Japanese dancers find samba salvation in quake tragedy

GMT 20:48 2015 Saturday ,14 February

Arab Today, arab today Japanese dancers find samba salvation in quake tragedy

Megumi Kodo (C)
Rio de Janeiro - AFP

When she sways to the sensual beat of samba, Megumi Kudo also heals the wounds in her mother's heart from a huge earthquake that shattered their home city in Japan 20 years ago.
This year's festive menu for the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro has special poignancy for the Kudos, with daughter Megumi set to perform as a "passista" dancer with the famed Salgueiro school this weekend, continuing a tradition that has now spanned two generations.
Megumi's samba-teaching and costume-designing mother Taeko will watch proudly in Rio's packed sambadrome -- after the pair first dance together in a smaller group.
"I remember the day the earthquake struck. At our house, a door was damaged and would not open," Taeko reflected in a soft voice, recalling the January 17, 1995 Great Hanshin earthquake in the southern Japanese city of Kobe.
"A dark and sinking feeling just washed over me."
More than 6,000 people died in the temblor, which left a $100 million trail of damage. It was Japan's worst quake since the 1923 Great Kanto disaster that ravaged Tokyo.
- Emotional void -
As she sat sewing glittering beads and sequins onto one of her daughter's 15 Salgueiro costumes, Taeko, 54, recounted the emotional void that filled her after the disaster.
The former softball pitcher scanned a newspaper ad as she sought to channel her grief.
"It read, 'let's dance samba,'" Taeko told AFP.
"I knew nothing about samba, but from the first class, it was a lot of fun and I could forget my pain."
Months later, a 150-strong samba delegation came to Kobe from the dance's heartland, Rio de Janeiro. The two cities have had a twinning arrangement for nearly half a century.
"When I saw the Brazilian dancers, their natural moves and their joy it hit me: Samba is a really fun thing."
Her 29-year-old daughter Megumi caught the bug as her mother began offering samba classes and turning her hand to designing intricately-decorated outfits for dancers.
"Megumi asked me to let her visit Brazil and I let her go," Taeko said.
"When she returned, her dancing was powerful, the feeling coming from deep within."
- 'One of the family' -
Since taking the plunge in 2005, Megumi, a trained careworker, has now made seven visits to Rio, even staying in a favela, or slum, the first time.
"I started at Kobe's Megu Samba Palace aged 10 as my mom sought to overcome her sadness after the quake," she said.
"I want to change people's appreciation of samba. It's not about showing off bare flesh but creating an artist."   
In her home city, Megumi is a seven-time samba competition champion competing for a school called Feijao Preto, or black bean.
The homage to a Brazilian food staple being twirled in samba parades 19,000 kilometers (11,800 miles) away amuses her fellow dancers.
Although Brazil is home to the largest Japanese population outside Japan, Megumi's fellow citizens are still a rare sight at samba parades.
"Samba is essentially black culture. I had to work so hard to gain their respect in the beginning," she said.
"I quickly sought out Carlinhos, Salgueiro's head choreographer. He is so talented and I asked to do a test."
The diminutive Carlinhos recalls: "She was raw -- but she's got talent and merits her place."
Salgueiro president Regina Fernandes put it simply: "She's one of the family."
The Kudos rallied round last year when Megumi had her purse snatched and required treatment after her assailant knocked her to the ground, and she cut her head.
Taeko said some of her most rewarding experiences have come from entertaining residents at old people's homes.
"Sometimes, elderly people who usually just sit vacant will shed tears or even mark out time to a samba rhythm. It moves you," said Taeko.
"We want to show the passion of samba. Rather than just a hobby, people dedicate their life to it."

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