Editor’s note: This story begins a series of twenty interviews in twenty days with arts and cultural figures around Oregon, creating a group portrait of the state of the arts in the state. It looks at where we’ve been, where we are, and what might or should happen culturally in the 2020s.
Rachel Barreras-Kleemann grew up in Newport and began studying dance at the age of 11. After moving to Portland for college, she grew interested in African-American and Afro-Brazilian dance, and signed on with the marching samba ensemble Lions of Batucada. She later moved to Brazil, where she pursued a technical degree in dance.
VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS
Barreras-Kleemann, who is of Mexican and Native American descent, left the South American country after being mugged numerous times and realizing she had become frightened of the children who roved in gangs. “I thought, I want to be able to go home and help the kids I see, not fear them,” Barreras-Kleemann said. The mother of a baby girl, Barreras-Kleemann teaches dance to children and adults, many of whom are minorities and of low income.
What, good or bad, has had the biggest impact on arts and culture in your area in the past few years?
I feel like, economically, people are struggling. It’s the age-old story. People are way more interested in supporting sports, things they understand. Arts, culture fall by the wayside. Fearful of failing finances, people aren’t usually going to go out and invest in music, the arts. It’s doesn’t seem logical as a career. Immigrants are even less likely to — the population is pretty big, but you see a small percentage of those kids making it into dance class. Economically, socially, we get this great population of people. It’s sad to me that they’re not making it into dance class. Some of it is cultural, that they’re not involved in dance.
Can you elaborate?
There’s more value on, say, celebrating your own culture. Let’s say you’ve come from Mexico, your culture is what you’re trying to preserve. It’s a rare few that look beyond that and are trying to bring the kids to dance. Some of it is a language barrier. I speak Portuguese and Spanish, so it is easier, I think, for people to identify with me.
What was the difference in your life that got you into dance?
I grew up at poverty level. I had a girlfriend that was of a higher social class. One day, she invited me to come to her Nutcracker rehearsal at the theater, and as I was watching, it struck me that this was something I wanted to do. It’s funny the way your life changes, just from being best friends and by going to her performance. It appealed to me, the discipline; it appealed to me, the beauty. The structure, because my life wasn’t super structured. I would say it was kind of chaos.
And so, being able to grab onto something that wasn’t going to change. It evolves, but it doesn’t change drastically. It builds and it gets better. You know when you go there and put in the effort, you are going to have results. In my life, I hadn’t seen that before. To find that, not just beauty and discipline, but to see progress right in front of me. The person that was teaching could tell the girls, “Turn like this” or “Turn like that” and it would improve their lives and I thought, “I want that.” I felt really lucky. It brought me forward in my life.
When I got involved with the Lions, I’d never taken a samba class before, so I took a class and Brian Davis and the late Derek Rieth of Pink Martini were at the class drumming. They’d just put the group together and needed dancers. They approached me and I was like, “Who are these two dorky men?” They were so excited and they wanted me to be part of the band. That’s how I ended up in that band. I’d never taken a class. I credit ballet and that kind of all-encompassing movement and knowledge it gave me, self-knowledge, that I was able to adapt into African dance and African-Brazilian dance. I could transfer back and forth. That’s one reason I teach not only ballet technique, but also Afro-Brazilian and samba, because there is so much joy in it.
What are your goals and expectations for the coming year in arts, professionally and personally?
Personally, I’m just trying to get back on track. Having a baby changed my life in a big way. I’m still motivated to continue projects I have going with the girls I work with. Some of them are immigrant families, some born here, but first-generation Mexican. I want to keep it going and keep bringing African-Brazilian and African dance to this county. I don’t have these lofty goals. To keep kids motivated to dance and to help kids that are lower income have a place they can go — it’s a small goal.
I started a small dance program through the Olalla Center [a nonprofit based in Toledo that provides mental health care for children of Lincoln County]. It’s to help the kids there who are predominately lower income. Most have behavioral disorders, sometimes due to family background, drug addiction, or abuse. A lot of the kids are in the foster system as well.
They find that music and dance in general helps children who have gone through situations that cause PTSD to be able to heal. It heals neuro pathways. Movement and music can actually create new pathways for people to deal with their behavior issues. The last two years, we were able to host fundraising showcases at the [Newport] Performing Arts Center. I’d definitely like to do a showcase this year. I do these fundraisers so the Olalla Center is able to pay dance teachers like myself to work with the kids there. The students bloom and blossom when they are moving. They have a little bit of freedom and creativity. It’s very playful what I do with them.
What issue or issues in your community would you most like outsiders to understand?
Sometimes when my Mexican students don’t come to class, I worry. Is it ICE? Are they afraid to come out now? Are they afraid to come and do things with Caucasian people? Things that we are safe to do in this community because we’re not under threat of being arrested, sometimes randomly for just existing. So I wonder when they don’t show up, are their parents keeping them at home this week? Because some days, actually, they need to stay home. They’re not able to go work at the fish plant or at the hotels.
This community is tight-knit and we want to support the people who are immigrants, who are a huge part of the social fabric of this town, and I’m grateful for them, but I do know they don’t always get the same benefits that U.S. citizens born here get — natural safety. We take it for granted when we walk out the door and get in our car and drive down the road that we’re not going to get pulled over for looking different. This is an issue that matters to me, because that is my history. Those are my people. That is my background. Even though my family is four generations here, I still identify really strongly with that struggle. Even though I’ve never been to Mexico, that is where my great-grandfather came from and my family line.
I’m also Native American. This is where I’m from, this is where I am supposed to be. It feels funny when people ask, “Oh where you from, where are you from?” You can’t just say, “I’m from California.” They want to know more than that. It’s subtle, but they are letting you know that they know that you’re not from here. So I want kids, especially the ones I work with, to feel welcome and to feel a part of the community, and I do want to see a higher percentage of kids of color participating in the arts.
If you could make one thing happen in the 2020s what would it be?
That’s a big question. My main goal is to bring joy and encouragement to people who are fearful of doing arts. People are tentative about celebrating themselves and about feeling good. I feel like at this time in our life, we’re supposed to feel worried and stressed and fearful and there is not that focus now on the joy of being free, of being beautiful, of celebrating the good things that are still available to us in life. There are so many good things here in the U.S. we should be grateful for and that’s why people come here. I want to remind people it is good to feel joy and it’s still OK to be happy, even in these times that we’re living in.
You talked about what makes this work important. What makes this work interesting? Anything that would surprise people?
I think what makes it interesting is the color, the vibration that samba and Afro-Brazilian dance brings with it. So when the girls are dancing it’s different from classical. Classical does vibrate, but it’s at this microscopic level. They’re working with fibers of energy. Where with samba, you can feel it, you can touch it. You can really see what is happening. It’s not so subtle.
The Rio-style samba or samba carioca, where the girls are wearing feathers and glitter and not much else, everyone in this country goes, “Oh my, that’s sexual.” Samba carioca, even with all that nudity, is not necessarily about sex or sensuality, it is more about celebrating the fact that we are here, that we have these bodies. This is how we show pure joy and embrace the fact that we’re alive. It’s not “Look at me, I’m sexy,” it’s more about “I’m alive, you’re alive and we’ve survived.”
When you look at where samba came from, it was the slaves that started it. They’ve exalted samba that was done barefoot in the dirt — maybe with some clapping and singing and maybe a couple pieces of metal banging together — to this national and international phenomena. It really is “Look at where we come from and look at where we are now and aren’t we gorgeous.”
You rarely see a black woman like that being celebrated here, but in Brazil that is the epitome of beauty. This curvaceous, beautiful black woman dancing on top of a big samba float. And it’s not about being ashamed or looked at as a sex object. It is about being truly alive and truly glorious. It’s about empowering yourself and taking hold of your own nature, whatever that is, and celebrating it.
This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.