Published: March 4, 2007
Golden Gate Xpress

By Christine Joy Ferrer

On a little plywood stage in the middle of the jungle in Itacaré, Bahia, Brazil, 25 Brazilian children, illuminated by a few dingy coffee can lights, focused intently on their American dance teacher’s every move.

The children, ages ranging from six to 17 years old, continued to mimic the fluid movement that was demonstrated before them, said SF State theatre and dance student Rachael Halladay-Sullivan, 23, describing one of the many times she had helped to instruct dance workshops in Brazil.

Every year for the last three years, Paco Gomes, who teaches Afro-Brazilian dance at SF State, has taken his company, Paco Gomes and Dancers, back to his homeland where they perform, take master dance classes, collaborate with other Brazilian dancers, teach dance workshops to children, and immerse themselves within African-Brazilian culture.

“These kids are like sponges. Every combination taught to them, they remember, rehearse, and want more,” said Jeni Leary, a member of the company and Gomes’ wife, who taught a contact improvisation and partnering workshop. “They just soak it all up. Now that’s passion.”

According to Gomes, much of the company’s work in Brazil is an effort to reach the thousands of Brazilian street children who, if not orphaned, come from poor families, and give back to their communities through the arts.

“In [the state of] Bahia, there are a lot of children on the streets. Some parents do drugs, so the children have to run way. Many are education-less, poor, not enough food to go around on the streets. But they’re not rebels,” said Gomes.

It was first planned as a vacation for Gomes and Leary to visit family, but instead it transformed into something more profoundly life changing, said Halladay-Sullivan, when she and Travis Rowland, both company members, offered to perform one of Gomes’ pieces in Brazil.

“It was totally by chance. I really didn’t think we were really going to go, but then [Gomes] booked the theater,” she said.

For Leary, 29, a dance and psychology student at SF State, it’s about helping people gain exposure to something that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to access due to their conditions or lack of money, and resources.

In Salvador, Bahia, Paco Gomes and Dancers –– made up of nine SF State alumni and current students –– performed during two dance events that Gomes created a few years ago, called “Sexta Cênica (Friday on Stage),” and “Solidariedança (Solidarity in Dance)” in Portuguese. Sexta Cênica is usually performed at his school Escola de Dança da Fundaçāō Cultural do Estado Da Bahia (Cultural Foundation of Dance in Bahia, Brazil) that he helped found 23 years ago, where he remained a professor for 18 years. During Solidariedança, the company usually performs for tourists. Admission is free, but attendees are required to each bring a kilo of food. The company then donates the food to “Salvador Against Hunger,” an organization that helps feed the thousands of street children in Salvador.

“At our last show, we raised 250 kilos of food. It went to the homes of children with cancer and sick children on the street,” said Gomes.

In Itacaré, Bahia, a seven-hour drive from Salvador, Paco Gomes and Dancers has taught dance workshops at Gomes’ brother’s, Jorge de Jesus’, foundation called “Casa do Bonecos” (House of Dolls). It’s a place where street children and other poor children, can go and learn Afro-Brazilian folklore, music, dance and crafts.

Almost 100 children utilize Casa do Bonecos, said Gomes.

“Travis taught hip hop, Elizabeth taught ballet, Karen taught a tap class,” said Halladay-Sullivan, of the other members.

“One year [the children] had integrated the hip hop routine that Travis had taught them the year before, with their own traditional Orixá (the gods and goddesses of the African-Brazilian religion Candomblé) dances,” said Halladay-Sullivan. “Without words, you could see that they had cherished the time … and really hung on to it.”

The children would learn combinations while on a dirt road or on their rickety stage that they proudly maintained, she said, wearing nothing but tiny tank tops, shorts, skirts, T-shirts and flip-flops to evade the dense tropical heat.

“They didn’t speak any English. Sometimes [Leary] would have to translate in Portuguese for the children, but for the most part they just watched and followed,” said Halladay-Sullivan.

Although many Brazilians live impoverished lives in Bahia, life still remains richly abundant, according to Gomes. Poor people in America look miserable, while poor people over in Brazil smile, sing and dance as a community.

“Indigenous African spirituality and folklore is so embedded into these people’s everyday lives and extremely present everywhere, in their music, food, dances … they have a bigger appreciation for the arts more than we do,” said Leary.

“A lot of poverty is around [in Brazil]. Not all houses have windows, electricity, TVs, or running water, but life is very rich, beautiful, simple, and they’re real,” said Halladay-Sullivan. “People take the time to talk to each other. Even though they may have nothing, they are so willing to help anybody out. After being around that, when you come back, you realize you don’t need any of your material possessions.”

Gomes has been teaching dance for almost 30 years. His choreography fuses Afro-Brazilian folklore and contemporary modern dance. Earlier this year, on his company’s most recent trip to Brazil, they performed two Afro-Brazilian pieces and three contemporary modern pieces.

He is well known throughout his Brazilian community, as an artist and also as a community activist before he had moved to America several years ago.

“People will drop whatever they’re doing to attend one of his shows,” said Leary of her husband. “Now whenever we come his family is always expecting us to dance.”

“I do this because it’s in my blood. I need to recharge with my people, feel the real sun from Brazil to talk with my neighbors,” Gomes said. “If something happens to them, it happens to me too.”

He was moved the time a 15-year-old girl with Down’s syndrome performed a ballet solo in Solidariedança and thanked him after for including her in his show.

The children in Itacaré take care of him, showering him with hugs, kisses, bring him fruits and joke about his bushy beard.

“When I go back, I want to live in Itacaré to spend more time with them,” said Gomes. “I’m proud to show them another perspective. But I don’t mean look at me I’m an example from the U.S. — I say, ‘I was a kid here like you guys. Through the arts, you can be something important to the community.’”