BYU undergraduate students journey to Brazil to learn a unique rural dance, forging cultural and personal connections along the way.
It all started with an Instagram video. In March 2021 Kye Davis (Microbiology, Portuguese Studies ’23) happened upon a video of a cultural dance called Chula being performed in Brazil. Davis, a member of the BYU International Folk Dance Ensemble (IFDE), says that the unique dance caught his eye immediately. “I wanted to see if we could bring some of that choreography and that South American representation into our repertoire, because we didn’t have anything like that.”
Davis began to do some research, finding out that the dance originated in Portugal but was adopted into the southern Brazilian tradition of gaúcho music and dance. Traditionally performed by tropeiros (Brazilian cattle drivers), Chula is a footwork dance in which dancers rhythmically tap and step around a spear laid on the ground. It has been described as a combination of “flamenco, Irish step dancing, and breakdance-style battles.”
But information about the dance on the internet was limited. Wanting to learn more, Davis contacted a liaison who gave him some leads to find out more about Chula. “He told me, ‘You need to get in contact with the Arruda family,’” Davis says. “‘They are the spokesmen, the practitioners, the masters of arts and culture.’” Davis decided he needed to visit this family in Brazil to learn the techniques and cultural origins of Chula.
As Davis began to develop the idea into a project, he realized that a significant obstacle would be funding. It wasn’t going to be cheap to visit Brazil, especially if he was going to bring fellow members of the IFDE with him.
Davis began drafting proposals for funding, soliciting the help of his artistic director in the Department of Dance. The process of writing and revising proposals for different organizations was, he admits, somewhat tedious. “I ended up doing four or five drafts of the proposal,” he says. “And then, because I was applying for different grants, I had to adapt the proposal so I could appeal to them for different reasons.” Davis applied for five total grants, one of which was a HUM (Humanities Undergraduate Mentoring) Grant, collaborating with Assistant Professor Jordan B. Jones (Brazilian Literature) in the Department of Spanish & Portuguese.
At times, securing funding seemed improbable. An undergrad with little research experience, Davis wasn’t sure how these various organizations would respond to his requests for funding. It would take a leap of faith to make the project really happen. “Eventually I had to make a decision and go for it. Even though I only had half my funding, I went ahead and bought plane tickets,” he says. “You do, at some points, have to take a risk to move things forward and be very confident that things will work out.”
Fortunately, his work was duly rewarded: he received funds from several sources in addition to the College of Humanities. Jones remarks that Davis’ drive and passion made him a convincing proposal writer and an excellent collaborator. “Kye has definitely been the driving force on the project,” he says. “His passion for learning about Brazilian dance and culture is evident in his interactions with me and with others.”
On January 2, 2023, Davis and four other members of the IFDE found themselves on a plane to Brazil for a week-long, fully funded exploration of dance and culture.
Experiences in Brazil
After a long trip, they arrived in Lages, in the Southern Brazilian province of Santa Catarina. “It’s a cultural and historical center because 200 years ago, when the cowboys, tropeiros, would take cattle from Uruguay and Southern Brazil up to São Paulo, they would stop in Lages and have this exchange of culture and dance,” Davis says. “It really was a perfect hub for us to go and experience what that dance looks like in the culture and then see how the dance explains cultural values, priorities, and social interactions.”
The students were welcomed by CTG Barbicacho Colorado (a cultural group that carries on traditions in Brazilian culture, dance, and music), made up of members of the Arruda family and other participants. Davis and his troupe spent several days learning dances in the gaúcho tradition: the pezinho, the balayo, and, of course, Chula. They also learned about music, poetry, history, and literature from the group, all helping them develop a deeper understanding of the culture in which these dances originated.
Davis remarks that above all, he and his fellow dancers wanted to “understand the Brazilian culture in an authentic way and then bring back portions of that choreography to share with an American audience.” To do this, Davis needed “an accurate historical context and understanding of the social aspects of those dances.” That was something he only could have learned in Brazil, from the people carrying on the traditions of Chula dance.
Reception and Media Coverage
“The reception of the idea and the project was very warm,” Davis says. “People were excited about this exchange of culture and this creation of a new friendship with Brazil.” Mário Arruda, who helped teach Davis and the group the dances, commented, “It is a historic moment and an honor for our city and local Center of Gaúcho Tradition to receive such outstanding visitors.”
Reception of the project went from good to better as it attracted attention from the Brazilian media. “We appeared on live state news and were filmed dancing and responding to interviews in segments that were broadcast throughout Santa Catarina, and both appeared on the national news app, Globoplay,” Davis says. Their story was also covered in newspapers and social media, and the group was featured in another separate segment broadcast two days later.
The project has continued to generate attention in the United States: Davis and his fellow dancers have been asked to perform the Chula at BYU’s Festival of Nations in April and in the city of Orem’s Brazilian festival in September. The dancers have also been invited to attend a conference at the North American Confederation of Brazilian Gaúcho Tradition, based in Orlando, Florida.
Insights from the Project
Though it blossomed into something more, Davis’ project started simply as an idea. “It was just an idea, and eventually a dream that I shared with my teammates. But I wanted it to be more than a dream—I wanted it to happen, and I thought it would be a valuable learning experience for everyone involved,” he says. He emphasizes that other undergraduates can have similar success realizing their own research and cultural projects, offering some practical pointers:
- Define your scope: what are you trying to accomplish?
- Make detailed financial plans and keep receipts.
- Take good notes on the experience.
- Cross-pollinate—go to different sources for funding.
- Maintain connections with people you meet during your research.
Davis is working on incorporating the Brazilian dances in the curricula of several dance classes. He is also drafting a written report on his experiences that he would like to publish as a research paper.
Interested in securing funding for your own project? Get started here: https://humgrants.byu.edu/humanities-undergraduate-mentoring-grants-for-research/