Passinho: Fancy Footwork in Rio de Janeiro

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In this guest post, DA friend Jez Smadja shares with us thoughts & context on Passinho, a hypnotic new dance style that is contouring the complicated culture of the Rio’s baile funk scene, suggesting alternatives to the cartel-ization of funk, sidestepping standard dancefloor machismo, and (hopefully) challenging the gentrification of Rio, one of the most expensive and most touristed cities of Latin America. Enjoy!

The biggest hit song at this year’s carnival in Rio wasn’t by a samba school or a marching brass band but instead a record by MC Federado with his dance crew Os Leleques. ‘Passinho do Volante’, loosely translated as ‘The Steering-Wheel Skank’, comes with an accompanying video, produced on a budget of $35 (the cost of the meat for the post-shoot barbecue). It’s racked up 10 million hits in slightly over 3 weeks, and in so doing has propelled passinho into the national consciousness.

The first wave of homemade videos like ‘Passinho Foda’ and ‘Passinho do Cidade Alta’ surfaced on YouTube in 2008. The fluid, hypnotic dance style emerged out of Rio de Janeiro’s bacchanalian baile funk parties, distilling samba, frevo, freestyle and whatever else the dancers could concoct.

Outdoor raves like Maré and Jacarezinho, held in the outlying zones of Rio de Janeiro, still draw thousands of revellers every weekend, and are where one half of the city lets its hair down. Passinho initially emerged as a sideshow to the top-billing MCs and the X-rated dancers who perform in front of wall of speakers so big it could drown out the sound of a jet engine — but now passinho is moving to the center stage.

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The dance first picked up momentum on the internet as it pinged across Brazil’s earliest social network platform, Orkut. It made stars out of its most innovative dancers like Gambà (Skunk), Cebolinha (Chives), Bolinho (Doughball), Jackson and Camarão Preto (Black Shrimp) as the YouTube hit counter went into pinball mode. Zero-budget videos filmed in bedrooms, kitchens, stairwells and schoolyards flew in from one neighbourhood after the next as dancers tried to imitate and outdo each other.

There’s a documentary about the movement forthcoming from director Emilio Domingos (of hip-hop doc L.A.P.A fame). A Batalha do Passinho focuses on the dance battles where participants square off against each other in a knockout tournament. In the process, it introduces many of the scene’s best-known characters. Winner of the New Directions award at the 2012 Festival do Rio, everyone’s hoping it’ll get the nod at this year’s SXSW film selection – it’s definitely strong contender.

Having recently witnessed a passinho battle first-hand in the Chapeu Mangeira community, just behind Sugarloaf Mountain, it reminded me of that raw, unbridled energy of ’80s b-boy battles in the 5 boroughs. More contemporary points of comparison for passinho include juke in Chicago, azonto in Ghana, funky in the UK, and kuduro in Angola (see this video for Bruno M) – all dances that have taken YouTube’s Broadcast Yourself ethic at face value. But like the NYC b-boy movement, passinho seems to have a higher purpose – an antidote to the slackness and criminal tendencies that have attached themselves to the funk scene.
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One of the major rankles with the funk movement is how it’s been co-opted by the militias. When the city government’s attempts to legislate the parties in the early 2000s failed, it only played into the hands of drug factions like the Comando Vermelho, which began bankroll them. The bailes (dances) are not only the perfect platform to sell product, but also an effective PR exercise to curry favour with the local residents.

Julio Ludemir, journalist, author and producer of the passinho battles, explains, “In the early days of the bailes, people went to have fun. Nobody cared about having big DJs or MCs like MC Creu or Menor do Chapa. No, you went to dance, to hang out with your friends. But with the privatization of the parties, they became a marketing opportunity for drug dealers. How do you become popular in your favela? By putting on the biggest parties. It’s bread and circuses. And the circus was the funk ball.”

As a result, funk – and its legions of fans, the funkeiros – have become tarnished by association. When you consider that the scene is the dominant form of entertainment for Rio’s already marginalised favela youth, that’s a heavy cross to bear.

Over the past 5 years, however, things have begun to come full circle. Nowadays, it’s the dancefloor where the action is focused, lessening the need for big-name MCs and DJs. And as the passinho dancers have become stars in their own right, they’re circulating freely between the different parties. Julio Ludemir notes that this freedom of movement presents a direct challenge to the balkanization of the city – the situation where traffickers grant permission to enter a community, and sometimes even to leave it.

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Passinho, simply by modulating the way people dance, has effected subtle semantic shifts with far-reaching implications. In a perceptive piece on the Overmundo website, Joao Xavi argues that passinho’s repertory of moves are a challenge to macho stereotypes so common in the funk parties. There’s a Brazilian saying that “real men don’t whine (rebolar)”. Passinho’s liquid style is dispensing with such accepted wisdoms, and these days it’s the dancers, not the bandits, who are monopolising the attention at the parties.

It dovetails in with wider social tectonics in Rio de Janeiro as it expends huge resources in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and the Olympic Games, two years later. The city’s special police force, the UPP (Pacification Unit) has been wresting back hilltop communities, one at a time, from the criminal cartels, planting rifle-carrying police in their place.

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The implications for the funk scene are manifold, with some of the most popular dances temporarily closing down, others being displaced into favelas still controlled by the cartels. But the communities that have been pacified are also becoming integrated into the tissue of the city. It’s far easier for people to circulate between the favelas and the ‘asfalto’ (or, downtown), creating a more fluid city and one that’s less pathologised by mutually excluding stereotypes. Some claim it’s a cynical ploy by the city planners to lay claim to valuable real estate and to monetise the favela (an argument that the film Elite Squad II makes explicit), but it’s also a long overdue intervention in what’s effectively been a civil war.

Ask any of the passinho dancers and they’ll tell you how they’re tired of the hypersexualised, daggering-style dance shows and of MCs that are apologists for the drug factions. They don’t want to have to worry about which faction controls which favela, where they can and cannot go. They just want to go and have a good time. And the dance they created is helping them do just that.

— Jez Smadja


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