Back in 2011, if you were in Istanbul and wanted a night of forró dancing, you were out of luck. I lived near Taksim for a few months; it was tragic, I had to dance salsa instead.
Then, in 2014, a couple of really dedicated amateurs started gathering with friends to watch videos and teach each other whatever they knew. They went to festivals elsewhere in Europe. They organized parties. They invited teachers to come visit Istanbul and give workshops. The friends brought in their friends. And now, just nine months since they started, the parties and workshops regularly draw more than 50 passionate forrozeiros. (Update November 2018: I attended the weekly Sunday gathering in a bar in Istanbul, there is still a nice crew of expert and learning dancers.)
Despite its rapid growth, Istanbul’s forró scene is still in its infancy; major cities in Europe hold forró events nearly every night (just see the worldwide forró listings) and many of these can draw in hundreds of dancers — not bad for a dance that doesn’t have the trumpeted history, media presence, or name-recognition of salsa, tango, and swing.
Forró continues to the grow rapidly in popularity in part because of how ridiculously passionate it is, and other advantages it has over other couples dances. But there are plenty of challenges too; it’s hard to get a forró community going from scratch.
I wanted to find out exactly how such communities get started, in practical terms, from the people most involved in growing them from scratch. I spoke with Bengü Gün and Murat Ünsal in Istanbul, Terra Pasqualini in Stuttgart, Marion Lima in Paris, Juliana Braga in Amsterdam, and Aleksei Kirillov in Saint Petersburg — the goal was to get a mix of advice from communities that grew in a variety of ways and are currently at different stages.
Sparking Forró Communities: First Steps
Istanbul is my most clean-cut example of what can happen in a place with no experience of the dance — and no real Brazilian community to speak of — when two people with enthusiasm and dedication make an effort to make something happen. I asked Bengü and Murat to explain how all this happened.
Bengü: We were introduced to each other by a friend who knew that we were both interested in Brazilian culture, music and dance. We started dancing, just the two of us, then rented out space in a dance school to dance and teach forró every two weeks. We invited our immediate circle of friends in the beginning, which then grew bigger, with our friends inviting their friends. We tried to approach Brazilians living in Istanbul, people who are interested in Brazilian culture, like capoeristas, a Portuguese language group, and so on. Unfortunately, there are not too many Brazilians living in İstanbul.
The biggest disadvantage was that everyone in the class was at a basic level, and we needed intermediate or advanced dancers to practice with the beginners. We were lucky that forró lovers traveling to Istanbul found us through our Facebook page and joined our classes and parties.
The groups in Saint Petersburg and Stuttgart faced challenges that were similar to Istanbul’s, but the spark of both of those cities’ forró scenes was lit by existing capoeira groups.
Aleksei (Saint Petersburg): We started out with parties for my capoeira school, then expanded through watching videos and going to festivals. Now capoeirstas are only about 5% of the total in the forró classes.
Terra (Stuttgart): In our case, most of the group’s base came out of a capoeira group that I had built up and from which great friendships had been forged. It’s worth emphasizing it wasn’t from “the [Brazilian] community”; both forró and capoeira are not well attended by Brazilians here. We’ve always been working with locals. The Brazilians who are involved are just a small minority.
In contrast, there is a sizable and active Brazilian community in Paris, and when Marion started out with forró there were already some classes, and even a forró band playing regular concerts. This gave her a great base to build from; the challenge was more one of finding her place in this world and helping it expand.
Finally, there’s our true pioneer in bringing Brazilian dance to Europe; I asked her how forró came to Amsterdam.
Juliana: I have to laugh, as I feel a bit old! I arrived in Europe in 1988 while on tour with a contemporary dance company from Belo Horizonte. And I stayed, a result of dreams, destiny, and work. I gave gafieira classes (in those days, gafieira included everything: samba, bolero, forró, and soltinho) and in Europe nobody know what that was. I started training dancers in Brazilian ballroom dances so that I wouldn’t die of saudades [intense, sweet nostalgia], and now it’s been more than 25 years.
First and Foremost: Patience, Patience…
Marion (Paris): In the beginning, we had dance nights that consisted of two hours of setup, two hours of the actual dance attended by just ten people (of whom five were our volunteers), and two hours of cleanup. You have to be very patient, and you have to have people who are willing to participate in the thing, even when there are failures.
Bengü (Istanbul): Our biggest problem was finding space to give regular classes. Most of the dance schools already had busy schedules and the time slots that they offered us were not ideal. We have found a solution for now.
Terra (Stuttgart): Whether it’s for our parties or for the festival, it’s never easy to get a good, cheap central location — though we do always pull through. My advice? Have a brother who works in bars! … I’m afraid I really don’t have good advice, it’s always difficult. One thing we do during parties is try to make people aware that they should buy more from the bar if they want to continue to be able to use the space. Making the public feel responsible for what happens in the party actually helps in various ways.
Bengü (Istanbul): In the beginning, due to our busy schedules, we held classes every other week. We should have started regular weekly courses way before. We have been looking for a professional forró teacher since we have first started and that’s something we’re still lacking. We try to overcome this issue by inviting teachers from Europe and holding special workshops.
Ongoing Learning, Including for Teachers
Marion (Paris): Some people go to two forró festivals and then declare themselves dance teachers. I understand, I first started in a similar way myself, but I also kept going to Brazil to learn more. You have to keep training yourself and forming partnerships. People need to keep investing in themselves and in the dance.
Turkey and Russia remain on the outer reaches of Europe’s forró universe; this brings its own challenges.
Aleksei (Saint Petersburg): It’s difficult to bring in bands or teachers from Europe and Brazil, and so far doing so has brought in no profit. The main reason for this is the relatively high cost of tickets between Russia and Europe. Russians also face currency challenges due to the enormous fluctuations in the exchange rate.
Don’t Go It Alone
Most of those interviewed brought up the importance of having a tight, passionate team; Terra had the most to say on this issue.
Terra (Stuttgart): Look for people who are already putting together similar things in your city. Find people who already have something going, so that forró can work with that and compliment the city’s cultural offerings that already exist. This lays the groundwork for what you’re doing, making it an added value, instead of something that you just enjoy without contributing anything.
Also, I would suggest starting out small with house parties with friends in order to get people having fun and infected with the dance virus. Then you can have a core group of trusted people, which is the whole key to success.
As with any other circumstance in life, it’s important to always be a trustworthy partner, whether it’s in terms of relationships with students, other dance instructors, or the owners of the spaces where you hold your events. A partnership should be either win-win, or else no deal. If the parties don’t reach an agreement that will truly benefit both of them, the only sustainable solution is to forgo the deal.
Jealousies and Conflicts Between Dance Groups
I have yet to encounter a decent-sized dance community functioning anywhere, in any dance, that didn’t have a certain level of conflict between dance instructors, and even between their separate camps of followers. Why there’s such a strong tendency to divide off like this in the dance world is beyond me.
Certainly some instructors do compete for students. Viewing potential clients as a limited pool to be divided up is a zero-sum game that of course results in all kinds of counter-productive behaviors; instructors would ultimately be better off if they worked together to grow their cities’ dance communities as a whole (by promoting each others’ parties to their classes, attending each others’ events, and finding ways that their different skill sets and styles can compliment each other).
That’s my opinion, anyhow, as an avid, wandering amateur; I didn’t get into the issue with dance instructors.
Popular Prejudices in Dance
Aleksei (Saint Petersburg): There are is a Russian mentality that discourages guys from coming; they feel that dances are only for girls. Other Russians think that the partners dance too close in forró, or that they can dance forró with any other style of music.
Marion (Paris): There is a challenge of being female, and French, as opposed to being a Brazilian guy. There’s an assumption from some that I’m taking away their jobs, or that I’m not qualified. In forró the guys tend to be well-known, and the girls are less well-known and in supporting roles.”
I’ve heard these assumptions too. They run from sexist to xenophobic to racist, also including “Brazilians just have it in their DNA” and “white people can’t move their hips”. Yes, certain cultures encourage people to dance from a young age, and people living in them may have an advantage.
Or not. So many Brazilians are terrible dancers or don’t even dare try, and the dance scenes in European cities show just how much Europeans have done with and added to forró once they got their hands on it.
Of course, the dance itself is almost always taught with sexist and heteronormative roles; women are encouraged to take the follower role and men to be the leads. The good news is that, while one member of a pair does need to lead, it’s relatively easy to learn to switch roles in forró.
Bengü (Istanbul): A Facebook page, a website and a Meetup account are great ways to reach people. Take videos and photos of the courses and parties in order to raise awareness of the new dance. People won’t attend a course or a party if they don’t know what it is about. Show them what it is like, and try to select the most exciting videos.
Marion (Paris): Over the years I learned that through this you become a bit of a public figure, and you have to be ready for the inevitable attacks, jealousy, etc. At the beginning, I suffered a bit and wasted time with that. … You have to keep advancing.
Further suggestions on forming dance communities in new cities are welcome in the comments.