Brazil’s dancing Carnaval girls are often misunderstood. Parading around in extravagant outfits nearly completely nude for millions of eyes to see worldwide. In some ways, the image of the gyrating, brown-skinned Carnaval girl, the mulata, is subjected to the same sorts of stereotypes as the Hip Hop video vixen: she’s beautiful, using has a bangin’ body and is the cause of many of a argument between male admirers and their significant others who may feel a bit of jealousy or envy because of the attention this woman attracts. Although mulatas are usually imagined to be light, brown or dark-skinned women of African descent, during Carnaval time, any gyrating, nearly nude woman, including white women, can be classified as mulatas. As such, during Carnaval time, to be a mulata has actually become a profession, a title. Read on about a few of these women; for the life of a mulata is not necessarily what one thinks it to be. There’s much more to many of these women than just gyrating hips. At the bottom of this page, check out the trailer for the documentary Mulata: a Typhoon in the Hips (with English subtitles).
They put a college degree aside and abandoned promising careers to devote the entire year to preparing for Carnival
The girl born with a gift: Samba in the foot. Since she was little, she has been in the circles of musicians, in rehearsals, dreaming of shining inapotheosis. Preferably, at the highest post in the hierarchy: the “queen of the drum beat”. When that day comes, now a woman, she discovers that the task is arduous. You have to sweat in the gym every day, eat little, wear amazing clothes for presentations and almost always bankroll your own fantasies, tiny pieces of clothing ranging from R$2 thousand (Brazilian reais or about $1,000 American dollars) to R$15 thousand (or about $7,500 American dollars). All this and balancing on high heels with all smiles. “In spite of having no formal contract or salary, it’s hard work. So I consider it a profession”, says Priscilla Bonifácio, 29, queen of the drum beat of Unidos of Vila Maria Samba School in São Paulo. “Once you’ve earn your position, the dedication is exclusive”, she says, who left her job as a hotel manager in 2010, when she assumed her post. Rafaela Bastos, 29, has a degree in geography from the State University of Rio de Janeiro and punches a card in an engineering firm every day. When wearing her costume, she becomes a legitimate mulata of the Mangueira Samba School. “My profession is geography, but when I represent my school I’m ultra-professional”, she says.
Like Rio’s Rafaela and São Paulo’s Priscila, hundreds of Brazilian women embody every year during Carnival, one of the main characters of Brazilian culture – the mulata. And, even without pay, they are increasingly professional. “It’s work for an entire year, the (samba) school is a company that never stops”, says Priscilla. Earnings occur sporadically, in the shows that (samba) schools encourage, but definitely, this is not the reason why these women are preparing hard for their minutes of glory in Carnival. “In that day, they are goddesses,” believes Walmor Pamplona, director of the documentary Mulata: um Tufão nos Quadris (Mulata: a Typhoon in the Hips) “That really goes to their heads.”
For many, of humble origin, shining on the avenue is also a chance to make some money and some success. The anthropologist Sonia Giacomini, of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro (PUC-RJ), did a master’s thesis about mulatas in the early 90s. “The vast majority, after talking about dreaming of stardom and wealth, mentioned wanting to escape the occupations destined to non-white women in Brazilian society, underpaid and discredited”, she recalls.
Nilce Fran, 45, is an example of someone took the “mulata profession” seriously. Queen of the Portela beat in 1996 and 1997, she is now the coordinator of the school’s wing of dancers and, with her brother, put together Projeto Primeiro Passo (Project First Step), a dancer’s workshop aimed at children and youth in the community of Madureira. She also gives private lessons. When she was younger, she performed in shows in Brazil and abroad. “Today things are much more professional, I experienced an era when there was a lot of prejudice against mulatas”, she says. “Previously, in the contests, it was just having a beautiful body, putting on a bikini and strutting on the runways. Today you need to know other forms of dance and preferably speak other languages.” Nilce refers to a time when mulatto women were regarded as a national heritage, especially because of the work done by Oswaldo Sargentelli (1924-2002)*, the self-defined “mulatólogo (mulatalogist)”. The entrepreneur put mulatas on display and took them on to worldwide tours. Today, the glory is to be on the Caldeirão do Huck variety show, on Saturdays on the Globo TV network, and be elected the Muse of Carnival.
(See photos of the lovely Nilce Fran here)
* – In the 1970s and 1980s, promoter Oswaldo Sargentelli, the self-proclaimed mulatólogo (mulatalogist) gained fame with his world tours of up to 40 mulatas under his wing with his show “Sargentelli e as Mulatas Que Não Estão no Mapa (Sargentelli and the Out-of-this-world Mulatas).” In 1985, Sargentelli was accused of racism by the Commission of the Valorization and Political Integration of the Negro of (the southern state of) Rio Grande do Sul. He was accused of exploiting black women. The charges were later archived in court.
Below, check out the trailer for the documentary Mulata: a Typhoon in the Hips (with English subtitles)