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Festival unites Latin American, Caribbean communities with art

Published: Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Updated: Tuesday, September 24, 2013 10:09

The beat of the drum thunders, wooden sticks crack in unison, voices chant and the dancers move their bodies effortlessly in sync with the battle rhythm.

  This is the maculelê, a centuries-old Afro-Brazilian dance. Presenting their own rendition of this piece of history and culture will be Unção Capoeira Pittsburgh, one of the 14 performers in the 31st annual Latin American and Caribbean Festival on Saturday, March 26, 2011.

  "This festival has something for everyone. It's very diverse," Karen Goldman, assistant director for outreachat the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) at the University of Pittsburgh, said in a phone interview. "It has dance, it has music, it has art, sellers, vendors, food and kids' activities. It really is a family event."

 CLAS, along with the Latin American Cultural Union and Med Health Services and Pittsburgh Cardiovascular Institute, is a sponsor for the festival that has been a cultural tradition in Pittsburgh for more than three decades. This year, the daylong, free of cost festival will be held at the William Pitt Union in Oakland from noon to midnight.

 Those attending the festival will have the chance to get a taste, quite literally, of various countries across Latin American and the Caribbean. Several Pittsburgh restaurants will be at the festival selling everything from Peruvian tallarin verde, green noodles with pesto sauce, to chocolate candies resembling truffles, known as Brazilian brigadeiros.

 For those with a creative side, Arte Papel will be selling crafts made handmade from recycled paper by women in Ecuador, and Global Beats will provide information on popular dance and lounge music in other countries. In addition, the stage will feature a variety of dances and musical selections, including the sounds of Colombia from the quartet Bésame and Brazilian beats from drum group Timbeleza, which performed at Point Park University's Cultural Summit in fall 2010.

 Other performances, such as capoeira, a traditional style of Brazilian martial arts, may be entirely new to the public.

"Capoeira historically has always been mixed with dance and with acrobatics as well as ... hiding, fighting and making your game really tricky so that you can confuse your opponent," Tasha Kimball, an instructor at Unção Capoeira Pittsburgh, said in a phone interview. "It's something that can definitely be used as self defense ... you learn kicks that are intended to strike, but we also learn escape from kicks, so we're always looking for ways to get out of certain situations."

  As well as demonstrating the skills needed to face an opponent in the roda, the circle in which matches are held, Unção Capoeira will be dancing the maculelê, which Kimball said conveys the history of slavery in Brazil, as well as some of the theories surrounding the origin of the dance.

 "It's widely believed to feature the training that African slaves might have done on sugar plantations with machetes," Kimball said. "They did work with machetes in the cane fields, and the dance - we play it with sticks rather than machetes - features dancers hitting their sticks against each other in sort of a combative way."

The group will also be performing "Puxada de Rede," a Portuguese song and dance that tells the tale of fishermen at work, and a "fun and joyful" samba that shows the more positive aspects of Brazil's history, according to Kimball.

Brazil is not the only country whose history will be represented, however. The University of Pittsburgh's Panther Tango Club will be performing a dance rooted in Argentinean culture. Saeed Amizadeh, vice president of the club, has been dancing tango for four years and will be participating in the festival for his third time.

 Amizadeh believes people love to watch Argentine tango because it is "very tender, it's very passionate and it can also be very dramatic."

Although the Panther Tango Club is only open to students at the University of Pittsburgh, there are a number of tango classes offered in Pittsburgh, which Amizadeh said students could take advantage of regardless of whether or not they had prior dance experience.

             "When I started learning tango, I didn't have any dance experience at all, and I don't think you need to know any dance before tango," Amizadeh said in a phone interview. "Actually, if you start tango completely brand new, it might be better because if you have experience from other dances, it may confuse you a little bit."

Whether it is participating in a traditional dance, learning about the history of a country, or trying a new food for the first time, the festival has something to offer to everyone. Despite the diversity of the events, one common thread within the festival is that it unifies the Latin American and Caribbean community in Pittsburgh.

  "For the Latino community, I think this particular festival serves a very special purpose, and that is because we have a small community. It doesn't really have a center," Goldman said. "There's not one neighborhood that people typically identify in Pittsburgh where Latinos live, or even one organization that is sort of the center here. It's a really dispersed community that has to find its opportunity to come together, and this is a really big, important one."

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