Note from BW of Brazil: BW of Brazil bids a fond farewell to the dance great Mercedes Baptista. The pioneering dancer passed away yesterday at the age age of 93. Featured here back in April of 2013, Mercedes broke barriers in the world of dance by introducing African elements into her routines as well as being the first black woman to dance at the Municipal Theater in Rio de Janeiro. Baptista’s career took her all over the world and in the 1950s, she earned a scholarship to the United States to study with the great Katherine Dunham (please see the previous article for an introduction to her career). Around the same time that Mercedes was featured at the Teatro Municipal, the dancer participated in numerous presentations with the Teatro Experimental do Negro (Black Experimental Theater), founded by the late, great Abdias do Nascimento. Alongside artists such as Ruth de Souza, Haroldo Costa and Santa Rosa, Mercedes became an activist for the recognition and integration of black actors and dancers in Brazilian theater.
Please take some time and learn more about this great woman who made her mark in the world of dance. Also included below is a documentary about Baptista.
Mercedes Baptista, the first black woman to dance at the Municipal Theatre in Rio, dies at age 93
Artist was responsible for the choreography of Salgueiro that was the surprise performance of 1963
Mercedes Baptista was the first black woman to become part of the body of Municipal Theater dance group
Leonardo Aversa/O Globo
Mercedes Baptista, who was the first black woman to dance at the Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro, died on Tuesday at the aged 93. She suffered from diabetes and heart problems. The wake was held at the nursing home where she lived in Copacabana, and cremated at Memorial do Carmo, in Caju. The classical dancer had a prominent role in the struggle for reaffirmation of blacks as artists and sought to value Brazilian culture throughout her career.
Stunned, Professor Manoel Dionisio, of the Escola de Mestre-Sala, Porta-Bandeira and Porta-Estandarte, he learned of Mercedes’s death by a telephone call from the nurses who cared for his friend. He was a part of folkloric ballet company founded by Mercedes and visited his friend every two weeks. According to him, even being weakened because of age, Mercedes still admired dance.
“Myself and other friends always organized rodas de samba (samba circles) for her. Even in a wheelchair, Mercedes moved to the music, happily swaying her shoulders. She was a reference to me. Unfortunately, her mission has ended here,” said an emotional Manoel Dionisio.
Mercedes was born on May 20, 1921 in Campos dos Goytacazes, in the northern region of Rio de Janeiro state. Still as a youth, he moved to Rio and worked at a hat factory and as a maid. She began her studies in classical ballet and folk dance, Eros Volúsia, at the Serviço Nacional de Teatro (National Theatre Service). In 1945, she participated in a public competition and joined the dance school at the Municipal Theatre.
The dancer occupies a prominent place in the history of the Rio’s Carnival. She was responsible for the classical wing of the minuet in the Salgueiro parade that had Xica da Silva as the theme in 1963.
“There was much criticism at the time. It was a scandal. We were considered critical by critics the creators of a cursed choreography for the Rio carnival. But two years later, they started to copy us,” said Manoel Dionísio, who participated in the historic parade.
In the 1970s, Mercedes Baptista devoted herself especially to teaching. In Brazil, she became professor at the Escola de Dança do Teatro Municipal (School of Dance of the Municipal Theater) of Rio de Janeiro, teaching the “Afro-Brazilian Dance” discipline. In the US, she taught courses at Connecticut College, at the Harlem Dance Theater and the Clark Center in New York. In 1976 she was honored by Bloco Carnavalesco Alegria de Copacabana. At the same time, her success as a choreographer was increasingly requested for film and television.
In 1980 the Ballet Folclórico Mercedes Baptista was resumed and a new group was formed. With great success, the shows “Orungá e Iemanjá”, “Visita de Oxalá ao Rei Xangô” e “Mondongô” were presented. In 1982, the dancer and teacher retired from the Municipal Theatre.
Starting in the nineties, the artist came to be honored in public ceremonies and several Samba Schools, which recognized her invaluable contribution to dance and Rio Carnival. In 2000, she received a tribute in the Municipality of Rio de Janeiro, in recognition of her invaluable contribution to Brazilian dance, and has been honored at a major exhibition about her career and a video documentary called Balé Pé no Chão – A Dança Afro de Mercedes Baptista (Ballet Foot on Floor – The afro dance of Mercedes Baptista directed by Lílian Solá and Marianna Monteiro, released in 2006. A dance hall in the Centro Cultural José Bonifácio (José Bonifácio Cultural Center) was also named after her in an honor from the City of Rio de Janeiro.
Mercedes was married for fifty years with Paul Krieger, her faithful companion, who died in 2002. With her husband, she had a son in 1966, who died a victim of the so-called “mal dos sete dias” or “evil of seven days” (neonatal tetanus). At the end of the nineties, Batista suffered the first of three ischemias that weakened her health.
In 2008, the artist was honored by the Acadêmicos do Cubango samba school, that presented in their Group A parade, the theme “Mercedes Batista, de passo a passo, um passo” (Mercedes Batista, from step to step, a step). The following year, the Unidos de Vila Isabel samba school took to the Avenida a storyline about the centenary of the Municipal Theatre and also paid homage to Mercedes. Also in 2009, she won the Estandarte de Ouro (Golden Banner) of Rede Globo (TV) in the personality category, for her contribution to Carnival.
Mercedes was notable for being the first black woman dancer to perform at the Teatro Municipal.
Balé Pé no Chão – A Dança Afro de Mercedes Baptista (in Portuguese)