RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — With their gyrating hips and feet that move so fast they dissolve into a blur, samba instructor Carla Campos' students are barely distinguishable from the swarms of scantily clad dancers in Rio de Janeiro's Carnival parades. What's make them different is where they come from: abroad.
While non-Brazilians have long shelled out hundreds of dollars for the right to dress up in over-the-top costumes and boogie in Rio's samba school parades, which wrapped up Monday in an all-night extravaganza, few in the so-called "alas dos gringos," or "foreigners' wings," know how to dance the samba well. They tend to bop along goofily in the parades while waving at the crowds of spectators.
Campos' students, mostly blonde women from northern Europe and the United States who stand out in a land of dark-haired dancers, are a different story altogether. Campos has built a career out of debunking the widespread myth that only those born and bred in Rio, the birthplace of samba, can actually learn the notoriously complicated and lightning-fast dance.
"I swear I have seen foreigners who not only danced as well as your average person here in Rio, but some who are even better than good dancers from here," said Campos, looking the part of a samba instructor in her unitard with white and electric blue stripes. "Sure, it's a hard dance, but it's ridiculous to think there's anything genetic to it. It's about hard work."
At her studio in Rio's tony Ipanema neighborhood, Campos puts her students through their paces. They file in, swapping their sundresses and sandals for leotards, flippy little skirts and the towering but sturdy platforms required for samba.
Class starts with a series of hip-rolling exercises meant to limber up the pelvic region, where all samba's fancy footwork has its origins.
By minute 10 of the 50-minute lesson, sweat pours down the dancers' faces — and that's before the sambaing actually gets going in earnest. Once the feet start moving, beating an ever-accelerating tac, tac, tac rhythm into the parquet, the air conditioned studio becomes a sauna.
Campos developed her patented SambaFit workout, which combines samba steps with aerobics, about a decade ago. The idea for the class, which she also teaches at two high-end Rio gyms, was born during a trip to Finland, where she discovered a whole sub-culture of die-hard samba enthusiasts.
"The Finns were so passionate about it, they knew more about samba and danced better than many people here," Campos said, adding that those from Rio's moneyed elite have long tended to look down their noses at the samba as the dance of the lower classes. "I thought, 'we have this dance that people around the world think is marvelous, so we Brazilians have to learn to respect it, too.'"
Through her Finnish connections, Campos began giving private lessons to foreigners living in Rio. At first she had just a handful of expatriate students, but Brazil's galloping economy and massive off-shore oil discoveries have flooded the city with foreign workers in recent years.