On the first day of her Latin American Studies seminar, “Exotic Latin Corporealities,” Teaching Post-Doctoral Fellow Ana Paula Hofling told the class, “We’re going to problematize everything.” Using musicals and movies from Hollywood and South America, Hofling encourages the class to analyze movement, music, costuming, casting, and historical context to deconstruct stereotypes of Latin identity, sexuality, gender, and ethnicity.

Hofling is a two-year Teaching Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Center for the Americas. She will be teaching her class from last semester, “Performing ‘Africa’ in Brazil,” again next fall. The Argus sat down to talk to her about Brazil, capoeira, and her upcoming book. 

The Argus: What’s on your bookshelf?
Ana Paula Hofling: On my bookshelf there are books on critical race studies, lots of books on Brazil, books on dance and music in Brazil. Capoeira, of course, because capoeira is my focus. Dance is my focus in general, but I wrote my dissertation on capoeira specifically. [I have] a lot of books on capoeira, but also lots of photocopies of primary sources that are really hard to get, like capoeira manuals from the 1960s, which I write about, and capoeira manuals from the 1920s. So I have a huge pile of photocopies of the stuff that you can’t get as books. 

A: What is capoeira?
APH: Capoeira is, to make a long story short, an Afro-Brazilian martial art. But capoeira has been described as a martial art, dance, an art form—people have such a hard time defining capoeira.

That was actually what triggered my initial research question for my dissertation, “Dancing, Fighting, and Staging Capoeira: Choreographies of Afro-Brazilian Modernity and Tradition.” I started digging and looking back through history and seeing when capoeira was defined as what. In the ’30s and ’40s it started being described as folklore, and that related to the tourism industry, and at that same time it was compared to dance.

[In capoeira,] there’s a lot of kicking, but it’s not fist fighting. You go upside down, and you kick, and then you do a cartwheel—it’s very fluid. Today it’s done in very much an amicable way. People are not out to hit and kick each other and hurt each other. There’s this nonviolent approach to it, which was not always the case.

Then you look in the ’20s, and you see folklore, dance, but then you look further back and it was really a street fighting technique. At capoeira practice, you would need to know how to manipulate a straight razor, or you always carried a stick with you. It was kind of a street thing, what we would think of as gangs, in Rio. Capoeira was really tough—it wasn’t this pretty thing—and today you have it as folkloric shows. I wrote about that transformation of capoeira and how it became what it is today….

I’m interested in how these ideas of “Latin” and stereotypes get globalized and naturalized. In my work, I’m looking at how dance is at the center of constructions of identity, constructions of nation, and what’s modern and traditional.


A: How did you get involved in all that?
APH: I’ve always been a dancer—since I was two, I think. I started taking ballet when I was six or seven, and it was through my practice as a ballet dancer and then a modern dancer that I started getting interested in studying dance as an academic subject.

It took me leaving Brazil to start capoeira, because as a “white,” middle-class woman, it wasn’t an acceptable thing. It wasn’t even on my radar. Ballet was the thing to do. Then when I moved to the U.S., capoeira was a way of connecting with other Brazilians, of doing something that I wouldn’t have been able to easily explore at home.

I’ve been involved in capoeira on and off since 1992, which is when I went to UC Berkeley as an undergraduate. In 1992-1993, I started studying the “modern” style of capoeira, capoeira regional, and it wasn’t until later that I discovered the “traditional” style, capoeira angola. That is a style that’s much more fluid, and as a dancer, I really connected with that more. Of course, living in Middletown, I have to go New York [to practice]. I haven’t gotten there as much as I liked, so I haven’t been practicing much here.

A: What does it mean to be a Post-Doctoral Fellow?
APH: The Center for the Americas has a two-year fellowship from the Andrew Mellon Foundation for people who just finished their Ph.D.s, and it’s a bridge from that to your first real tenure-track, permanent teaching job. You have two years and teach one class a semester, and you have the rest of the time devoted to your research, which means writing articles, getting published, going to conferences, getting your name out there, getting established, and working on your book proposal, which is what I’m doing now. And getting ready for the job search next year.

A: What is the book you’re working on?
APH: The working title is “Dancing Brazil: National Choreographies of Modernity and Tradition.” In the book, I’m tracing Brazilian national identity through dance, through these staged performances of Brazilianness, from the ’30s through the ’70s. It’s a historical approach, and I’m looking at different choreographers, different companies.

I’m looking at how capoeira played a part in that, but I’m focusing more on dance in my book than I did in my dissertation. In my dissertation, capoeira was the connecting thread, and in my book dance is the connecting thread. I’m looking at these choreographers based in Rio, these women, actually, who are interested in bringing the folkloric dances to the stage. But they were ballet trained, so they were mixing this ballet aesthetic and vocabulary with these “folk” forms.

So that was happening in Rio, and then I’m looking at what was happening in Bahia at the same time, which was much more focused on tourism. Then I’m looking at how these folkloric companies started touring, and [how] they started throwing these seeds everywhere of folkloric Brazilian repertory that dates back to the ’60s and ’70s.

A: What do you read for fun?
APH: I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t read a book for fun in seven years, since I started graduate school—and I love reading for fun. I was the kind of kid who, on road trips, I wasn’t even looking at the scenery. I didn’t care. I was just into my books. And I couldn’t do that now because I’d get carsick. I was a really precocious reader—my grandmother taught me how to read and write before I even started school because she was an elementary school teacher. I got to school, and I was like, “I know how to do that! Give me a book.”

I read Isabel Allende’s books, back when I had time to read for fun. She’s [a] Chilean writer based in the U.S. There’s a book, “Daughter of Fortune,” that takes place in San Francisco during the Gold Rush, and there’s a Chilean character and a Chinese character that meet in Chinatown. There’s a layer of history and a lot of historical research. I really like the fact that you totally get absorbed into the story, but there’s also a lot of research she puts in. Another one of my favorite writers is Carl Hiaasen, and I read pretty much everything he wrote. I love fiction that you can get lost in.