Peer through the steamed windows of Culver City's Brasil Brasil Cultural Center on the right night and you'll see an ecstatic, frenzied mass of people: mature, young, thick, thin — a corporeal democracy, every body dancing between pain and transcendence, spurred by driving, dazzlingly layered percussion thundering from the sound system. At the center of the cyclone is a woman, a luminous smile escaping as she yells, "Sambaaa!"
Since leaving Brazil more than two decades ago, Ana Laidley (aka Aninha Malandro) has cultivated a global, L.A.-based samba community, preserving the roots of an ancestral culture and promoting profound aspects of an art often reduced to its more familiar export: bikini-clad showgirls.
"Samba brings so much to a community: It brings a bond, a sense of belonging; reliability, trust, self-confidence. And it's so beautiful when you see people developing their own way of expressing," says Laidley, 51.
A psychotherapist who recently defended her dissertation on the healing effects of samba, Laidley has a benevolent vibe people gravitate toward.
Growing up in a samba family in Rio de Janeiro, she was more interested in Michael Jackson than the insular culture of samba schools, which grew violent as sponsorship money poured in. "Samba was so serious, people would get killed — for nothing. For samba. And witnessing that was not fun for a child."
Her father, world-renowned percussionist Carlinhos Pandeiro de Ouro, spent a lifetime on the road; her mother braved the grueling travel, low pay and harassment that often comes with being a dancer.
"Looking back, my family was so dysfunctional. ... A lot of negative situations I would connect to samba," Lindley says. "I was so sure that's not the way I want to go in my life."
But something from that time stuck with her, something profound that she wouldn't articulate until years later.
"I was already at that age very conscious of those people from the roots of samba, the elders at the time, that they have a value in the culture in Brazil. I knew that, and I used to imitate them."
In 2006, she stepped onstage with the white suit and sly, dazzling confidence of the malandro, a popular male archetype in samba and Brazilian folklore.
"You see the importance of malandro in Brazilian culture because that was the first statement about a black man saying, 'Hey, I'm poor but I know how to dress; I have good taste and know how to work the system. I'm not a victim' — not 'I was a slave' — nothing like that," she says.
"And Malandro is the joker. He alleviates the pain of the people, that seriousness. If we don't have samba, Brazil would be a very depressing place."
In performance, it offers a rooted elegance, a character she uses to "go back to who I am," discovering her father, the ultimate malandro, in herself. Until she did it, she'd never seen women perform as malandra. Now dance groups and competitions dedicated to the form are sprouting in her wake — including at the International Samba Congress she organizes in downtown L.A. (June 14-17 this year).
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Onstage, Laidley is a torrent of raw power buoyed by refinement and a lightning quickness; a master of improvisation and ephemeral sublimity.
Growing up, it was never steps or technique — "It was just 'Samba! Be yourself!'" Translating that can be difficult, but Laidley persists, delighting when someone opens to the exchange of energy she insists is at the heart of samba.
"I just need to connect with people, and give people the message that samba has a healing power that everyone can access."
Information on the second annual International Samba Congress at internationalsambacongress.com.