Patricia Modesto is Utah’s 2012 Samba Queen, winning the title in March when she competed against Utah’s hottest samba dancers in Samba Fogo’s third annual Samba Queen competition. Modesto moved to the United States from Brazil 11 years ago and, since 2004, she has shared her passion for Brazilian culture by dancing with Samba Fogo, a cultural-arts organization that brings Afro-Brazilian performances to Utah and other states.
Why dance samba?
Samba is a Brazilian dance that has African roots. African slaves in Brazil would work all day, and then they would get together at night and have fun and have a Samba de Roda (samba circle). It is a simple step and a well-known rhythm and dance recognized in the world, but samba is more than the dance: It’s a passion, it’s a culture, it’s life. When you hear the drums, you feel the heat, you feel it in your soul.
What does it mean to be Samba Queen?
The Samba Queen is the superstar of the school of samba. It is being recognized for your performance, your technique, your ability to connect with the audience. It is the highest grade a samba dancer can achieve, so it’s pretty awesome. They have to keep the energy going, connect with people and keep the drums and rhythm going. Anyone can have a pretty body and amazing costume, but the Samba Queen is about what you do onstage, the energy you bring to connect. The Samba Queen’s job is to help people achieve the level of joy that she’s having.
Why do you dance in bikinis and feathers?
The dance comes from the Africans, the feathers and the glamour come from the Portuguese, and the little clothing comes from the native Indians—they didn’t wear much clothes because it’s hot. Nobody wants to dance in the heat with a lot of clothes on.
Do you feel self-conscious wearing the costumes in Salt Lake City?
Yeah, there is definitely a stereotype about girls wearing bikinis with feathers and sparkles. Once, when I went to the Real Salt Lake Game, we were wearing booty shorts with our amazing costumes. I saw moms covering their kids’ eyes, and we weren’t even wearing the real Brazilian-style thongs. Everybody was shocked. I understand it’s a modest state, I do respect that. But we need to be open-minded enough to see the diversity. For me, it’s not about showing the body, it’s about showing passion—my culture and dance. You can dance samba in any clothes: barefoot, high heels, shorts, pants—it doesn’t matter. Just because we are wearing bikinis and feathers, it doesn’t mean we are bad.
How did you learn to samba?
In Brazil, we have many informal barbecues in the backyard and everybody gets together: Grandma, Grandpa, cousins, uncles and all the family. And when we get together, we sing songs, we dance and we learn. Nowadays, we do have samba classes in Brazil and in the United States, but back in my day, there was no such a thing as samba class—we just watch and learn. We learn by having fun and interacting. That’s the best way to learn samba.
How do you keep your Brazilian roots in Salt Lake City?
Through samba. We have this group, Samba Fogo, so we can express our culture. I stay in touch with my Brazilian friends who have parties and Brazilian barbecues. We get together and dance, we bang on the pots and pans when we don’t have instruments, so we improvise a lot. Samba is a lot of improvisation, actually. You sit down at the table, you have your beer, you start to drum on the table and suddenly you have a song. That is where the songs come from. We don’t sit down and say, “I’m going to write a song”; we have fun and start to drum and somebody says something, and we build on it.
Why is samba important in Brazil?
It’s the roots, the cultural background. It’s like the whole country, pretty much; it’s what defines us. Every culture has their dance, and samba is a folk dance in Brazil, and it’s what you are. It’s being creative; it’s being yourself. It’s a simple step, but you add your personality. You put your mood in it. If you feel energized, your samba is going to be awesome; if you feel chill, it’s going to be a little down, but you still can express yourself.
Do you have to be Brazilian to samba?
No! That’s a myth. Everybody can dance samba, everybody. Actually, in Samba Fogo, the majority of the girls are American, and they are good. It’s just like everything in life: You have to put yourself in it, you have to commit to learn. It’s like any other dance. You definitely don’t have to be Brazilian to dance samba—everybody can do it. I 100 percent guarantee it.
Why is there a Samba Queen competition but not a Samba King competition?
This is our third annual competition; it’s growing and I hope one day we have a Samba King competition. In Brazil, they have the Samba King, Samba Queen and Samba Princess. Actually, this year, there were a couple of guys dancing, and I was like, “Next year, we should have a Samba King competition.”