Warning: This is a rather lengthy post but it is so, so worth it.
It’s been about a two months since we returned to Columbus from Salvador, Bahia. In that time I’ve completed my third year of undergrad and jumpstarted my senior project… my senior project. Already. We stepped foot onto campus at a time that shows no mercy—the end of the semester—and with that said, I hadn’t been able to write about the most momentous experience of my life thus far. I couldn’t just write anything, ya know? I had to do the experience justice.
I want to start by saying that I am so, so grateful to Susan Hadley and this amazing department at this amazing university for even giving me an opportunity like this. I have learned so many invaluable things about being in a company ranging from rehearsing the same repertoire 24/7 to being able to write grants and receive funding. Being in a touring company became so much more than the satisfaction of finally feeling as if I could be seen as a performer and mover. It became so much more than pushing my limits physically. It became so much more than going to a country with nice weather to perform for different people.
It was about people, relating to other people and the world around us.
The Brazil Tour Group as we came to be called was truly something special. Our unique personalities, personal goals and movement styles made us perfect together from the start. From the very beginning I began to sit in awe of my peers and their thoughts, openness to listen and willingness to understand but stand their ground. In our Brazilian culture class I began to learn about the minds of my peers, how they thought and why they thought that way. In the studio I saw how many worked and created. I saw how we supported each other. I saw how we made each other laugh. I saw how we reasoned with each other. I saw how real we were with each other and it is because of my peers that I knew what I wanted to capture as the videographer.
I could see how important individuality was from the beginning and I saw that simple fact totally magnified when we began performing in Salvador. Our first performance will always be in my heart. I remember walking into this poor communidade with our costume bags draped over our shoulders. I felt like an alien, the way we were being stared at, but for some reason it wasn’t in an intimidating way. The Brazilians were just curious.
We walked into this open school to see our performance space which is a small room with a busted concrete floor, no electricity but a breathtaking view of the communidade sprawling all around us. It was hot and our performance space was limited, but through the (literal) dripping sweat and soaking clothing we were having the time of our lives. I could feel it. Our performance wasn’t about doing everything “right” anymore. It was about surviving in our conditions. I think that is the reason why it was so fun. We ran off stage after each piece heaving for air and trying to push through the heat, but we also ran off smiling and laughing. This was it! This was why we were doing this! It was already so worth it!
After our final bow, Clara, our program host, wanted everyone to take a picture. After the posing was done and the crowd started to dissipate, my life was changed. I will never forget the feeling of having little brown girls running up to me and hugging me so tightly. There wasn’t a line or order, no. They chose ME. They ran up to ME. It’s so overwhelming to think about to this day. To have young people CHOOSING to admire me is a feeling I never thought I’d feel directly. Never in a million years.
And it was like that everywhere we went.
At our high school performance students were coming up to us asking for autographs. We were signing shirts and taking photos like celebrities. We danced for them and they danced for us and a whole dance party ensued. Literally. There was a DJ at the high school. I cried leaving those beautiful students that we couldn’t speak to. That day was the day I truly learned the power of body language.
To be in a place where movement was so embedded in the culture, it’s no wonder I felt so comfortable and at home. We took classes in styles I am totally unfamiliar with like samba, capoeira and the traditional dances of the Orishas but I didn’t feel out of place. Most of our teachers couldn’t speak English and I still felt as if I understood them. I was never nervous, but always excited. One Tuesday night we went to Geronimo in Pelourinho for live music, drinking and dancing. Everyone was dancing! There was a lot of line dancing but I also got to partner dance with Brazilians. Even though we couldn’t speak the same language everyone I danced with was more than willing to help me out when I was lost and guide me through it. There I was, dancing in a slip dress with wild hair without a phone or a wallet yet so safe in a foreign country with friends that I loved and I thought, “this is what life should be like.”
In Brazil, I felt that everything that I did had purpose. Everyone I talked to was important to my experience. I created a bond with the students we performed for. I created a bond with Clara and Simone and Fred who were imperative to our time in Brazil. I created a bond with the workers at our hotel. I created a bond with our bus driver. Hell, I created a bond with the guy at the fancy ice cream shop that always knew that we didn’t know the word for “sample” but always had them handy when he saw us and knew that I wanted my ice cream in a cone. I created a bond with the sky. I created a bond with the trees. I created a bond with the water. I fell so in love with that country. Everything was important to me. Everything changed my life.
We cherished every second of it and our willingness to learn, understand and share with everything and everyone around us made everyone love us. It made us love everyone.
That’s why it was so hard when I came back.
I got back to Columbus and I was thrown back into the whirlwind of undergrad. I had to go back to studying mundane topics and doing menial chores. No one could understand the magnitude of the work we’d just done. “Oh you went to Brazil? That’s so cool!” I mean, yeah, but it was so much more than just spring break. It wasn’t just Brazil. It wasn’t just performing abroad. It was all of it. Coming back I felt like my experience was one big inside joke, because no one else could really get it. I really struggled with that.
I cried, a lot. Not necessarily sad tears but I was constantly overwhelmed by my memories. I was in utter disbelief of my life. I still am, but the only difference is I can finally write about it with tears welling up in my eyes.
This is something that I’m going to carry with me for the rest of my life. As a performer. As an American. As a Buckeye. As a global citizen. As Gabriella Moneque Wiltz. I am forever changed by it all. I now know how it feels to have purpose and I cannot wait until that feeling is my every day.