Orixás Dances in Brazil

Who are the Orixas?

In Candomblé, one of the most important aspects are the different deities called Orixás who are seen to hold the elements around us that reflect spirits. Manifestations of the Orixás accompany us through nature, in the movement of a river, or the kind earthly majesty of a tree. They are honoured and revered with ritual offerings across Brazil.

Candomble is an African-Brazilian tradition that over time, has absorbed many Catholic tenets. The shortest distance between South America and Africa, across the Atlantic, is between Brazil and West Africa. The Portuguses began to navigate this route, trading slaves from the early 1500. Brazil was also the last country to abolish salvery in 1865. The relative short route, early start and late finishing of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in Brazil meant many Africans landed on the shores of Brazil. They passed down wisdom and knowledge from the African motherland which over time seeped into the very nature of Brazilian culture. These oral traditions were shared and passed from generation to generation, with very little written scriptures. Rather they were felt, danced and passed down through the stories, music and dance. Candomblé reflects ancient practices from across the atlantic ocean but blended with the different cultures that came to meet in Brazil including Catholic and indigenous elements.

The word Orixa is from a Yoruban word Orisa, with Ori meaning ‘head’ or ‘expression’ of the divine self. The word refers to the beginning of each human journey, both physically when we are born from our mother and spiritually on initiation into Candomblé, another birth.

The Orixas can be described as energetic forces, embodying elements of nature and spirit. They are free of time and come through drumming song and dance as well as in other parts of nature and life.

Each Candomble house or Terreiro is primarily dedicated to one Orixa, although all Orixas are celebrated there. Each house has its own children, which means initiated men and women who become/embody the Orixas. When a person goes into trance ( this can happen to initiates and non initiates), their bodies are inhabited by the Orixas at those moments, as they move and dance they transmit elements of the Orixas spirit and mannerisms.

Dances of the Orixás outside the religious context

The dances of the Orixás practiced today in most training schools and workshops have gone through a process of stylisation and adaptation to suit the learning and performance environment, but has its roots firmly in the Candomblé houses of Salvador. So by its very nature what many of you will experience is distinct from, but retains the essence of the rituals associated with the Orixa’s and Candomble, as well as the vibrant environment from which they come.

The dances, the music and the aesthetics of the Candomblé were taken out of the houses or Terreios by visual artists, dancers, musicians, choreographers and theatre directors. At the same time, academic interest started to blossom in the cultural practices of the religion, bringing researchers and students from all over the world to Brazil.

From the early 1960s folkloric artistic groups started to flourish in cultural capitals like Salvador da Bahia, a radiant sun kissed gem on the Atlantic. Naturally the Orixas made strong appearances in the works of choreographers, who embodied the rich movement vocabulary of these spirits to reflect the culture and society of the time. These had a decisive influence on the birth of Afro-Brazilian dance, which uses movements from several Afro-Brazilian traditions, but also associated with other techniques such as Classical Ballet, Modern and Contemporary Dance.

The first Afro-Brazilian folkloric group in Salvador – Viva Bahia was created by the ethnomusicologist Emilia Biancardi in 1962. She gathered masters from all the main folkloric traditions in Bahia, such as Capoeira, Maculelê and Candomblé. Based on the roots of these traditions, she organised the group made up of dancers and musicians to perform in Brazil and around the world. Soon other folkloric groups appeared, both in Bahia and the rest of the country.

In 1988 the Balé Folclórico da Bahia was created. This folkloric group performs the dances of the Orixás in full liturgical costume. An imitation of the trance is also part of the show.

Other artistic approaches to the dances of the Orixás have a connection with Classical and Modern Dance. One of the main artists in this stream is the American dancer, researcher, teacher and choreographer Clyde Morgan, who, in the 1970s, directed the Contemporary Dance Company of the University of Bahia. Classically trained, Morgan travelled throughout most of the African continent exchanging knowledge on Western dance for training in the traditional forms. He is a very important name in the history of Afro-Brazilian dance. Biancardi and Morgan had at least one pupil in common: Raimundo Bispo dos Santos, aka Mestre King. A member of Biancardi’s Viva Bahia, he graduated in dance at the University of Bahia, with Morgan as one of his teachers.

These popular Afro-Brazilian dances that have been inspired by generations of dancers, storytellers and drummers, reflect the vibrant mix of cultures and the syncretism of belief systems that were given life in the streets, sacred spaces and carnivals of Brazil. Expressing reverence and gratitude towards the Orixas, for many in Brazilians, it is woven into the fabric of everyday life.

Examples of Orixa dances

The notes that follow are only one interpretation of Orixa dances and will vary depending on the particular researcher, influences, stylistic and artistic representation adopted.

In the Candomblé rituals, Elegba is always the first Orixa to be called. Standing at the crossroads of the human and divine, he is the messenger between the two worlds and opens the roads in life.

Ogun is a warrior who carries two specific codifying elements, to be (re)presented by the arms: the sword and the shield. Ogum is a strong, fearless man, and his movements must be performed with vigorous energy. Ogun is amongst other things the tools we make to complete tasks.  As Elegba opens the roads, it is Ogun who clears the paths with his machete.  Ogun and can also be seen as technology – even digital technology.

Oxóssi, the hunter. His elements are the bow and the arrow. Once again, the elements must be precisely shown. This deity also has a horse, which is danced in a centaur-like imaginary body division: the feet are the horse, the torso is the hunter. Oxóssi has several dances and has one of the speediest dances of the whole pantheon. If you point the arrow upwards, you imagine you are aiming at a bird; if you point the arrow to the front, you can imagine a deer or a moose.

Yemanjá, the Queen of the Sea. Her movements resemble the waves and her element is a silvery mirror. She also becomes a whirlpool, a centrifugal movement pattern that can make most of us dizzy, a technique is taught that enables you to release your body in order to perform the wavy movements. A very important event in the Brazilian calendar is the  2nd of February, when people dressed in white, gather along the shore of  Rio Vermelho Salvador to pay tribute to the Queen of the sea with flowers, dancing, singing and drumming.

In training, teachers often impress upon the students the search for the Orixás’ right energy, the importance of precision in the codifying elements and the complexity and beauty of the dances. An interesting comment is about the importance of the codes of the dances. These are a blend of form and energy, in which the first depends upon the latter. The real search is not for the perfect form – that presupposes great technique – but for the inner energy that is particular to each one of the dances.

Rosangela Silvestre will be teaching Orixás Symbology and Silvestre Technique at Tribe of Doris Festival 2019

Her she is talking about the Orixás

Sources:  https://www.silvestretraining.com/the-training.html    https://jonhardeman.wixsite.com/teaching/candomble


Further Reading


Recreating Africa: Culture, Kinship, and Religion in the African-Portuguese World, 1441-177 by James Sweet

From Slavery to Freedom in Brazil: Bahia, 1835-1900 by Dale Graden

African Roots, Brazilian Rites: Cultural and National Identity in Brazil by Cheryl Sterling

Let’s Make Some Noise: Axé and the African Roots of Brazilian Popular Music

by Clarence Bernard Henry

Mama Africa: Reinventing Blackness in Bahia by Patricia de Santana Pinho

Rhythms of Resistance: African Musical Heritage in Brazil by Peter Fryer

The Formation of Candomble: Vodun History and Ritual in Brazil by Luis Nicolau Pares

Body and Ancestry: A multicultural proposal for art-dance-education Kindle Edition

by Inaicyra Falcão dos Santos (Author), Terceira Margem (Editor), Sabrina Gledhill  (Translator)


Tereza Batista: Home from the Wars – Jorge Amado