Frevo: A Reflection on Dances of Resistance during Times of Protest
The first time I saw frevo, I was struck by its joy. Dancers wear colorful costumes and hold tiny umbrellas, called sombrinhas, that they spin and toss into the air while performing intricate footwork and astonishing leaps and squats. The music is as effervescent as the dance—the bright sound of trumpets, trombones, and horns is propelled by driving percussion.
Each year, frevo is the main draw at carnival street parades in Recife and Olinda in the northeastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco. Frevo dance, commonly referred to as o passo (“the step”), appears to be the pure embodiment of joy.
Frevo is a performance of Pernambucan regional pride that has, in many ways, become commodified in recent years. During carnival, frevo and its iconic sombrinhas are everywhere, from advertisements for food products to performances in shopping malls and at Recife’s international airport. Frevo has a narrative of inclusivity: “Você e eu no frevo” (“You and I in frevo”), a slogan printed on T-shirts and other products that maintains that frevo is for everyone. In classes and on the streets of carnival, the overwhelming sentiment is one of “difference in unity”: anyone of any age, gender, social class, race, or physical ability can dance frevo.
Shortly after I was introduced to frevo, I learned that its origins lie in the Brazilian martial art of capoeira. Capoeira is often described as a “fight disguised as a dance”—a dance of resistance developed by enslaved Africans in Brazil that is known for its ancestral ties to Africa and has more recently become a global dance phenomenon. Having practiced capoeira here in Washington, D.C., I was surprised to learn that there was a connection between this beautiful, yet often aggressive, martial art and the ebullient dance of celebration that is frevo.
What does it mean to be a dance of resistance? How is dance protest? How can we examine these practices more deeply to find out what connects them in a spirit of resistance?
I went to Recife in 2018 to find out. For six months, I conducted ethnographic research that included attendance at pre-carnival parties, street carnival parades, classes in frevo, capoeira, and other regional dances with various groups, and other events like lectures, concerts, and exhibitions. One of my main concerns while living in the huge city of Recife was safety; as a white American woman unfamiliar with the culture and just learning Portuguese, I had much to learn and many challenges to navigate. I became acutely aware of issues of violence and safety in the city.
Over the past hundred years, frevo has developed against a backdrop of aggression and violence. It emerged at the turn of the twentieth century, just after slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888. In Recife, elite, middle-class, working-class, and marginalized-class boundaries were reconfigured. Carnival—the annual three-day period of revelry before Lent—was a time for people from all social classes to mix in the streets. Military bands, frevo clubs comprised of working-class laborers, and troças, or unruly mobs of people from poor communities, took to the streets to drink, play music, and dance.
This is where frevo’s capoeira origins come into play: at the turn of the century, military bands hired capoeira fighters to protect against rival groups, and frevo developed from the early techniques of these fighters. These rivalries often turned violent, and the tradition of ritualized aggression between gangs and foliões, or street revelers, in Recife’s carnival continues today.
As my frevo dance teachers in Recife and Olinda explained to me, capoeira fighters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would aggressively kick and throw punches at each other until the police arrived, at which point their movements became more playful and subdued, in order to avoid being imprisoned (as capoeira was outlawed from 1890 until the 1930s). In this way, frevo can be seen as a disguise of the disguise that is capoeira. Some frevo groups insist on representing this history by wearing ordinary clothes, rather than more mainstream colorful carnival costumes, and they incorporate more aggressive movements and even games of capoeira into their dance. In this way, these dancers bring the focus back to o povo, or the working class and subaltern peoples who created frevo over a hundred years ago.
I saw carnival’s frenetic aggression play out in the streets of Recife and Olinda. People would be happily dancing alongside the parades, but things could quickly turn violent. It is easy to dismiss this violence as not being in the true spirit of carnival, but a fellow capoeirista (capoeira practitioner) encouraged me to recognize that the history of carnival is indeed violent. We cannot forget, or “whitewash,” the history of resistance from which frevo emerges. It became clear to me that, in this rowdy environment, that frevo is the sweaty, vigorous, breathless embodiment of resistance. But I still wondered: how?
I took classes with various frevo groups, all of whom have different approaches and teaching methodologies. But they all discussed a concept called munganga. Munganga, sometimes also spelled muganga, is what a dancer employs when they trip, fall, lose energy, or otherwise mess up, but they manage to flow right into another movement so that the accident looks intentional. Munganga is an improvisational practice that requires deep knowledge of the dance, expert musicality, and the ability to switch gears in the moment. Frevo practitioners use the word munganga to resist negative connotations of the Portuguese word improviso (“improvisation”), which suggests something that is done without technique or rigor, a concept that is rooted in racist notions that improvisational African and African-derived practices come “naturally” and do not require years of study and training.
On a societal level, having munganga means embodying the potential of frevo to resist social injustice and to empower social negotiation in difficult circumstances. If one can use their improvisational experience and embodied knowledge to navigate a frevo solo, then they can use that same munganga to navigate the unpredictability of carnival, as well as the unpredictability and violence of an unjust society at large.
Recently, I have been thinking about resistance and the role of dance in light of the current protests against racial injustice and for racial solidarity. Much has been said about the role of violence in these movements. We can think about resistance as both overt protest and covert expressions of shared beliefs and value. Often, dance, music, and culture fall into the latter category as non-violent strategies for community building, but we cannot forget the violence and suffering from which these cultural traditions emerge.
We turn to dance and music because they offer kinesthetic knowledge that cannot be verbalized. Marginalized or oppressed communities find healing in cultural practices during challenging times such as these, as these bomba and capoeira practitioners described in a recent Story Circle discussion for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Dance and music create ritual spaces for communal memory, shared histories, and ancestral ties.
At the same time, as we learn from frevo, dances of joy are also dances of resistance. We see smiles and gleeful movements, but a history of violence is embedded in the tradition. As my capoeirista friend from Recife said, we cannot forget that. We cannot whitewash it. Dance is not just what we see on stage, and it is not just for entertainment. People dance to forget their troubles, and they dance to remember why they fight.
Kate Spanos, PhD, is a dancer and dance scholar specializing in studies of dance, music, and festival in Brazil, the Eastern Caribbean, and Ireland. In her research, she examines kinesthetic strategies involved in “dances of resistance” from cultures around the world. She conducted research on frevo in Recife, Brazil, as a postdoctoral Fulbright U.S. Scholar.