Dancing into Brazil's African Spirit

Lizi Martin ’08, studied Afro-Brazilian dance for five years, but it wasn’t until this past January, when she traveled to Brazil, that her understanding really took off.

dancer silhouettes and golden sunset

Martin spent six months immersed in the culture, dance and arts of African-Brazilians. With the Council on International Educational Exchange, an Evergreen study abroad consortium partner, she initially stayed in São Paolo for a month to take intensive classes in the Portuguese language and Brazilian culture. “I got an overview that greatly helped me once I arrived in my next phase,” she says. This phase took place on the northeast coast in Salvador da Bahia, a city with a predominantly black population that has been strongly shaped by traditions rooted in Africa.

While there, the Denver native stayed with a host family, “attended as many ceremonies as possible,” and danced, taking an average of six classes a week in the beginning of her trip, then three per week as she became more involved in Brazilian society. She took lessons with a dancer in Salvador who owned his own studio and school and at the Universidade Federal da Bahia (Federal University of Bahia).

Lizi MartinMartin’s journey had really begun years before. As a biracial African-American, she was interested in learning more about her own identity and background. At Evergreen, she pursued independent studies and became involved in Umoja, Evergreen’s student group for people of African descent. Through that, she was inspired to study U.S. history and the context in which her father, born in 1920s Georgia, and her mother, born in 1950s Ohio, came together in the 1970s to marry. “I know that as an interracial couple, they always had trouble navigating through society and as a product of their marriage, I was thrust into two worlds at the same time,” she says. “My father passed down a legacy of pain and never spoke of his childhood or life experiences—possibly to shield me from the world as his little girl.”

“My research focused on the pain that my father could have gone through,” she explains. “My intention was to heal through understanding and respect. At the same time, I experienced some pretty intense reactions: physical and emotional. As a result, I pursued independent studies in dance therapy.”

“I didn’t stick out of the crowd walking down the street like my other American friends. It was the first time in my life that I realized how much I did stick out in the streets of America.”
— Lizi Martin

After attending Portland Community College, where she majored in ethnic dance and received an associate’s degree in 2006, Martin transferred to Evergreen. At the end of her junior year Martin studied dance therapy through an individual contract with faculty member Mukti Khanna. “I wanted to go deeper into Afro-Brazilian dance as a therapy because of the role it played in my own contract, growth and renewal,” she says. She studied Candomblé, a West African-derived religion that blossomed in Brazil. Candomblé uses dance to honor different deities or orixas (pronounced ori- shas), who represent specific aspects of life and nature. “I was guided to this style of dance by people who said I reminded them of an Afro-Brazilian deity named Oxúm (pronounced Oh-shoom),” she says. Oxúm is the Candomblé goddess of love.

In Salvador, Martin was frequently thought to be Bahian because of her skin color. “I didn’t stick out of the crowd walking down the street like my other American friends. It was the first time in my life that I realized how much I did stick out in the streets of America.”

However, Martin was taken aback by the poverty she witnessed among Afro-Brazilians, as well as the racial divides that existed in the country. “Their houses were like shoe boxes stacked on top of one another. Even in the poorest parts of Denver, I had never seen such disparity,” she says. “The fact that every person I met had the most positive attitude, despite their economic status, gave me strength to acknowledge my own economic prejudices. I learned another way of combating racial inequality—one that didn’t involve anger.”

In Brazil, the tension and anxiety Martin felt from studying slave history was lessened. “I no longer feel like a victim or a product of victims past,” she says. “I have the choice to live my life in optimism. I choose to be proud of where I come from, to be proud of the choices my parents made. I am a product of their love through hardship and choose to use my opportunities to bridge two worlds together for the fulfillment of my own joy and growth. Brazil was put in my path so that I would learn the art of building social bridges within myself, locally and internationally.”

Back home in Colorado, Martin works in public health education with AmeriCorps, teaching underserved pregnant women and those with newborn babies how to take care of themselves and their families. For her, it’s a way to begin building those bridges in her own community.