This article is adapted from AQ’s print issue on peace and economic opportunity in Colombia
When Hatus Rodrigues first ventured into Rio de Janeiro’s charme dance scene, it was in hopes of getting over a girl.
Sore from a bad breakup back in 2014, the telecom sales agent took a cousin’s advice to check out a legendary hip-hop party that materializes, strobe-lit and bass-heavy, under a highway overpass in Rio’s Madureira neighborhood on Saturday nights.
He soon forgot the girl, and found a world that hooked him through “friendships, the celebration of black pride, and the thrill of snapping into line to a great beat.” With his short dreadlocks and enormous smile, Rodrigues, 26, became of one of the regulars who have kept this alternative dance scene — and redoubt of black identity — alive for 27 years.
The term charme, applied to American R&B that’s been digested and transformed, Rio-style, into a scene with its own aesthetics, moves and culture, was first used by a DJ named Corello who played a circuit dubbed the Black Rio Movement in the 1970s. Although segregation was never legally mandated in Brazil, black social clubs boomed on the city’s outskirts during this time as safe and affirming nightlife options for black cariocas, as Rio natives are known.
In the late ’70s, disco sped up the rhythm. To break up the faster songs, in the early ’80s Corello started to reserve a sequence mid-set for Marvin Gaye and other soul songs under 90 beats per minute, announcing, “It’s time for charm (charminho); move your body nice and slow (devagarinho).” Partygoers adopted moves from the corresponding music videos, primarily turntable-facing line dances done in unison (think the electric slide), a style for which charme became shorthand.
Fluency in different dance subcultures has long allowed Rio residents to circulate widely through the music-rich city, escaping the rigid social and racial hierarchies of daytime. This is clear in what choreographer Marcus Azevedo calls “the four pillars of charme: music, dance, fashion and respect.”
Cues for clothing and hairstyles came from R&B musicians and shows such as The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which broadcast the life of a well-to-do black family to a Brazilian audience 20 years before a primetime national sitcom would do the same.
Over time, charme culture “Brazilianized,” said Azevedo, with original choreography that sent hips and feet moving faster and looser than in the genre’s American cousin. Dances multiplied around Rio through the early ’90s, when Brazil’s black political activists fought a heated national battle for affirmative action. In 1994 charme organizers got authorization for weekly use of the Madureira flyover.
Another reason charme flourished is that it requires no training or partner; anyone can follow along. That said, the dances, or bailes, are places to see and be seen, so classes help adepts polish their routines. Azevedo leads one of these at a rec center in Madureira.
On a recent Saturday, Rodrigues joined 12 other dancers in one of Azevedo’s midmorning classes. The neighborhood around the center was bustling — it’s an economic hub of Rio’s working-class north side — but tense; people rushed through Saturday errands amid a recession that has dashed hopes of an easier life. News of shootouts the previous night between drug traffickers and police streamed from car stereos, and a blazing heat signaled the arrival of spring. The leafy rec center was a refuge.
To start, Azevedo led the pack of 18- to 56-year-olds through stomps, full body shakes, and a knee-twisting jump called the Brooklyn Dance to TLC’s “Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg.” Charme is a “four-wall dance,” he explained: its moves can be repeated facing the front, the back, the left, and the right of a hypothetical room.
After the Saturday class, Azevedo chatted with students. Charme was in everyone’s plans that evening. Jessica Oliveira, a telemarketer from the Maré favela, would join her mom at a monthly charme street party in the city center, then meet up with Roberta Silva, a mohawked office assistant, at the overpass later that night. Rodrigues would be there too — though he was going to hit the barbershop first. He decided to wear an Afro two years ago, after seeing the style at the Madureira baile; now he browses black hairstyles on Instagram to show his neighborhood barber before deciding on a trim.
Over lunch, Azevedo said the only thing charme lacks is music that speaks of local experiences.
“We’ve built a whole dance repertoire around New Jack Swing” — a drum machine-laced fusion of hip-hop and dance-pop from the ’80s and ’90s that includes the Fresh Prince theme song — “but those songs don’t tell details of Brazilian realities the way that samba, Rio funk, and Brazilian rap do,” he said.
Many say the language difference, rather than acting as a barrier, inserts charme in a global black community. For dancer Jader Gama, being part of this community means dancing but also taking up activism about racial inequality in Brazil’s criminal justice system. For Rodrigues, it includes how he wears his hair.
“It’s part of the black diaspora’s worldwide art of sampling elements from one another,” said Gama.
Indeed, charme often appears in dialogue with other Brazilian genres. Prominent Rio funk artist and New Jack Swing devotee MC Smith just had Azevedo choreograph a charme portion of his newest music video, and a staple charme routine is choreographed to a song that remixes Brazilian rapper Rappin Hood with MPB troubadour Caetano Veloso.
When Brazil’s Deborah Colker designed last year’s Olympic opening ceremony as an homage to Brazilian dance, samba and traditional maracatu percussion shared the stage with over 1,000 line dancers in Afros, warm-up jackets, high-top haircuts and sneakers, in tribute to Rio charme.
Later on that Saturday night, Gama, Rodrigues, Oliveira and Azevedo reunited under the golden light of streetlamps outside the baile. Inside, swiveling spotlights spun purple, red, blue and green hues across the dancers. Although Madureira’s tough cityscape was on full display, with buses hurtling by on the elevated highways that flank the party arena, on the dance floor friends greeted each other with high-fives.
First-timers watched as advanced dancers inserted joking theatrics between the swinging and popping of seemingly every joint. Oliveira danced with friends from class and from other more baile encounters.
Stepping out, she explained that in charme, community is key: “The star dancers are the ones who are most in sync with others.”
Osborn is a journalist based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil