Dance in Honour of the Gods

candomble-13Candomble (which means what the title says) is a syncretic religion of African origin that is popular in Brazil. It was brought with people from Africa who were forced into the slave trade and is still widely practiced, particularly in the north. While I was in Salvador, home to generations of people who had descended from slaves, and where there are many devotees of this religion, I had the opportunity to attend a ceremony. A fellow traveler organized for us to meet his Brazilian tour guide who practiced the religion and would be able to take us off the beaten path, so to speak, to attend a ceremony.

And so one warm, dark night we met this woman in a ‘safe’ area on a pitch black street where we kept tripping over upturned cobblestones and the protruding roots of trees that were colonizing the pavement. As is tradition, we were all dressed in white and our guide, a beautiful and voluptuous woman who was a Brazilian of African and Japanese descent, spoke perfect English (after a high school year abroad in the U.S. = Rich Brazilian) and introduced us to her friend, a small woman who was carrying her adorable 6 month old baby girl. We drove around winding hills, past the juxtaposed colonial mansions and rusting shacks until we arrived in a favela. Looking around, it reminded me of the song ‘little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky…’ It was so peaceful. No gangs. No guns. Just people enjoying their evening with friends and family. Dogs and children wandered about. Although it was dark, we could see specks of light coming from the layers and mazes of houses that stretched out far below us.

We walked into the temple, which was unremarkable from the outside. Inside, we sat in a large, square room where there were about 50 other people seated around who would both watch and participate in the ceremony. I was surprised to find signs in English that read ‘Do not take photos or videos.’ I was also surprised to see some very white-faced, blond-haired people inside – tourists like us. Not so off the beaten path then.

Witnessing exotic religious ceremonies like the one we attended is like crack to an anthropologist. Indeed the hours we spent there watching the worshipers dance around in circles in their elaborate white costumes and enter into a trance were were both fascinating and mesmerizing as they attempted to become possessed by their personal deities. At its most simple, it could be described as some people dancing around and around to the sound of beating drums. However, a candomble ceremony is very complex and intricate, with a lot of different components playing out at the same time. Many of the components  are not perceptible, or easily understood to a newcomer. More information about the origin and beliefs of the religion can be found here.

I was also interested in watching those who were watching the ceremony. So during the parts I deemed to be repetitive, I would look around and take in the body language (and bodies – why are Brazilians so beautiful?) of those sitting around the room. The gaggle of tourists off to my left seemed at first to be intrigued which then segued into confusion and then, after the first two hours, disinterest. Most of the Brazilians, however, were deeply immersed in the experience and were genuinely moved by the music and dance. I just could not fathom how something like this could happen in New Zealand which feels like a spiritual desert in comparison to Brazil’s lush rainforest of religions and spiritual traditions.

Before and during the ceremony, our guide warned us that we might start to feel dizzy or even go into a trance ourselves, depending on how sensitive or open we were to the energies that were being evoked. At times, she herself became a bit woozy and started to push the energy away with her hands. I didn’t feel anything and may have even stifled a yawn or two near the end. But later, lying in bed, I felt like my nervous system was overstimulated while simultaneously feeling drained. It was hard to fall asleep, but eventually I did, feeling grateful for having witnessed something so beautiful and sacred, for being able to experience a culture and religion so different from my own.