Mercedes Ignácia da Silva Krieger, Mercedes Batista, was born in 1921, in the city of Campos dos Goytacazes, in the state of Rio de Janeiro, into a humble family that survived off of the work of her mother, the seamstress Maria Ignácia da Silva. As a young woman, she moved to the city of Rio de Janeiro, exerting various professional activities. She worked in a print shop, in a hat factory and as she could not escape the rule of the majority of black girls of her time, she was maid. She worked also as a ticket vender in a movie theatre, and when she could, watched the movies; at this time she dreamed of being onstage. Inspired to realize her dream, she began to devote herself to dance.
It is worth mentioning that Mercedes Baptista was initiated in classical ballet and folk dance, by the great Eros Volúsia (dancer who shined in Brazil through her choreography inspired by Brazilian culture). In the 1940s she joined the Escola de Danças (Schools of Dance) at the Teatro Municipal (Municipal Theater) in Rio de Janeiro, taking the opportunity to study with Yuco Lindberg and Vaslav Veltchek, artists who had international projection. In the year of 1947 she was admitted as a professional dancer in the Teatro Municipal of Rio de Janeiro, thus becoming the first black woman to enter this house of spectaculars as a dancer.
Although she was part of the body of the Baile do Teatro Municipal (Dance of the Municipal Theatre) she had few chances to perform because very few were the times she was cast in the presentations. She then perceived a trace of prejudice. As a black woman and artist she suffered discrimination, but also learned to in her own proper steps and choices to create mechanisms to overcome such obstacles. It is in this same period that she came to know Abdias do Nascimento and started to follow the ideals of the Teatro Experimental do Negro (TEN or Black Experimental Theater). Along with a renewed strength and working with other black men and women, together they developed ways of working to combat racism in Brazil, joining forces with these groups, creating spaces and strategies to combat racial prejudice.
In this scenario, she sought ways to enhance Brazilian culture, and fought against the prejudice that tried to inferiorize the black population. It was then that she systematically worked for reaffirmation of the black artist in dance with talent, perseverance and the use of research as an instrument/tool. She succeeded masterfully, basing and expanding her knowledge of black arts, thus understanding and knowing her origins using them as a creative element, and thus a new stance on Afro-Brazilian dance.
Mercedes Baptista participated in various events organized by TEN, being elected the “Rainha das Mulatas (Queen of the Mulatas)”. In 1950, she became a member of the Conselho de Mulheres Negras (Council of Black Women).
In the late 1950’s she was selected by American choreographer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham for a scholarship to study in New York. Upon her return to Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, she founded the Ballet Folclórico Mercedes Baptista (Mercedes Baptista Folclórico Ballet). A group consisting of of black dancers who developed research and publicized Afro-Brazilian and black culture, unveiling new horizons for dance, introducing African elements into modern Brazilian dance. The group gained notoriety and respect, performing in Europe and several countries in South America.
In the 1960s, Mercedes Baptista had the opportunity to perform in the GRES Acadêmicos do Salgueiro Samba School, elaborating choreography for the theme for the Quilombo dos Palmares (Quilombo of Palmares), chosen by the school. The samba schools acquiesced to the talent of Mercedes because it was she who devised the performances of schools with choreographed wings. And she didn’t stop there as she also choreographed for film, television and theater.
Mercedes Baptista taught several courses in Brazil, New York and California. She influenced dance in other countries also having more consistency and prestige to introduce to the Escola de Dança at the Municipal Theater of Rio de Janeiro the Afro-Brazilian dance discipline.
For her ability to combine technique and talent for innovation, her life trajectory and importance to Brazilian dance, and the world for that matter, in 2005 she was honored by the exposition Mercedes Baptista: a criação da identidade negra na dança (Mercedes Baptista: the creation of black identity in dance) curated by Paulo Melgaço and Jandira Lima. In the presentation of the exhibition, in 2007 the book Mercedes Baptista: a criação da identidade negra na dança authored by Paul Melgaço da Silva Júnior was released, published by Fundação Cultural Palmares.
She also received, in 2008, an homage from the Acadêmicos do Cubango Samba School, which was considered one of the most beautiful Samba songs of the year. The following year the Vila Isabel Samba School, chose her for the theme of the centenary of the Teatro Municipal, earning her a well deserved homage, for being an emblematic figure of Brazilian dance and obligatory reference in the Municipal Theater of Rio de Janeiro.
“When I was doing a book on the dance school of the Municipal (Theater), I found that there was no material about Mercedes, who had broken a lot of taboos. She didn’t even keep any. It was then that I decided to write the book,” said Paul Melgaço, who was involved in researching the life of the dancer for almost three years.
“The only thing we don’t know for sure is how old she is, she lied about her age her whole life,” he joked.
Her legacy is the appreciation of cultures of African origin and introducing elements of African dance into Brazilian dance, and above all, her example of resilience and creativity for black youth, making her one of the most respected names in Brazil in this area.
Mercedes has no children and lives in Copacabana, in Rio’s South Zone, with two former students, who are her tutors. Two ischemics have left her health a little weak, but her eyes are still “alive and alert” according to as Melgaço.