In these past months I have been starting over. I did not write for this blog, I did not read the new comments. I needed to clear a mental space for my new life.
Last month, one of my assignments at the Concordia University’s Contemporary Dance School was to create a solo dance that expressed who I am—my inside self. I kept thinking of Zouk and the joy and sadness it stirs up inside me. I wanted to create a piece about my experience in Brazil because it took up such a big place inside of me. Because Zouk made me reach for the stars but it also made me walk through fire. I started choreographing movements that would tell my story, but something did not feel right. The movements felt alien to my body. They were not “me.” I went to my professor to talk about the choreography and started crying.
I cried because I realized that my passion had been usurped by sadness. That trauma had wrapped me in a mourning shroud and my spirit had taken a vow of silence. I was not creating but replaying. It was a reenactment of my loss. And with each new movement I put in place I was creating a monument to my loss, something solid and heavy, something permanent. But I did not want to keep bearing this weight.
I wanted to stop this process and I didn’t know how. “Just stop,” my professor said. “Let it go. Find what brought you joy in dancing before the trauma. Show us that joy.”
That day I cleared my head of those movements. I let it go. I thought about Tango—my first partner dance—and how I pursued it as a lover: with passion, dedication, devotion. I went home and put on Tango music which sings of love, loss, suffering and pain, punctuated by the strength of the bandoneón (accordion). I used it to light myself back up and burn my mourning shroud. Who am I when I strip off what has happened? When I return to the self? Strong, sensual, explosive, passionate, delicate. This is me.
At the contemporary dance school I dance and create every day, and each day I am learning more and more about my self, my body and the infinite world of movement possibility. What I do is for the pleasure of movement, for the beauty of movement, for movement as an art form.
I feel at peace. I feel my passion and energy slowly welling up in my body again. And from this new perspective I can return to what I left unfinished: the ending of my story.
Holding up a Mirror
With my story I drew a portrait of Kamacho’s inner world, a side few people have seen and experienced. But the reactions to my story also held up a mirror to a community:
It uncovered other cases of abuse
– Four other women—Brigitte Wittmer, Brenda Carvalho, Grace Wanke and Bárbara Meneses—have come forward to reveal that they too suffered the same abuse when partnering with Kamacho.
– I’ve received messages from other women who have pointed out other cases of abuse from other instructors in the Zouk community. Some were taken advantage of sexually, others were verbally abused when working with their partners. They are all afraid to come forward publicly because they are embarrassed, because already women in the community are seen as inferior, because in a culture where men dominate, taking advantage of women is normalized, and women are blamed for “provoking” such behaviour.
A recent government poll in Brazil showed that 65% of those polled believed that women who wear clothes that show off their bodies deserve to be raped and 26% think that “A woman that gets beaten and continues with her partner likes to get beaten.”
It revealed political games:
– Some very well known and well respected members of the community have chosen not to comment on what has happened—even though so many of their students/admirers have. What are their motivations for being silent on something that has deeply affected a community?
It pointed out a culture clash:
– Now that North America and Europe are so readily absorbing Zouk and its culture, how do we navigate through the very different beliefs each culture has on women? Do North Americans and Europeans submit to the existing macho culture in Zouk or should they demand and create a new Zouk culture that better fits their values? Perhaps we do not have an answer because, enamoured with the intensity and sensuality of Zouk, we not taken the time to analyze our beliefs and behaviours.
In exposing the truth, I also exposed myself to the public. I did so without knowing whether I would receive praise or punishment. As with all controversial and powerful events, I received both; touching messages that praised me for my courage and strength, that asserted that I was doing the community a favour by bringing a dark issue to light, but also searing messages accusing me of writing only to ruin Kamacho’s career, or of being a liar.
I was not surprised. After all I was a “nobody” and he was a Zouk superstar with fans across the globe. As with all cases of abuse behind closed doors, finally sharing what happened can turn into a “he said, she said” situation, where people are not sure who to believe.
But then Brigitte shared her story of abuse… and then Grace… and then Bárbara….and then Brenda. When these brave women decided to follow me and break the silence, I was sure that everyone would realize that this was not just an isolated event, that this was a consistent problem. But even then some people accused us of ALL being liars and some suggested that we were all “asking for it” somehow.
If “asking for it” means that we are all passionate about dance, hard workers, that we were willing to trust the person who was going to be our dance partner, hoping that whatever was unsettling about him would change, and afraid of speaking out about what we were experiencing, then yes, perhaps we were “asking for it.”
Blaming the victim is “a social and psychological phenomenon wherein the fault in a crime (rape, robbery, assault) is attributed to the victim. The victim is regarded as partly or completely responsible (to blame) for the accident or trauma. These are but forms of rationalization and coping mechanisms in an attempt to distance one’s self from the victim and the problem.(from: http://psychologydictionary.org)
I was especially surprised when the victim blaming came from other women. I received a message from one woman telling me that I must clean out or realign my spiritual energy because that is what is bringing me into this kind of situation. A message from another woman said that it was immature of me to “air out my dirty laundry” and bring this out into the public—that if I Kamacho and I got into a fight then I should find a way to settle it behind closed doors or take it to the police. Another woman said that all of Rio de Janeiro knows Kamacho is crazy, so any woman who choses to work with him automatically takes full responsibility for whatever happens to her when partnering with him. After reading these comments I thought “they don’t get it!” But then again, I did not understand the full extent of the psychological chains of abuse until I experienced it first hand. I hoped writing my story would shed some light, but perhaps abuse is unfathomable until you experience it.
Although this happened in the Zouk community, violence against women is a global issue. According to Jackson Katz, an anti-sexism educator, it is a men’s issue—although it is rarely framed as such. The “dominant group is rarely challenged to think about its dominance,” says Katz, “because that is one of the key characteristics of power and privilege, the ability to go unexamined, lacking introspection…. being rendered invisible in the discourse that is primarily about [men].”
I received a touching message from one young man whose female friend was in an abusive relationship and he expressed regret in that he did not intervene. Men are put in an awkward position because their gender perpetrates the violence but at the same time they are the brothers, fathers, sons and friends of women who get abused. Standing up to fellow men and questioning their actions can be a challenge in some cultures where it is frowned upon to question how another man treats his woman, that is, his property.
Sometimes the past can haunt us and weigh us down, preventing us from continuing with our lives. So we avoid it, we run away from it, we curse it. We don’t want to remember it. But with this story that is not the case. I embrace this past because it has created so much transformation, because it has put me on my true path.
“Step into the fire of self-discovery. This fire will not burn you, it will only burn what you are not”
I want to thank everyone who has taken the time to read what I’ve written, who has relived my story with me, who has sent me messages of love and support. You have been such a wonderful part of my healing journey!
I want to thank the men who cast off their machismo and sent me such heartfelt, sincere, and wonderful messages of hope and caring.
I want to thank the women who messaged me with their personal stories and struggles. I admire every single one of you whether you continue in silence or whether you have shared your story with the world…. know that whenever you speak up, you have me and so many others supporting you.
Thanks to Brigitte, Grace, Brenda, and Barbara—four amazing women who went through so much and were able to emerge shinning and successful on the other side. Brigitte is studying contemporary dance at Angel Vianna’s school in Rio de Janeiro and has been traveling, teaching and choreographing with her partner, Cayo Louran. Grace is working at a gym teaching dynamic acrobatics and I see how strong and talented she is when I watch her videos on Facebook. Brenda has been performing in Brazouka! the first Zouk dance-drama that has been a huge success in the United Kingdom and now Australia.
You are all an inspiration!
When I was writing my blog I began to put together a testimonials page, with the collection of the writings of Grace, Brenda, Barbara, and Brigitte. I still think it is important to have all of these in one place. History must not be forgotten. And their experiences, bravery, and ability to overcome must be celebrated. If you would like to read and comment you can find the testimonial page here.
Kamacho’s vision of partnership was enmeshment. I felt as if I were being folded into the Kamacho “brand,” renouncing individuality to make space for something more powerful.
That feeling of being part of something bigger than myself, of being a vessel for creativity, of sacrificing myself in order to create beauty, was intoxicating.
He bought me a shirt like his that had “I can’t, I have rehearsal” written in big block letters. It was a statement of renunciation: I can’t eat, I can’t sleep, I can’t make friends, I can’t think about what is not dance. I wanted to embrace this philosophy the way he did. Hurl myself at training.
Kamacho’s insignia was bleached blonde tips and so I dyed the bottom of my hair blonde. He made me go back to the hairdresser because it wasn’t blonde enough. He wanted platinum blonde, he wanted blonde for the stage. As we walked down the street, our black and platinum plumage turning heads, I felt powerful. The hair was confidence, creation, and potentiality transmuted into the physical. It joined us in defying the world.
To Kamacho having a partner meant that he could push limits, create movements that no one would be able to imitate, and choreographies that would be seared into the souls of spectators. But to push the limits, you must first achieve technical perfection. I wasn’t perfect. And so I was holding him back.
Kamacho was full of ideas. But unfortunately for him, he had picked partner dancing and depended on another person to express them. If his partner did not share his vision, he felt his creativity stonewalled. His was a deep frustration, of an artist prevented from creating. He raged at me but in reality he was raging against this feeling of being oppressed, of having to sit still when he wanted to run and leap and jump.
I believed that his rage was something that possessed him, something that obscured the good he had inside. I thought that with patience, I would be able to bring that good to the surface and extinguish the rage.
Kamacho has done a lot of work on movement theory and on how Zouk should be danced. Once, after battling with him over his aggressive teaching methods, he humored the intellectual side of me by drawing images and graphs of the dynamics of head movement. Although I understood and embraced everything he told me intellectually, the problem was always that the information didn’t get into my body at the pace he wanted.
My warmest memory of him is of a night we stayed up late writing his “book.” He wanted to eventually publish his ideas on dance and music in English. I offered to help. He’d dictate a sentence in Portuguese and then I would read back my English version. Often he would veto it when he didn’t understand the words or the structure, so I would translate my version back into Portuguese to convince him that my version still contained the essence of what he was saying.
For some parts he insisted on plodding through his idea in English. We laughed ourselves to tears so many times as I tried to explain to him what the words he was using actually meant (versus what he thought they meant). Everytime he made blunders his joke was to say to me, “Your English is very bad!”
It felt good that I could use my talents as a writer to help him—that we could interact outside of the dance context where he reigned supreme.I felt like I was finally offering him something of value.
“When you paint on a canvas, you have freedom to create whatever is inside your mind. It is like in dance, when you are connected to the music, both in mind and body, you have the freedom to create whatever you want—whether it be ugly or beautiful.” (Translation of Kamacho’s dictation.)
He came up with an exercise that helped me connect more deeply with the music, one that I still think is genius. With a paper and pen in hand, I had to listen to a song and move the pen in the way the music dictated. We both tried the exercise, filling pages with loops, squiggles, hard lines and soft lines, lines that ran furiously down the page. The music directed the speed of my hand, the pressure on the paper and the shapes that I drew. Each time I repeated the exercise to the same song, I became much more aware of the subtle parts of the song. A few days later when I danced to it I felt like I was able to express all of it’s richness through my body. I told him how much I loved the exercise and encouraged him to do it in one of his workshops, knowing it would be a huge success.
One morning he woke up to find me drawing “Impossible” over and over. He smiled—at that moment I was the perfect partner.
The wake-up call
I arrived in Miami excited that I would be reunited with my close friends from New York and Montreal. I had kept most of what I had been going through secret. My Facebook page had been filled with pictures from parties and announcements of the tour with Kamacho.
My friends believed my Zouk career had taken off spectacularly and were surprised that I had come all the way to Miami when I was so busy in Brazil.
I went to Miami because Marc Brewer, a very successful ballroom dancer who was building his reputation in the Zouk community had invited me (before my trip to Brazil) to teach with him in Miami. Our plan had been to continue teaching and working together when I returned from my trip. Even though that had changed, I felt it would have been unprofessional and coldhearted to cancel last minute on someone who had given me so many opportunities.
Here is the demo I did with Marc at the congress:
At the parties I danced a bit, knowing it would look bad to my students if I didn’t, but spent most of my time outside of the dance hall, just observing.
“You used to dance non-stop at congresses. What’s going on?” my friends commented. I was physically and emotionally worn out. I began sharing what had been going on with some friends. They were in shock. “How are you ALLOWING this to happen? What you are talking about is abuse. Plain and simple,” they said.
One of the teachers to whom I opened up to told me that he felt like I was trying to get to the top too fast, but the surest way to achieve a goal is to start from the bottom. He said I should become a teacher’s assistant in one of the schools in Brazil, find a partner who was at my level, and slowly start building my career. To him it looked like this shortcut was not getting me to where I wanted.
But I was already 29 years old! I NEEDED a short cut!
I skipped all of the after parties, missing the spectacular sunrises on a Zouk-filled beach, just to go home and sleep. Far from Brazil and from Kamacho I finally allowed my body to express itself. My neck was killing me. My brain felt cloudy. (It was only months later, when I returned to New York and saw a doctor that I found out I had developed Adrenal Fatigue from all the emotional and physical stress.)
But I didn’t totally detach. Whenever I could I practiced the choreography for Prague. Kamacho said that to really know it I had to be able to do it perfectly on my own. I knew he was right.
As the days went by, my subconscious processed what my friends had told me. They made me feel as if I had been asleep in a bubble of denial. They were trying to shake me awake. I realized that I had to be less pliant. I began to think more about my why my neck wasn’t healing. Could it be more than a pulled muscle? I still hadn’t seen a professional who could give me an assessment.
When I got back I asked Kamacho if he knew any physiotherapists from his wide network of dancer friends.
“Why didn’t you see a physiotherapist in Miami?” he asked, annoyed.
“A physiotherapist is someone you have to see once a week until you heal, it’s not a one time thing,” I replied.
He was not happy. He believed my neck had been doing just fine while I was in Brazil and that I had made it worse in Miami. It wasn’t the injury that changed on the return from the trip, it was my thinking that changed.
[From an email I sent a friend:]
The going continues to be rough although I believe I made some progress… Two days ago he got upset because there was a movement I was not understanding [I am in a plank position with my back parallel to the floor and my weight mostly on my feet but with one arm holding on to his arm]. When I did it wrong again, he let go of me and I almost fell backward to the floor. This type of thing has happened twice already and those times I kept mum. This time I said: “don’t do that! what are you trying to do, hurt me?” he responded: “you are already hurt” (WTF!!!!) and I replied: “so you want to hurt me even more? If you want to yell at me, you can yell, but you cannot do that again”. He kept silent and I just stared at him for a while and then I said, “OK lets continue.” I’m hoping that I drew a line that he will not cross again but we will see….
Very disappointing is the fact that I’m really on my own when it comes to getting help. Today I reminded him about helping me find a physiotherapist through his contacts and he responded: “why don’t you ask your friend Ana” (she is a massotherapist and recommended the acupuncturist but she doesn’t have many professional contacts here since she lives in Toronto). I explained this to him but only got silence as he continued to do what he was doing on his computer… I am just so angry that he won’t even write a few quick Facebook messages to his dancer friends who may recommend a good one. [NOTE: I eventually got him to write a message on his wall.]I keep thinking how the hell I’m supposed to work with someone who won’t even take the minimum steps to make sure the tool of our trade (my body) is in adequate shape to do the things we need to do.
I made an appointment to see the acupuncturist. Kamacho came with me.
“Her neck is not doing well. She really needs to stop doing head movement until the pain goes away.”
We left and Kamacho said: “That guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I asked him some questions about neck anatomy and he didn’t really give me a response. Anyway, we’ve got a job to do so you can’t stop training. I’ll take you to get a massage on Sunday.”
It was Friday. I was so upset. Fine, if he didn’t believe what the acupuncturist said, maybe he would believe a “real” doctor. I resolved to be seen and x-rayed the next day.
The next morning I was eating breakfast when Kamacho woke up. He began blasting “Impossible” on the loudspeakers and going over the choreography. “When you’re done eating, warm up so we can work on the choreo,” he said.
“I’m not working on the choreo today, I’m going to see a doctor and get an x-ray,” I said quietly but with resolve.
“You and your neck! You know a big part of it is in your mind? You need to stop making such a big deal out of it.”
I didn’t reply. He said he would come with me, that partnerships were about supporting each other.
We spent the morning at the hospital. I had x-rays done and was seen by an orthopedic doctor.
“Lucky for you, your bones look fine,” said the doctor. “But I think you have a serious pull in the neck muscles, and by training on that injury you haven’t been letting it heal and maybe caused a second tear. [NOTE: the doctor I saw later in NYC did an MRI scan and found out that I also had a bulging disk.] You need to stop dancing for a MINIMUM of three weeks otherwise you are going to make it a lot worse. You’ll also need to do physiotherapy. I glanced over at Kamacho standing in the corner. I wanted to make sure he had heard.
“But if her bones are alright, why can’t you just give her some medicine?” asked Kamacho.
“I am going to prescribe a painkiller and an anti-inflammatory, but unfortunately when it comes to muscle tears the only thing we can do is wait for the muscles to heal. She should not do head movement and should be limiting spine movement for at least three weeks, maybe more.”
I felt that I had won. Finally here was a doctor telling Kamacho what I had been trying to say all along. Finally, I was justified in recovering.
As soon as we were out on the street, the tirade began.
“You see, this is what happens when you dance with people I told you not to dance with! I guess now you will learn your lesson. You NEVER listen to me. And then you go to Miami and work for someone else and come back fucked!! You call that professional? You can rest now, but when we get to Prague, don’t even THINK I’m going to take it easy on you when it comes to head movement!”
We had exactly three weeks before we had to fly to Paris and four weeks before Prague.
We got back to his house. His father, brother and brother’s girlfriend were there. Their presence did nothing to stop him. He continued to yell.
“You are going to Prague and you are doing the jobs I booked! I don’t care if that means your neck will be fucked and you can’t dance Zouk for the next three months, the next year, or the rest of your life! You are doing this!”
It was the hulk, the monster. The being that didn’t care about the consequences, just about his work, his reputation. At that moment something in me snapped. The price for this shortcut, for the fame that he was promising, was too high. I was no longer willing to pay it.
With his family hearing every word, his father got involved.
“Thiago, stop being so ignorant!” said his father in a firm tone. “Didn’t you hear what the doctor said? She can’t train, can’t dance now and can’t go to Europe like this! As her partner, you should be taking care of her, not yelling at her!”
“She got into this mess and now she isn’t looking for a solution, she is just abandoning ship.” Kamacho retorted. “I’m creative! I’ve always faced obstacles head on and been able to overcome them. This isn’t any different. I can create a whole choreography without head movement if need be! I can teach a class with zero head movement. I can do anything I want!”
As his family attempted to calm him down, I was reeling. This was crazy—how could I go to Europe with someone who was threatening me with permanent injury? With no one to comfort me or to talk to, I reached out on Facebook and put up a post about my injury.
Then he saw it. He exploded again.
“You are so selfish! How could you write that? Now people are going to think that I did this to you!! How could you not think about how this will reflect on me?”
In my opinion, nothing I had written blamed him in any way. I was pointing a finger at an “inexperienced dancer with poor technique.”
But, again, wanting to appease him I edited the post. This is the final version:
His brother and his brother’s girlfriend assured him that no one would think badly of him based on the post.
Although I had felt the “snap” in my neck while dancing with another guy, I don’t know if it would had happened had I not been so weak and stressed. I’ve had men lead a violent movement before and was able to brace my body against it. I believe that Kamacho is responsible for putting my body and mind in a state of unnecessary stress and exhaustion. A state in which I should not have been dancing in.
There is a “proven connection between stress and injury. When you allow… fear of failure to overwhelm your mind, you lose the ability to cope, and you put yourself at risk for getting hurt.”
(From: “Dance Anatomy” by Jacqui Greene Haas.)
With Kamacho I was always in fear of failure because failure meant I would have to feel his wrath.
The night of the injury, shortly before I got injured, he provoked this fear. He and another dancer, Rafael, were playfully trading me off between them. When I wasn’t understanding some of the things they were leading, he started treating me roughly (as usual) but also saying horrible things to me: that I would never learn what he was teaching me, that I was stupid, etc. When Kamacho sat down and I was dancing just with Rafael I was trembling all over and almost crying. I was so distracted that although we usually danced so well together, he had to start doing just basic steps until I calmed down. [NOTE: to be clear, Rafael DID NOT cause my injury.]
Back to the day of the Facebook post: Eventually everyone went to bed. He calmed down a bit. He announced he was going out dancing to a Samba party. He asked to review some Samba steps with me and I acquiesced. I had forgotten several of the things we had learned. He got frustrated. My heart started racing, my stomach started feeling queasy and my mind went into overdrive. I realized this had become my permanent state of being every time we practiced.
He told me he can’t focus and work with someone that speaks badly of him (referring to a fight we had a week earlier because he overheard me talking to my friend Ana about how he treated me). He wandered around the house aimlessly. His frustration and helplessness wouldn’t let him sit still. He came into my room.
“I can’t believe that I let someone who speaks badly of me stay in my house. I can’t believe that I waste my time with someone who gives me NOTHING in the dance!”
At that point I was disgusted with him. I had enough, I was exhausted.
“Please tell me now if you want me to leave and if you want to stop working with me so that I can find someplace to go,” I said.
That’s when he shut up. He was silent for a while.
In a quiet voice he began talking about his frustrations. He said hadn’t achieved what he hoped to in dance.
“Listen Kamacho,” I said gently. “My priority right now is my health, my neck. If that’s not OK with you and you want to end our partnership because of it, I’m not going to be upset. I think you need to do what is best for YOU right now. Maybe you need to find a partner who is younger and has better neck extension (he said this was one of my defects even before the injury). Maybe you THOUGHT I was your diamond, but clearly I’m not. Or maybe, to reach the level of perfection in the dance that you are looking for, you should do solo dancing.”
I wanted to give him an out. Part of me wanted him to end the partnership, to release me. I knew that if I ended it, it would arouse only anger and hate from him.
He was silent. After the hours of yelling, the silence was scarier. What was going on in his head? He was sitting in the bathroom right across from my room with the lights off. With the light that went in from my room I saw that his hands were covering his face and I heard some muffled sounds. Was he crying? I began to feel pity. Even the hulk has feelings when he’s calmed back down into his human form.
“I know you are stressed,” I said. But transferring that stress on to me is only making our training and dancing worse, not better. I can help you cope with the stress but not if you just take it out on me.”
“I’ve dedicated my life to Zouk,” he said. “If this fails maybe I’ll just quit and go to working with my father.”
Somehow that fighter in him had escaped. He was (or acted?) defeated.
“I would be sad if you dropped Zouk,” I said, completely meaning it. “You have so much talent and such great ideas. Perhaps you just haven’t been picking the right people to partner with. Perhaps your lack of patience and your anger issues make it so that you need someone who is ready to perform with little to no training: a professional dancer, someone you don’t need to train from zero.” I remembered him saying he worked well with Natasha Terekhina, a top Zouk dancer who has been dancing professionally for many years.
In retrospect I see that I was taking some of the blame for what was happening. It could have been that this was his strategy, that he wasn’t wounded but just switching tactics. But at the time these thoughts were far from my mind. He had disarmed me and I was in mothering mode.
He told me the story of the horse who crushed his foot. It was the third time he had told me the story. Maybe he was trying to resurrect the fighter in himself, or perhaps in me.
He got up and went to bed without saying anything else. I stayed up until 5am, anxious. Clearly this was over. I needed to be firm on the fact that I wasn’t going to Europe. I needed to move out. I went through the options in my head.
He woke me up at 9am. “It’s beach time. Lets go,” he said.
“I’m so exhausted, I stayed up till late last night thinking about what we talked about. I’m going to stay in and rest.”
“I try to do nice things for you and this is how you react!” He was agitated again. I was clearly not responding according to his plan. I gave up on trying to go back to sleep. This was so childish of him. My anger gave me the courage to confront him.
“Your anger is making it impossible for me to work with you!” I said. “You don’t respect me or my body. I refuse to work with someone like this. Do you realize you’ve been yelling at me almost non stop since yesterday?”
“Fine, if you don’t want to go to the beach, put on your shoes, we’ll go meet my brothers. They’re going carting.”
Once again, his logic completely escaped me.
“No, you and I need to be separate, ALONE, today! We need to chill out.”
“But we’re partners! You need to stop running away from our problems!” he said.
“I’m not going carting.” I grabbed my backpack and left.
I went to the gym to stretch out my body and relax my mind. As I counted to 60 in my no-yet-full split, I realized that he still thought I would go to Europe with him. He wasn’t getting the message no matter what I said. I needed to move out ASAP. I began to feel a wave of panic. How would he react to me choosing to leave? Best to do it today, the only day his family was home during the day. They wouldn’t let things get out of hand….. but I knew the safest thing would be to get out before Kamacho got back. Best not be face to face when breaking the news. I left the gym and went back to pack.
I had one suitcase, two large duffel bags, a large hiking backpack and a small book bag. They contained all the things I had packed for those summer months plus my winter clothes that I had asked a friend to bring to the Miami congress in preparation for the Europe tour with Kamacho. I gathered all of my things by the front door and felt like a gypsy. As I was about to open the door, Kamacho’s father, who had been taking a nap, came into the living room.
“Are you leaving?” he asked sleepily.
“I just can’t stay here anymore. Kamacho is scaring me. I can’t work with someone who is treating me the way he is. But I want to thank you for letting me stay in your house and for being so kind to me.”
“I had a talk with Kamacho this morning. I told him you would leave if he kept treating you this way.” said his father. “Where are you going? Let me take you.”
I was touched by his offer. He drove me to where I was staying when I first got to Brazil: Ana’s family agreed to have me stay with them for a while even though she was no longer in town.
When all five pieces of luggage along with the various plastic bags were on the living room floor and the door was shut behind me, I took a deep breath. Safe, I thought.
The more we trained, the better I danced, and yet the less patience he had with me. He would often say things like, “this is shit” or “any grandmother off the street could do this better than you” or curse or talk about how many great dancers out there would be happy to take my spot. He raised his voice often, frustrated because I couldn’t pick something up right away. He made me feel small, worthless. Like he was doing me a huge favor that I didn’t even deserve.
At the social dance evenings, after a full day of training he would dance about eight songs in a row with me—that’s about half an hour—but full out, as if we were performing. His lead was always intense, sometimes to the point of being brutal, especially if I wasn’t following his lead correctly. His philosophy seemed to be that if I wasn’t understanding the lead he could physically force me into the right position, which sometimes resulted in painful contortions of my body and neck. To dance with him at the socials my body had to brace itself, all my muscles engaged, trying to prevent him from doing damage. If I asked to take a break before he felt we were finished, he would either insist that I dance more or allow me to retreat while saying something about my lack of dedication.
One evening after one of these marathon sessions, Kamacho and I were sitting and talking at one of the tables. A man came over and asked me to dance. I looked over at Kamacho for his permission—after all, I didn’t want to ignite his anger and I knew he was particular in his opinions as to whom I should and should not be dancing with. He nodded. “Go.”
Dancing with someone who was not Kamacho at that time was both disappointing and liberating. Many of the dancers did not have the level and musicality he had, and as his budding student I became easily bored with dancers who fell short. At the same time dancing with others was liberating. They weren’t expecting me to be perfect, they weren’t yelling at me, they allowed me to be playful with my movements, and best of all I could ease the fear out of my body.
The guy I was dancing with was not a great leader and I was just waiting for the song to be over. Suddenly he pinched my leg between his and pulled it forward as he forced me back into a cambre then quickly brought me up again. With my weight off my leg and my body caught of guard, my neck suffered the consequences. I felt a sharp pain up my neck and down the right side of my back as my head whipped forward. Now I was angry. What the hell was THAT move? What an IDIOT, I thought. The song ended soon after, and I walked away without saying anything. I massaged my neck at the table. Kamacho got up and pulled me onto the dance floor. With the first head movement he lead, a jolt of pain went through my neck and back and made me wince. “The guy I just danced with did a move and now I think I pulled a muscle in my neck,” I told him, worried and upset.
“Ha! That’s not MY problem.” said Kamacho. “I’m not the one who did that to you.” He made me continue dancing but each time he led head movement the pain shocked my senses. I kept wincing involuntarily. Finally I made him stop, I just couldn’t anymore. “Fine,” he said. “We’ll leave then.”
I couldn’t sleep from the pain that night. That weekend I rested at Ana’s apartment. Kamacho told me I should apply Salompas, a medicated stick-on pad. He offered to buy it and give it to Ana at one of the parties to pass on to me. On Monday I announced to Kamacho that I had clearly pulled a muscle and that I would stop doing head movement for a week to let it heal. He said we could work on other Zouk techniques so we continued working that week. Our sessions were shorter since even other movements aggravated my neck. After a week and a half I was feeling better. We were both feeling pressure to finish the choreography for Prague.
The first day I said I would try doing head movement we went to the studio and spent two hours on continuous head movement. I felt like he was trying to compensate for the week and a half that we hadn’t trained. My neck was in pain but I kept going until I it got bad enough that I had to stop.
We eased up on head movement. We danced without it at the parties. I deluded myself into thinking I was getting better. We had just one more week until I had to go to Florida to teach at a Congress and do a freelance writing job, both of which had been planned before I had met Kamacho. The 10-day trip was going to take a big chunk of the six weeks we had until Prague and the debut of the new choreography, “Impossible” which everyday seemed closer to being just that.
He would tell me the same story over and over again. How a horse had smashed his foot into a million pieces. How he was left home alone with a broken foot. How on the day of his final exams in high school there was a public transportation strike so he resolved to walk to school on his broken foot. Fortunately for him, a passerby took pity and offered him a lift.
The story is a distillation of his essence as a hero, a fighter. He says his life has been a constant battle, but he has always done whatever it took to overcome life’s obstacles.
He chose the song “Impossible” because James Arthur’s story, his voice, and the music all deeply resonate with him. Although he hadn’t translated the lyrics, that one word held so much power. Kamacho was out to prove that nothing was impossible.
His mom left when he he was young. I don’t recall what age he said it was—maybe seven. He grew up with his Dad and two older brothers. He didn’t tell me the whole story, but she is back in their lives now, involved and supportive. She lives just a few blocks away and brings her youngest son food, arrives at a moment’s notice to comfort and counsel him, and prays for him all the time. Unlike his brothers, who work with their dad in the family business, Kamacho decided to forge his own path. He had dreamt of being a soccer player and at 14, according to him, was on the path to becoming a professional. Butthe horse shattered his foot and his dreams. He began dancing while he was with his ex-girlfriend, Brenda Carvalho, who was already a high-level dancer. He found his new goal, to become a professional dancer. From what I saw while I was living there, his family has been very supportive of his choice.
The first week we trained together he told me he sensed that I too had been through many challenges in my life and thus could find a connection to “Impossible.” At the time it felt as though he was peering into my soul, but more likely it was that I was so full of determination and fearlessness that it oozed out of everything I did.
If I can’t sleep, you can’t either
We were at a Samba and Zouk social. I spent most of the evening massaging my neck and upper back and chatting with one of the male dancers. I was physically exhausted as usual, and it felt good to have someone new to talk to. Since the congress (at the beginning of my trip), I hadn’t made any friends in Rio. Kamacho warned me that there were a lot of ill-meaning people in the community—that I should be wary. He constantly reminded me that one of Brigitte’s biggest faults was that she cared more about socializing than about dancing. He did, however, concede that she is a good person, and was great in classes because she spoke to and was friendly with everyone. But his point was that right now I couldn’t waste my time looking for friends.
Everything seemed fine between us at the social, but as soon as we stepped out Kamacho released his inner hulk. He was outraged that I had spent so much time chatting with this guy. It was such a waste of my time! And of his!!! He spent all day every day training ME, and this is how I repaid him: going to parties to flirt with guys rather than train what I was learning! SO UNACCEPTABLE!
I was mystified by how one night of “relaxation” seemed to efface all the hard work I had been putting in for over a month.
He was walking fast and in front of me and I was almost running to keep up with him. He yelled down the street at the top of his lungs but luckily(?) at that hour the streets were abandoned and no one but me was there to hear him. I tried to calm him down, to explain that I was exhausted and in pain and just wanted a break.
“If you want to flirt with guys, do that on your own time, do it after the social!” He wasn’t listening to what I was saying. Or rather, he wasn’t accepting what I was saying. Perhaps he feared that I was not serious about pursuing the dream, or that my neck injury was making me lazy, or that I would not be perfect in time for Prague. But most of all it was frustration that he so much wanted to create but his new instrument (me) was broken.
He continued yelling in the cab. I tried another strategy—expressing my own anger. That didn’t work. I began to get worried. How much longer would this continue? If he was comfortable yelling like this in public, would it escalate once we got back to his house? I began to say whatever it took to calm him down. He finally stopped yelling when we got home. I was exhausted. I went straight to bed. Ten minutes later he opened my door and said, “things are going to be different from now on! I’m going to be thinking about our partnership!” Annoyed by this intrusion. I said “OK, whatever,” and lay back down, pulling my eye mask back on. He banged the sliding door shut. Five minutes later he came back in—this time he left the door open and sat on the floor, his back to the wall and feet pressed up against the bed.
“What now?” I asked.
“I’m too upset to sleep. If I can’t sleep you can’t either.”
The logic of this was almost hilarious but he was serious. It became clear to me that he hadn’t yet achieved one of the hallmarks of emotional adulthood: the ability to be alone with our emotions, to soothe ourselves rather than seek others to help to contain us. At this point I just wanted to sleep. I don’t even remember what I said, but I was able to pacify him, to relieve him of his anger enough so that he finally left my room.
That day I understood that his emotions are too much for him to handle, that he has to unload them onto someone. And as his partner, and often the cause of his tempers, I would be that person.
January 9th, 2014:It was my first time in Rio de Janeiro. I landed, rushed to my friend Ana’s house to shower and change and made it to the opening party of the Zouk congress hosted by Ranata Peçanha, known as the Queen of Zouk. I felt so lucky to just be in the same space as all these amazing social dancers and world-renowned teachers. It was the beginning of 4 days of nonstop classes and parties. I was in Zouk heaven.
I met Kamacho at the end of the third night. In the middle of our conversation he began staring at my feet and asked me if I did ballet. Apparently I was standing in first position with a lovely turn out without even realizing it.
He continued asking me questions: why was I here in Brazil and what were my goals? (Perfect my Zouk and become a professional dancer). Could I travel in Europe? (Yes.) Did I have a job or other commitments such as children or a husband that would prevent me from pursuing this full time? (No.) Could I do a split? (Yes, with my right leg.) After this “interview” he said, “Great. I’m looking for a partner. Would you like to train with me?”
I was in disbelief. Kamacho, the Brazilian dancer who had traveled all over Europe and whose Youtube videos I had been watching and using to practice, wanted to train with ME? At the time it didn’t seem strange to me that we hadn’t even danced yet. I was starstruck. My dreams were about to come true, and it was only my 3rd day in Brazil. The universe seemed to be plotting in my favor.
Two days after the congress ended we were already training in the living room of his family’s apartment. The year before he had installed mirrors on two of the walls to make it like a dance studio. When I got there he had already made space to rehearse by stacking the couches one on top of the other and pushing them off in a corner. On that first day he said we were going to start working on a choreography and he showed me the music and some of the movements he wanted to incorporate. His goal was to perform it at the Prague Zouk congress which was in two and a half months. I had only been learning zouk for one year at that point and was flattered that he thought I would be able to improve enough in that short time to perform and teach with him at the biggest zouk congress in Europe.
He also told me he was going to teach at a congress in the state of Sao Paulo that weekend and wanted me to go with him. I was very hesitant. How could a “gringa” like me go and teach Brazilians how to dance Brazilian Zouk after just a week of training?
I finally agreed to go. When we arrived I was nervous and asked him to show me what he was going to teach in his workshops so that I could feel prepared. For both workshops he found an excuse not to go over the movements with me. Perhaps he didn’t actually have a plan and made up the move he was going to teach on the spot, but either way he didn’t explain anything to me. One move involved multiple turns on one foot, but the vinyl covered floor made my foot stick and what should have been breezy spins felt like turning in molasses. I felt the twisting and pressure in my knee, and knew from what I learned in physiotherapy that when the knee goes one way and the foot refuses to follow—as was happening now—I risked injury. I asked him to move to another spot where the floor was bare, explaining the problem to him and thinking he would oblige knowing we had to perform that night and knowing that I already had a sensitive knee from a past injury and needed to be careful. But Kamacho held tight to the philosophy that life is struggle and that we need to constantly prove that we can overcome any and all external forces that are against you. If the floor was sticky, then I had to place my body differently, or hold my foot stronger or…. something!!!! Moving to another spot was a “weak” person’s response. He didn’t like weak people.
The day of the performance we were running on only three hours of sleep. We had gone to the congress party the night before and gotten up at 7am to have an 8am lifts class with Marcelo Grangeiro, considered one of the best in Brazil for lifts and tricks. Kamacho said it was the fastest way to learn, to train with the best. At 10am we gave a class and after he started teaching me the movements he wanted to use in that night’s performance. Both of us hot and tired, he began to lose patience with me. When I kept doing the movement wrong, I asked him a question about my body placement and how it didn’t feel natural. “Why do you ask stupid questions? Stop talking and just do it,” he retorted. I realized he was offended because he thought I was questioning his technique, so I explained that I just wanted to understand. This made him angrier. He sat down and refused to keep teaching me. I had to beg him—the way you do with a petulant child—to keep working with me. It was going to be my first demo and I didn’t want to look bad. I decided to keep silent about his behavior so that we could just move on.
That night we shared the stage with some of Brazil’s best dancers. I was lucky that I was so ignorant of who these people were back then, otherwise I would have been ten times more nervous. We were the only ones who hadn’t prepared a choreography, who were doing an improvised performance. As Kamacho saw the others and the fact that their dance numbers included tricks and lifts, he decided he wanted to do one of our own. About five minutes before we went onstage, he taught me the trick that was going to become the highlight of our demo (see video below at minute 2:47). I was so hesitant to do it—it was something I had just learned! What if something went wrong? He was not impressed with my lack of courage. “I’m going to lead it—just do it.”
I did it. He was very pleased.
Back in Rio de Janeiro, we went back to training.
I went to his house everyday which was an 80 minute bus ride from where I was staying. We would train all day there and in the evening when his family got home we would go to a nearby dance studio to continue training. Then it was another 80 minutes to get home. On some nights we went to the Zouk socials and practiced had taught me there. Those days were exhausting but I felt that it made sense to endure this pace if I wanted to improve quickly.
He was strict in that he wanted me to work on something over and over until it was perfect, rather than slowly building my level up day by day. He would often lose patience with me and say things like: “how can I choreograph and be creative if I have to be stopping every five minutes to show you technique?” That was true and I understood why it frustrated him but he also knew that I was only an intermediate Zouk dancer and had come to Brazil knowing that I had a lot to learn. But I didn’t confront him because I felt that I was learning so much from him and was so motivated to get better quickly. I thought that as I got better, I would be able to win his patience.
This is from an email I sent a good friend on January 20th:
“Right now I’m feeling a bit stressed because like many talented artists, Kamacho is a bit crazy- goes from complete lack of focus to total immersion, is very disorganized, etc. Also he has a philosophy that clashes with mine: for example he gets upset when I want to have a good night’s sleep (rather than dance at a party all night) and get up early to train. He can go for long bouts of not eating (clearly completely opposite from how I choose to treat my body). It is worrisome that he has gone through many other dance partners who he did not consider to be appropriate, and seems to be looking for perfection. I know that I should just experiment and see what can come out of this and that I can choose a different path if this is not for me, it is just more difficult to see clearly when you seem to be on the path to your dream: with him I will have the opportunity to teach and perform internationally which is a rare feat even for some of the most talented dancers here….”
One night he was choreographing in the studio. I kept glancing at the clock over the mirrors. 11pm. 11:30pm. 11:50pm. A long bus ride lay ahead and where I got off was residential, no stores and next to a highway. As a foreigner in Rio de Janeiro, I knew that it was not safe to be walking the streets alone at this time. I didn’t even have a phone to call Ana and let her know that I would be getting back late. I explained these things to Kamacho and said I had to go. He insisted I stay since he was in his moment of inspiration and wanted to keep choreographing. “I really can’t stay,” I said, “but would be happy to keep working tomorrow.” He turned his back to me and didn’t say anything. I quietly gathered my things and started going down the stairs that led to the street. As I was heading down I realized we had not agreed on a time to meet the next day, so I went back up to ask. I was met with indignant yelling. How dare I interrupt him in his creative process when I had made the choice to stop in the middle of it and leave!?! “I’m not talking to you!!” he screamed. I retreated, shaken and confused.
I made it back to Ana’s apartment in one piece and the next morning messaged him to see what time we would meet, thinking it would be best to ignore the previous day’s outburst. He insisted we talk over skype. He expressed his disappointment in me. He said he was looking for a partner that had the same “head” as him, a.k.a., that thought the same and had the same approach to achieving goals. He said this was the most important thing, and he wanted to know if I had it. If I did, I would be willing to stay up and rehearse for as long as it took (in retrospect I realize that ment as long as he wanted to). He said I needed to understand that these were the qualities of a professional and a great dancer.
He found it. My weak spot. I have always been an overachiever and no one has ever had to tell me to push myself harder because I’ve always been my toughest critic. I had left my job, learned Portuguese, gone to Brazil, was using my savings to train in Zouk full time, and had committed to training with him every day until the Prague congress—but apparently that wasn’t enough. I felt I had to defend myself. “But even if I want to stay, I have a 80 minute bus ride back!” Well you can sleep at my house if that makes it easier for you, he said. That made sense to me, it meant less travel time and more training time. I assured him that I did have big dreams and was willing to put in the sweat required to reach my goals.
The tiny room I slept in, he eventually told me, he had set up for his ex-partner, Brigitte. It had been painted a soothing purple, and there was an air conditioner for the hot Rio nights. Kamacho treated it as a sanctuary from the rest of the house which was often filled with the wood flooring his Dad’s business sold, and which his dad and brothers would move in and out of the house as orders were filled and materials bought. At first that room felt like a place of peace. But over time, the things that happened in that room made it feel like the walls were closing in. Perhaps they were trying to tell me of the torments that Brigitte had suffered in there. Of the time she actually locked the door (gasp!) in order to talk with her friend on Skype about all the things she was going through only to have Kamacho bang on it and threaten to unplug the internet so she wouldn’t be able to talk with her friend anymore.
She too had trained every day in his living room and they had toured Europe together. “I taught her from zero,” he would boast. “She didn’t even know how to do the boomerang step!” According to him, he ended their partnership because he realized she didn’t have what it took to perform, and he was looking for a partner who could dazzle on stage with him.
He sacrificed himself so that I could sleep over. Unlike the room he shared with his brothers, that small room was free of the all the dust from the flooring that moved in and out of the house. Kamacho’s allergies flared up and so he slept in the living room, sometimes not even bothering to replace the couch and sleeping directly on the floor.
After two weeks it became clear that sleeping over meant we were training or out to a social every night of the week, and I only returned to Ana’s apartment on the weekend to do laundry and repack. Kamacho pressured me into staying the weekend as well so we could get more work done. I finally insisted on moving in so that I wouldn’t have to fight with him over my time anymore, so that every waking moment could be dedicated to training.
Kamacho wanted me to learn Samba de Gafieira and Samba Funkeado as well. Wanting to train with the best, he got a great Samba Funkeado teacher to come in every morning and train us in exchange for Kamacho’s teaching him Zouk. I rarely knew the week’s schedule, he would just wake me up and say “the teacher is here.” I had no say, I just had to follow his lead. We had no set meal times and often I had to ask him if we could please stop to eat something. We lived mostly off of snacks.
One night I was at a Zouk social he had organized. There weren’t many people, so even though he was DJing, he took the opportunity to dance with me and practice. He was correcting and explaining things but with the loud music it was hard to hear. When I didn’t understand or wasn’t doing something right, he’d get frustrated. He started cursing. His frustration led to anger and to very forcefully pushing my body around. Some things I understood and began to get those right, but he never acknowledged what I had corrected, choosing to focus on what I was doing wrong. At one point I felt like I had 20 different things I needed to keep track of while dancing in order not to get him upset. We stopped dancing and I felt devastated. I truly admired him and thought he wanted to help lift me up—but here he was, constantly pushing me down.
An acquaintance was there and asked me why I looked so upset. I started complaining to him about how I had been treated on the dance floor. He told me that there was another Zouk party going on at Renata Peçanha’s school. Did I want to go there instead? I had wanted to go to Renata’s school since I had arrived in Rio de Janeiro but Kamacho had dissuaded me, saying that he had learned at that school, and whatever I wanted to learn there I could learn from him. I took the invitation, said goodbye to Kamacho, and left.
The following day he voiced his indignation. I had betrayed him. How could I leave my own partner’s party like that to go off with some guy? It was unacceptable.
WIth my rudimentary Portuguese it was hard to explain my feelings so I wrote him a long email in English, trying to keep the sentences simple so he could understand. I tried to talk about both the good and the bad, to make him see that I had not intended to offend him.
My email to Kamacho sent on January 26th:
“You are so kind and generous with everyone around you- you give a lot, you share your dance knowledge with them. You are very kind to me, you take care of me and are always making sure I am OK. What I don’t understand is why you are so different when you are training me. You get angry and talk to me in a bad way.
Why do you get so angry and aggressive when I do something wrong? Is this how you want to treat someone that will be your partner? Is this the energy you want to work with? Or are you just frustrated that I am slow to learn things? Like you say, you are free to choose, and if you want a partner that already has the Zouk base so that you don’t have to teach them, that is your choice….
I want to practice a lot and I want to learn from you because I think you are a beautiful dancer. I really like your technique and I think you have incredible knowledge of dance. I want to be your partner because you are so creative and have such an inspiring vision of where you want to take this dance. Because you inspire me. I would love to be part of your creative process. I know that I can become very good if you are willing to put the time and have patience with me. But, I cannot work everyday with someone who only will be angry with me….
Yesterday you did this at the party and it was draining for me. I felt like I could not be in that space anymore. You told me when I left that I do not respect you, but I think it is you who does not treat me with respect when you speak to me the way you do when you are training me.”
His response to my email was: “how I am is just my personality.” He said I needed to make sacrifices to get results. Again he reiterated that he needed someone who was on the same wavelength as him. So again I swore my allegiance. I thought that we had both learned something that night—for me it was that if you have a partner you need to be loyal even if the situation gets shitty, even if you feel shitty.
From an email I sent a friend the following day:
“This week will be the final test run- if I continue to feel that I am uncomfortable with his approach, that it is too psychologically draining for me, I will stop working with him and seek other opportunities. I just feel that I need to prove to myself that there is no way this could work, otherwise I may be left with regret for not having taken this opportunity.”
Deciding to live without regrets was what brought me to Brazil. Every class, every dance show, every congress left me with a bitter “what if?” But this time my need to prove something to myself beyond all doubt would lead to my neck injury.
[To read professional translation of the text below in Portuguese click here.]
He was only about a foot away but was yelling at me as if I was at the other end of a football field. He was upset that I wasn’t understanding the step he was teaching me. His movements were spastic with rage.
He went to the kitchen and started punching the refrigerator. With every hit my heart pounded and my mind raced back to a few days ago when I had forgotten to straighten my leg. He had kicked my knee telling me it would make me remember to do it right next time.
I didn’t realize how scared I was until my stomach knotted up so much that I had to run to the bathroom.
Fast forward to a month later after I had badly injured my neck. “You are going to Prague and you are doing the jobs I booked!” He yelled. “I don’t care if that means your neck will be fucked and you can’t dance Zouk for the next 3 months, the next year, or the rest of your life! You are doing this!”
The next day, while he was out, I packed my bags and left. I was scared that if I told him I couldn’t go to Prague and our partnership was over, he would not be able to control his rage.
How did I get to this point? This is my story.
The person I’m talking about above is Thiago Camacho a.k.a. Kamacho. He is an internationally recognized Brazilian Zouk star. He has won many competitions, and has performed and taught all over Europe, Russia and Brazil. He is an inspiration for dancers everywhere who watch his playful and creative performances full of impressive head movement for the lady. He has fans all over the world who have taken his classes and are in awe of his technique and his teaching.
Most people I have shared my story with are in utter disbelief. How could someone so successful, who is always clowning around in his classes, who seems to have a smile tattooed on his face, do things like that? Some of these people have known him for years, and swear he is a gentle soul.
Kamacho’s creative yet secretly destructive personality is not particular to Zouk or to dance. It exists across disciplines and communities. These personalities thrive where reputation and success are valued over all else, even respect for fellow human beings.
The few incidents I describe at the beginning of this story are just the tip of the iceberg and give you an idea of why I stopped working with Kamacho.
But I am not unique.
This is not just my story.Kamacho has been through a list of partners. One has a restraining order against him, another has a scar on her wrist from one of their training sessions, and he purposely dropped a third in the middle of a lift. In his mind, it was all their fault. Almost as if they made him do these things…
We have all remained silent. After all, each of us thought, what power does one voice have against the thousands of fans who adore him? And even if the dance community became aware of what he has done, would they think that the good of the many (all the people he has inspired and taught) outweigh the harm to the few (the partners he has abused physically and psychologically)?
I do not have the answers to these questions but I choose to break the silence because I want awareness. I want to protect future victims. I want readers to come up with their own answers to these difficult questions.
You Are My Diamond
It’s so beautiful from the outside. I’m watching the video of Kamacho and I dancing in front of a crowd of students at a congress in Sao Paulo. We have matching orange shirts that say “Professor” and “Professora.” The “floor” we’re dancing on is actually squares of wood on grass, some more elevated than others, some with gaps in between. As we are dancing, I trip over one of these elevated squares. “Shit!” I thought, watching the footage the same day it was filmed, “now our first demo video is ruined!” But Kamacho brings us back to that same spot, this time lifting me up so I gently float over. He was all about finding creative solutions. Of proving there is always some way to overcome obstacles that are set in our path.
It makes me sad to watch the video. It captured the beauty and concealed the misery. If only he could have been sane—if only he had treated me as a partner and not an object—we could have done so much together.
He used to call me his diamond. I was a precious stone he found that would help him shine. In the worst moments—those where he made me feel like a rotting pile of shit that he so generously offered to clean up—he would sometimes say it, looking me straight in the eyes, “You are my diamond.”
Being reminded I was precious to him made me accept being treated otherwise. I held on to those words, that promise. He told me that in order to make a diamond, you have to put the stone through intense heat and pressure. That’s how he justified what he put me through. It was for my own good.
“Your head needs to be like THIS dammit!!” he said as he cupped his hands over my ears and jerked my head roughly up to the diagonal. My body should have formed a perfect diagonal from the top of my head to the foot of my extended leg, but I kept tilting my head too much and breaking that line.
Proper body placement in dance is achieved and refined through imitation, visual feedback (looking at yourself in the mirror and correcting), and repetition. But Kamacho’s training seemed to include another element that I hadn’t experienced before: making the body remember through pain. Logically, it makes sense: pain is an intense stimulus, one that the body and mind are sure to pay attention to and remember. When I forgot to stretch my leg, he kicked my knee—a prompt for my body to do the right thing.
Perhaps violence was his way of talking to my body when he couldn’t get through to my mind. He did not have patience to wait for the natural evolution of my technique.
We were practicing a trick where I leapt over his back, dived through his legs and finished with him pulling me up to face him. It wasn’t a difficult trick, but neither of us had done it before so we kept repeating it to tweak body positioning and make it flawless. With Kamacho, you couldn’t move on until something was perfect. Both of us had things that needed correcting, but in his mind whenever something went wrong it was his partner who had erred. I remember when I asked about an incident where he had dropped an ex-partner from a lift. He explained that it was because his partner was overweight. She refused to lose those extra pounds no matter how many times he told her. So one day, he decided to just let go. He felt he was not responsible for the consequences.
When we were practicing our trick he decided to apply the same philosophy. Before diving onto his back, I had to run towards him and when I got close enough, jump. Apparently the trick wasn’t working because I was starting the jump too close to him. We tried again. He said I was still too close. We tried a third time. Still too close. He was getting frustrated. On the fourth try, I ran towards him and suddenly I was flying backwards. Somehow I managed to catch myself without falling onto my back.
I was in shock. “Why did you do that?” I whispered. “So next time you will remember not to start your jump so close to me,” was his reply. I could suffered serious injury, but that was my problem. He was not responsible for the consequences.
His lack of empathy was a huge red flag from the beginning and I must have done some serious and successful mind acrobatics to ignore it. After the shock wore off, it was replaced by fear. But instead of backing down, I resolved to keep repeating it until we got it right. Perhaps I thought getting it perfect would mean he wouldn’t continue to use his method to “make me remember” things.
We continued practicing the trick. My mind tried hard to ignore the fear but I couldn’t erase the knowledge that he didn’t care if I got hurt while we were training. Each time I ran to him my body braced itself in case he decided to stick out his hands again.This time his balance was off and he fell backwards and landed on my foot. As pain shot up my leg, I immediately thought my ankle was sprained. Louder than the pain was the worry in my mind: now I wouldn’t be able to finish training! Now how were we going to finish the choreography in time for our European tour? Shit-shit-shit!! I was completely focused on my ankle: I rubbed it vigorously, got up and hobbled to the kitchen, got ice, sat back down and pressed the ice on. The pain was subsiding and I calmed down. I finally looked up at him. He was sitting with his back against the wall, one arm resting on a bent knee. His face was completely blank.
At the time I was afraid it was a deep anger that was brewing within that look. The one that usually led to his yelling at me, telling me that he was wasting his time with me, while I stood there looking at the ground with my stomach in a knot trying to pretend I wasn’t there. I tried to cool down his thoughts before he erupted. “I think it’s OK., it think it’s just bruised, not to worry.” I put the ice down and got up. I began to walk around. “Yeah, it’s fine, definitely not sprained. Don’t worry.” Blank stare.
Through the haze of the horrific, I extracted some gems of knowledge: things I learned from him that truly made me progress as a dancer. I dramatically improved my head movement technique. I learned what gave the basic step the Brazilian feel that seemed to elude most dancers. Most importantly I learned his philosophy on how to listen to the music. Music is your number one partner, he would say. When you dance, you aren’t dancing with your partner, rather you are dancing with the music. If you are both walking the path that the music carves out, you will be more in sync with each other than if you merely followed your partner. This philosophy of music awareness was something I felt sometimes when dancing, but he made the idea explicit and it made me more aware of the music than I had been before.
He even got to root of my trouble with choreography. I will never forget when he said to me, “It is not the step or your body that is the problem, it is your memory.” He pinpointed an issue I had been in denial about for a long time—my bad memory. I was so determined to improve my dance, to be the perfect partner, that the same day I signed up for online memory training.
How a Neuroscientist Turned Journalist Ended up Pursuing Her Passion for Dance in Brazil
I’ve been dancing since before I can remember. My mom signed me up for ballet when I was four. When I was eight I would spend some afternoons blasting Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake on my dad’s enormous Technics stereo and performing for an imaginary audience. Dance took all of the emotions lodged inside and sent them through my body in surges of leg lifts, arm gestures and head tilts.
Dance has been my passion, my obsession, the house for my soul. You would think I would have become a professional dancer by the age of 14. But my father the scientist was appalled by the idea of dance as a career. In fact, to him it was merely a hobby.
The first fork in the road came when I had to apply to high school. Living in New York City, there were many prestigious schools: Stuyvesant for math and science, LaGuardia for the fine arts. “You will starve with dance,” was my father’s verdict. We spent the summer studying for the Stuyvesant entrance exams. And when I got home with that green slip of paper that was my acceptance letter, I just could not ignore the joy in my dad’s eyes. He was so proud of me.
Making my dad proud was not easy. When I came home with a 94% on an exam, he’d ask why I hadn’t gotten a 98%. Being critical was his way of pushing me to do more—it was his way of showing he believed in me. But to a teenage girl who adored her father it was heartbreaking. I never seemed to be good enough.
When I was in college, I rebelled from my dad’s reign-of-science by taking Political Science, Literature, Languages, and Philosophy. “What are you going to do with all of that?” he asked. I didn’t know. I took Calculus and Physics to make him happy. I felt like I was constantly walking two paths, never fully on one or the other. I finally chose to major in Psychology, thinking it could combine the two.
Ironically, it was my dad who pushed me to learn Argentine Tango, the first partner dance I ever learned. He became obsessed with it when I was 14 (perhaps wanting to go back to his roots) and decided I would be his partner so that he could practice at home. At the beginning I was resistant. When we started out the Tango community was dominated by people ages 40 and up—a very unappealing environment for a teen. But eventually we got good enough to learn choreographies and perform and I grew to love it.
While in college in Montreal I met a couple who had learned Tango in Paris, home of a thriving and young Tango community. They were in their early 30s and were hoping people closer to their age would become a part of the Montreal community. I started taking a lesson with them once a week and going out dancing about three times a week. Eventually we recruited more young enthusiasts and built a lovely social circle. We’d organize trips to Tango festivals in Boston, New York, Rhode Island, even to San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. My social life revolved around tango, as often did my school work.
At the festivals I met many wonderful people that taught dance for a living. They traveled all over the country (and some all over the world) teaching and performing. What a wonderful life—I wanted to do that!
I entertained the notion for a while. But, “you’re too smart for that kind of life,” was my dad’s argument. Doubts and insecurities lingered. I had a boyfriend that I was living with. It felt unrealistic.
I graduated. I started a Master’s in Neuroscience. I finished the Master’s deeply unsatisfied with my life in the laboratory. I didn’t want to “waste” my undergraduate and Master’s degrees so I looked for something that could build upon my existing knowledge base. Science Writing! I started a certificate in Journalism. I broke up with the boyfriend I was living with. With my certificate I moved back to NYC and did an internship with Psychology Today Magazine and then the prestigious Scientific American Mind Magazine.
I was successful. But unhappy. At every fork in the road, the same feeling came back to nag me: the “what if” feeling. What if I had chosen dance?
While doing my internships I began to delve into Brazilian Zouk. I had started with a few classes in Montreal, and was instantly reeled in by the soft undulating body movements and the very uncommon head movements. In NYC I joined a performance team. I began working with a partner on a choreography to compete at a congress in Toronto. I was hooked.
Seeing my articles published in a magazine never gave me the sheer joy that dancing and performing did. I made a decision. I would pursue dance. I was 28—it was now or never.
It was May. I took a part time administrative job and dedicated the rest of my time to Zouk. by September I decided that I wanted to go all the way. I would go to Brazil and train there for four months. I wanted to be a professional, I wanted to get on the congress circuit and teach and travel.
My Zouk friends told me that I had a rough road ahead. Most of the people who were paid to travel were Brazilians. Unless I partnered with a Brazilian, I had zero chance of international travel. And all the girls wanted a Brazilian partner… good luck finding that!
But the “what if” was stronger than any of these so-called road blocks. I didn’t know how far I would get, but I was going to put myself out there and try. Try my hardest. The universe could decide to take it away from me, but for now, no human voice could deter me.
I had taken a leap of faith, and even my dad’s anger and protests at this insane decision couldn’t stop me. I felt invincible.