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#8 Dancing Fool: On Getting Roped into Brazilian Square-Dancing

Updated: Aug 26, 2022

The month of June is a special time in Brazil, and we got to experience it firsthand. It’s the celebration of the Festas Juninas, or June Festivals, sometimes called the Festival of Sāo Joāo, or Festival of St. John. It celebrates various things: the birth of John the Baptist (Brazil has the highest population of Catholics in the world), the end of the rainy season, and country life. We attended two festivals, one sponsored by the city and one sponsored by our church. I asked colleagues and friends about Festa Junina. They seemed to think it was worth it. But it wasn’t until I asked one of my students, a twenty-year old long-haired type, what he thought about Festa Junina, that the deal was sealed: “I think it’s pretty cool.” Generation Z approval. That settled it. We were going.

Brazilians love to party, so I think Festa Junina is just another excuse to have a (month-long) party. Festa Junina is the largest celebration in Brazil after Carnaval, which is probably the largest festival in the world and takes place in February. It’s Brazil’s (much larger) version of Mardi Gras. Festa Junina has a different feel from Carnaval. It’s very traditional. People dress in rural clothing— straw hats, bonnets, checkered shirts, gingham dresses— with tons of down-home food. It’s like a combination state fair/harvest festival in the U.S., and there is some international overlap. For example we came across corn on the cob and candied apples at the city’s Festa Junina.

At one of Uberlandia's Festa Junina celebrations

One of the most characteristic aspects of Festa Junina is the dance, the quadrilha, basically a square dance. I was really looking forward to kicking back and seeing my first quadrilha at our church’s Festa Junina celebration, so I was completely unprepared when I found myself an unwitting participant in one. The bishop’s wife was very persuasive “You can participate, or I can get on the mic and call you up.” Hmm. I wasn’t sure which would be more humiliating, making a fool of myself doing a Brazilian two-step or having the bishop’s wife calling the crowd’s attention to the gringo that wasn’t participating. I chose the former. I think it was the right choice. My wife and I spent the whole time giggling as we galloped around in a circle with other couples (see video, if you dare).

Poster for a Festa Junina celebration at our church. The poster uses informal language like "Esperamo ocê," a slang way to say, "Esperamos você," which essentially means,"We'll see you there," to highlight the down-home nature of the celebration.

Quadrilha at our church's Festa Junina celebration. Not for the faint of heart. You've been warned.

The next night we attended Uberlandia’s Festa Junina at Praça Sérgio Pacheco, a plaza next to the city bus terminal. We sampled many of the same traditional foods, but the dancing was left to the pros. An award-winning troupe called Quadrilha Pipoca Doce (Sweet Popcorn) from the state capital, Belo Horizonte, put on a wonderful performance. The theme of the show was the life of Brazilian architect Antônio Francisco Lisboa, aka Aleijadinho. A performer dressed as Aleijadinho narrated as the troupe paid homage to him in dance (see video).

A little memento from Uberlandia's Festa Junina advertising celebrations that will happen the following weekend, again using informal language to emphasize the rural quality of the celebration

It’s this type of thing I think many people imagine when they think of traditional Latin American cultural presentations, and attending a June festival was a goal I had for my family so they could get a taste of something very traditionally Brazilian. I have to admit, it was pretty cool. Gen Z was right.

A traditional quadrilha dance troupe at Festa Junina in Uberlândia

On the teaching side, I gave my first exam last week, an improvisation evaluation. I conducted it exactly as I would have in the U.S., with a rubric to evaluate the students’ performances and annotations to give feedback. Except that I had to translate all the annotations before I returned them to the students. Take, “don’t be afraid to take your time; think cohesively about how one idea leads to the next, as if you’re telling a story, rather than a series of random licks.” A “lick” is a musical idea. Google Translator translates “random licks” as “lambidas aleatórias,” which is like saying “randomly licking someone,” obviously not the right translation. So then I have to use a synonym for lick that I *think* is correct or ask a colleague. Either way, time or risk is involved. Basically, teaching music in Brazil just takes longer.

What was interesting was that when I told the students it would take a little longer to return the comments to them, because I had to translate them, there was a pause. The students looked around at each other. I thought maybe I had said something wrong. Then one of them said, “Well, I don’t know. I kind of want to see them in English.” Nods and assents followed. Oh. Ok then. The students are just as interested in learning jazz improvisation techniques as they are in learning how to say them in English. So I sent the comments in both languages. Being a Fulbright scholar really is a cultural exchange.

Visiting a foreign country often revolves around going to tourist sites and such. But I think one of the charms of being in a foreign country is just being there. It just looks and feels different. I am continually fascinated with noticing the architecture, the nature, the traffic, the layout of streets and neighborhoods, how people interact, and on and on. The everyday aspects of being here are, in a way, far more interesting to me than the tourist destinations.

Enjoying the everyday beauty of Brazil at the "pracinha" around the corner from our apartment

A typical view we're treated to from our bedroom window

So I’ve included a couple of photos of things I'm enjoying here in our neighborhood, like basking in the late afternoon sun in the little park around the corner from our apartment and getting a front row seat to the fantastic Brazilian sunsets from our bedroom window. It’s these little things that I think I’ll miss when I look back on our time in Brazil. Until then, there’s so much more to experience, and I look forward to sharing it with you.

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