Yamina Hofer: A fusion dancer who travels the world and mixes all the styles she learns, from ballet to flamenco to African samba. She speaks to us about Cape Verde, using dance to transcend her emotions and how she accidentally ended up performing at the Rio carnival.
I started dancing when I was five years old in France with classical ballet. I was born in France. But I had my first—let’s say—‘world’ dance experience when I started taking classical Indian dance lessons at about thirteen—Kathak. And then, later on, I was doing a trip into the Sahara with my parents, and I fell in love with belly dancing. Not the belly dancing you imagine, not the women dancing, but I just saw the men.
Our camel guys, they were dancing around the fire at night, and I just saw that, and that was enough for me to be mesmerised.
That’s how it started with me, and because I already knew a bit of Kathak Indian dance, I started fusing right away—ballet, kathak and oriental. I was already a fusion dancer from the beginning, hence I would use whatever dance vocab I had to express myself.
Then, much later on, when I was about twenty-one, I discovered samba. And I started samba in France. While I was there, I took as many workshops as I could, in any kind of dance style really. I used to go to a festival which was a huge influence on me called the Festival of World Cultures in Gannat, France; and from a young age I used to volunteer there and have access to workshops from people from all around the world. It built my identity of wanting to travel the world, to learn dancing from the source, and to find out as much as I could about dance. Then I came to Australia in 2006, and I continued this journey in Australia. I went straight to dance lessons in Sydney with renowned instructors and as you know, since I’ve lived in Perth, I’ve been learning and taking workshops as often as I can as well as teaching.
I started fusing samba and belly dance after I met Michael, who was my partner and my husband for ten years in Perth. We collaborated together as husband and wife. Because he was a samba drummer and I was a belly dancer, it was natural that we’d fuse our styles. And so, bellysamba was born, and I taught it around the world whenever I went away, teaching workshops; it was a really popular fusion, to fuse samba and belly dance.
Challenges in Dance
In terms of movement, I was stuck with the technical aspect because a lot of people don’t realise how difficult belly dance is until you start learning it. I struggled with belly dance because I was self-taught. At the beginning, I didn’t have any teachers. I struggled with learning things like reverse undulations and isolation of muscles, and you know, I always also struggled with things in ballet, like keeping my balance in spins, I think it’s something really difficult, but I love it. And, the footwork of some of the dance styles that I learnt like Kathak, flamenco, can be quite tricky and it requires long hours of training and persistence. These were some of the most challenging movements for me.
And I think, as a teacher, what I struggle with is, I have people that come and pay and expect to learn to dance in three months. They tell me, ‘how long until I can dance like you? You reckon three months? If I pay you, can you teach me?’
And that’s something that blows my mind, every time! That people just see dancing as something you shop and you get.
It’s something you dedicate yourself to, and like any skills, it can’t rub off on you in three months. You have to put the hard work in, just like I did. That’s one misunderstanding, when people learn world dance such as bellydance or African dance, they expect it to be easy. They don’t think it’s like ballet. But I can tell you, it is like ballet. There is just as much technical aspect as ballet.
There is a couple of great moments in my life. A couple of things that will be forever with me. One of those things was in Rio de Janeiro. I was lucky enough to dance with Unidos da Tijuca for a show they did. I had done workshops with them that day, and I had just found out that I didn’t have a costume for the Passita Ala at the Carnival so I was kind of depressed. And they had a show that night, and I had bought myself a new samba headdress in Rio and I was like, ‘hey can I just join up and dance with you guys?’ and they were like ‘yeah! Ok’.
So there I went, the video is on YouTube, and I still can’t believe it to this day. That year, they won the carnival, I had some of the top musicians on the stage with me, some of the top dancers, one of them came to Perth actually, this year, his name is Mayombe Masai and he is considered one of the best samba dancers in Brazil right now. So there I was onstage with them and I realised the dream, just like this. Just with one question. Sometimes, it pays off. Sometimes, you just have to be daring and have the courage to do things.
Continuing Her Journey
Yes, Michael and I are not together anymore, since two years now. Michael moved to Melbourne and is continuing his journey over East, and I moved to Cape Verde in Africa. So, I’m in Cape Verde right now talking to you. Cape Verde is the place of—the first mixed people were born here, because this was the first island that was colonised by the Portuguese and where they brought in slaves; it was like an experimental place before slaves were sent to America and Brazil, and this is where the first mixed people started. The first mixed language as well, Creole, so I’m in a very important place historically. In terms of all these Afrocentric cultures—and what I mean Afrocentric culture is any colonised country where they sent African slaves and where the mix of African slaves plus other cultures created a music or a dance style, just like in Brazil, America or many other places in the world. It’s like, I’m interested in that, I’m interested in fusion of Africanity and Europeanness, in a way.
There are plenty dance styles that originated here (in Cape Verde). It’s very rich, that’s why I’m here, and some of the dance styles I am learning, to me, I consider them to be the birthplace of samba. I’m learning dance styles like Batuku, Funana, Coladera, Morna, Tabanka and Cola San Jon.
Since I’ve been here, the community has been very welcoming with me; they are welcoming of my skills, and they’ve given me great opportunities which I’ve never had in Australia. Here, I work with the top dance schools, I work with the acrobatic teams, I work as a choreographer, and so some of the opportunities I got last year were to choreograph for a young team of Cape Verdians, fifteen young people, to create with other choreographers a show which they would present at a big gala in the country. And then they went to China! They went to perform in Macau in a huge youth festival and they were considered one of the top acts, the three best acts in the festival, and there were about seventeen countries represented from all around the world, so my choreography went all the way up there in China and was performed in Cape Verde as well.
Right now I am working for the same gala, it’s called Somos Cabo Verde, and it celebrates the culture of the Cape Verdian people across the globe. Because you have to understand that Cape Verde is such a poor country that two thirds of the population is expat. Because they don’t have enough resources to live in their own land, they’re only one third of the population here and the others are working overseas sending money to their families so they can survive.
So there’s two thirds that are expat; they are spreading the culture and spreading the language and music overseas, abroad, so there’s a huge diaspora of Cape Verdian people across the world. Even as far as Australia.
And so Somos Cabo Verde is an event that rewards the best-achieving of these people across the world, whether they are living in Cape Verde or another country; what they do for the community, what they do for the country; it’s an awards night. And so, we are in charge of performing the opening ceremony again, so I’m starting rehearsals tonight with some of the top ballet and contemporary dance choreographers in the country. It’s just amazing to be working alongside such people, people that have such experience, something I haven’t had in Australia.
Why do you dance?
Why do I dance? Today, I can’t imagine my life without it. As a little girl, I was fascinated. By the age of three, I wanted to dance; I had to wait until I was five to start because the ballet school did not take children younger than that. I consider dancing like breathing, and I also think it helps to transcend emotions. Whatever is going on in your life, good or bad, you can dance it out. If you’re angry, some people like to go to the gym or punch the punching bag; I like to dance angry. If I am feeling sad, I like to dance sad and cry my body out. If I’m feeling happy, I dance happy. So whatever is going on for me, I’m going to dance it, that’s my way of transcending my emotions so they don’t get stuck inside me.
And I believe it’s very healthy. It keeps me healthy mentally, physically, it keeps me in good shape, and it’s also very confidence-building. Being a dancer and being onstage can be quite frightening, when you’re by yourself in front of a big crowd and you don’t know how they’re going to react.
Yeah, it’s confidence-building to be a dancer, because you have to face a crowd, face people watching you in every minute detail, especially when you’re a bellydancer. People look at your belly, they look at your breasts, they look at your hips, they look at parts of your body that are very intimate, so you’ve got to make sure that, you know, everything that you do will touch them deeply in their soul.
You don’t want people to just look at your body and have dirty thoughts, that’s not the idea; the idea is that you transmit the experience of dance and people are touched by your movements, rather than actually looking at how you’re made.
I just want people out there to not be afraid to dance. You’re never too old! Please come and dance. So, it’s something to build confidence in your own skin, and also to express who you are, spread the word out there, to show who you are, your authenticity onstage and spread a good message of peace and love. That’s my message, anyway.
The above video shows some of Yamina’s performance at the Rio Carnival, 2012. You can watch the whole performance here.
Her Facebook page and YouTube channel are under the name Yamina Dansa. You can also find her on Instagram at Yamina369.