South America has been a special part of my life for four decades. I have lived many years in Brasil and Peru. I am married to an incredible lady from Argentina. I want to share South America with you.
They gather in their thousands on Saturday nights at ‘Baile Charme’, or ‘charming party’, to dance in sync to old-school R&B, and anyone can join in. Just watch your left feet, says Georgia Grimond.
Photographs by Lara Ciarabellini
It’s Saturday night under a viaduct in the north of Rio. Another Level’s “Be Alone No More” is filling the hot and heavy air. Quietly and seemingly magically, close to 2,000 people are sliding, spinning, grooving to the music. They move as one, altogether and in time. The occasional well-timed finger click or hand clap signals a spin or change of direction, otherwise it is slick slides, shoulder rolls and a relaxed concentration that is directing the crowd as they dance the night away.
This is “Baile Charme”, or “charming party”: a celebration of black music and culture that began more than two decades ago but which has been enjoying a revival in Rio over the past few years. In the 1980s, before Brazilian funk boomed on to the scene, soul and R&B dance parties were typical weekend events, particularly in the favelas that are home to large black populations. In 1990, a group of street vendors organised a carnival-style bloco, or street party, under the viaduct. The celebration went on to become Baile Charme. Now the movement is springing up in other parts of the city, with monthly events in both Lapa and Gamboa in the centre of Rio.
Nattily dressed guys, often in a tipped trilby, tend to lead from the front row. Behind, rows form, and at the front DJs spin a back catalogue of crowd-pleasers, from the likes of Mary J Blige, Luther Vandross and Beverley Knight. Surrounding the dancers, street vendors set up shop, selling beer, Smirnoff Ice and water from coolboxes. The choreography of so many is a remarkable sight – it is almost impossible to resist the urge to join in.
Nattily dressed guys, often in a tipped trilby, lead from the front row. It is almost impossible to resist the urge to join in
The moves aren’t difficult but it requires a fair bit of practice to get your feet round them. Lessons are held in Madureira in Zona Norte every Saturday afternoon but no one wants to be the clumsy gringo flailing at the back. For visitors, observing the dancers at the smaller events in Centro before sneaking into the back row to tame your two left feet can be a less daunting way to learn. Evenings are free and open, and easily found on Facebook. They tend to get going around 10pm and can run into the early hours.
In 2012 the movement was brought to the attention of millions when Avenida Brasil, one of Brazil’s most popular soap operas, featured the dancing at a similar party they called Baile do Divino. A year later the social and historical importance of Baile Charme and the dusty urban corner under the thundering flyovers where it began were recognised by the City as part of Rio’s “intangible cultural heritage”. More than 100 Baile Charme dancers have even been recruited from the streets to star in the opening and closing Olympic ceremonies. So what began as a street party will now be broadcast all over the world.
Scenes from a Baile Charme party under the Madureira viaduct, one Saturday this July