Pamela Stephenson is hooked on zouk, while freestyle football comes direct from the favelas, writes Kelly Apter
Pamela Stephenson Connolly is teaching me the art of stealing. No, she and husband Billy haven’t fallen on hard times. This is stealing of a different kind. The kind where two male dancers vie for the same woman; where a man twists and turns between a couple to create a new partnership.
“It’s very rule-bound,” Stephenson tells me, “it’s not a free for all. There are a lot of rules about when you can steal the girl.” At which point two men walk past and Stephenson leaps up – “Hey guys, come here” – and she’s off. What felt like a tutorial in the Brazilian dance style of lambazouk suddenly turns into a demonstration.
If the setting feels incongruous – we’re in the canteen at Dundee College – the movement couldn’t look more natural. Stephenson is in her element, sashaying her hips, switching between partners as she’s “stolen”. It’s a golden moment, and one which tells me far more about this passionate, sensual dance – and Stephenson’s love for it – than words ever could.
Back in her seat, she talks me through the journey that led her here. Sent to ballet classes as a young child, to strengthen her limbs after suffering from polio, Stephenson loved the freedom of dancing but soon gave it up (“My one regret” she says).
It took more than 50 years, and two careers as a comedy actress and psychotherapist, before she returned to it, via the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing, where Stephenson made the semi-final.
“You can’t do Strictly, and have the experience I had, and then just give it up,” she says, “you have to keep going.” And keep going she did, all the way to Brazil where she discovered a dance scene that took her life in a new direction.
An off-shoot of the lambada, lambazouk is a growing underground sensation the world over that has, says Stephenson, got her “completely hooked”. Whether she’s in New York, London or Brazil, she seeks out a dance club and starts zouking.
“I realised there were all these amazing authentic Brazilian dances that nobody had really seen,” she says, “and dancers who were world class, as good as any of the professionals on Strictly, but people weren’t aware of them.”
Known for her TV work (Not The Nine O’Clock News in the 1980s, Shrink Rap more recently), Stephenson’s main focus of late has been writing, including two biographies about husband Billy. But at the age of 64, she’s embarking on an alternative career – writing and producing the large-scale dance show Brazouka, which will premiere at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe before an international tour.
Hand-picked by Stephenson, zouk specialists from Brazil and elsewhere have been brought to the UK to work with former Strictly judge and West End choreographer, Arlene Phillips.
“It’s a real joy to expose such brilliant dancers to new audiences,” says Stephenson. “For me, it’s a chance to give something back for everything they’ve brought into my life.”
One dancer in particular had a major impact on Stephenson. Born in the Brazilian city of Porto Seguro, Braz Dos Santos first encountered lambada as an adolescent – peering through the windows of the brothels where the dance originated.
Inspired to carve out a new style himself, Dos Santos and his brother left behind the treacherous fishing vessel on which they earned a meagre living – and began to dance lambazouk.
Fast forward many years, and here he is “stealing” Stephenson in a Dundee canteen. It is Dos Santos’ story that forms the backbone of Brazouka, a tale of triumph over hardship that features a range of zouk styles.
Keen to give me a flavour of the dance, Stephenson takes me to the rehearsal room where 16 dancers are warming up. Dos Santos is known for his ability to partner many women simultaneously (“I’ve seen him dance with 24,” says Stephenson) and he takes to the floor with seven female dancers.
As they bend their bodies in a wide sweeping motion, it’s as if Dos Santos is a DJ and the women the vinyl, as he sends them spinning without even touching them.
But Dos Santos isn’t the only one with multiple partners. At a recent birthday party in New York, Stephenson took to the floor with 25 male dancers, much to the happy amusement of Connolly.
“It’s not really normal for your husband to love something like that,” says Stephenson, laughing. “But you want your partner to be happy – and Billy sees me being very happy when I dance. He loves it, but my attempts to move him into the lambazouk milieu were hampered by the fact he got sick.
“He’ll come back to it. I’m just plotting his re-entry into it now that he’s much better. He’s going to come to Edinburgh and is really looking forward to seeing the show.”
We joke about Connolly heading out to the Royal Mile to do some flyering, but the reality is selling tickets is a weight on Stephenson’s mind. Raising investment and putting the right team together has been, she says, “the hardest thing I’ve ever done”.
But, she says, “it’s also been the most fun. It’s my opportunity to take what I’m passionate about and turn it into work, so I’m hoping that it speaks to people in the same way it speaks to me.”
Stephenson is acutely aware of the presence of another large-scale Brazilian show on the other side of town this August. But if audiences can dig deep enough, This Is Brasil – The Show has a whole other set of jewels to offer. An exotic mix of live music, capoeira, dance, freestyle football and original film, the show is fronted by singer/songwriter, Magary Lord – another Brazilian with a story to tell.
Growing up in the favelas of Salvador de Bahia, Lord created his own brand of afro samba. At the start of his career, unknown in his native land, he played small gigs in Edinburgh pubs during the Fringe. This confidence-booster eventually led to him performing to half a million people in Brazil, appearing on national TV and playing New York’s Madison Square Garden.
“It’s the music that is being made and danced to on the streets of Brazil today,” says producer Toby Gough, “rocking the favelas and fuelling the carnival processions.”
Although football is something of a dirty word in Brazil at the moment, the freestyle variety in this show remains untainted. “This isn’t the kind of football where you can lose 7-1,” says Gough. “But a style of football mixed with circus and hip-hop, where you battle it out on the streets one against another. And this show has two of the world’s finest freestyle champions.”
Rehearsing the show in Rio de Janeiro during the World Cup brought its challenges. Born out of the slave trade, the music and dance of This Is Brasil was a form of escape then, as now.
“Football is such a passion here, it’s almost as important as life itself,” says Gough. “This was their darkest hour and will never be forgotten. But samba and capoeira were created to turn suffering into freedom, and the cast and musicians are coming to Edinburgh with a passion to escape the World Cup blues and bring the best of Brazilian music and dance.”
Originally published in Scotland on Sunday
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