning/and where it came from.

  2. Loved this, I have recently started Samba and joined a school. It’s so important to recognise that being a passista is much bigger than just dancing or parading around in fancy costumes. It is about keeping a culture alive.

  3. This is an AMAZING article! The only thing that is inaccurate is that the you said the Christian faith criminalizes your culture/beliefs/race. I’m a Christian in a very traditional community. I’m a bellydancer and samba dancer and everyone in my church and family fully support both of the art forms. If you’ve met a Christian who disagreed, then they must not be a real follower of Christ. Email me if you ever want to discuss it!

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