Gisella Ferreira shares samba’s legacy and vibrant soul.

By Brian Upton
December 8, 2023
Gisella Ferreira stands near the Santa Cruz Harbor lighthouse while dressed in samba attire

After a very short period with Gisella Ferreira, it becomes evident that samba is not merely a dance or a musical genre; it is the heartbeat and cultural identity of a country. With its roots deeply embedded in Afro-Brazilian heritage, samba has become a symbol of celebration, resistance, and unity.

“It goes way back for me,” Ferreira credits her father and aunt for instilling the passion and fundamentals of dance in her from an early age. “Normally, in Western culture, we tend to just play with babies; it is widespread in Brazilian culture to start moving the hips of a baby and teaching them samba. My father and my aunt did that, and both were an influence on my love for dance. I just loved to dance and ended up taking up all forms of dance like ballet and hip-hop, but my way of connecting to my Brazilian culture and my roots is through samba.”

The roots of samba reach back to the fusion of African rhythms brought by enslaved Africans to Brazil during the colonial period, mixed with cultural elements from Portuguese colonizers. The word “samba” itself likely originates in the Kikongo language, spoken in parts of Central Africa. It initially emerged in the marginalized communities of Rio de Janeiro, most notably in the favelas (slums).

“The history of our culture is expressed with Samba.” There is a palatable passion in Gisella’s voice, “It traces back to the Portuguese, the colonizers, native Brazilians, Afro-Brazilians to modern day. The dance acknowledges our history: the hardships, the fight, and eventually the small earned freedoms we have now.”  

These early forms of samba were indeed raw expressions of Afro-Brazilian culture, rooted in percussion and dance. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, samba began to gain recognition and widespread acceptance in Brazilian society. The genre adapted to new instruments, incorporating European influences such as guitars and flutes. Samba schools, like Mangueira and Portela, were established in Rio de Janeiro, providing a structured platform for samba to thrive. These schools helped organize the famous Carnival parades in Rio De Janeiro, an annual celebration where samba plays a central role.

Gisella Ferreira smiles while dressed in samba attire including large feathered head dress
Photo Credit: Stephen Dietrich

Samba’s impact on Brazilian culture is immeasurable. It became a powerful tool for social and political commentary. In the mid-20th century, musicians like Cartola and Chico Buarque used samba to reflect the struggles and aspirations of marginalized communities. Samba also played a pivotal role in Brazil’s fight against dictatorship, with artists like Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil using their music to challenge the oppressive regime.

Gisella knew of these stories and rich histories from a very early age. While at Gault Elementary, Branciforte Junior High, and eventually Santa Cruz High School, she found a way to balance this history and family traditions with modern dance.

“I started the Hip-Hop Dance teams at Branciforte, and in high school, I started incorporating some samba into my style.” Gisella still had yet to commit to the fine details of samba, “During that time, I was just having fun and did not have much technique as it relates to samba; it was just a ton of energy and what I had learned from my family.”

Ferreira faced balancing her beloved cultural dance from Brazil with the regular pressure of junior high and high school.

“Growing up, I felt just like every other kid. I wanted to fit in. In junior high, I was the only Brazilian kid, and in high school, I think there were two.” 

Gisella paints a vivid picture of the turmoil that teenagers face, “After a while and as I gained confidence in my ability, I realized more and more there was this other part of me that I had to figure out.”

Outside of school, Gisella credits Santa Cruz with being an inspirational and accepting culture that was fundamental and supportive of her growing passion for dance.

“In my opinion, Santa Cruz is the best place for a kid to grow up. There is so much accessible art and culture. People would be surprised by how strong the Brazilian arts community is here. I was lucky to have that around me.”

Ferreira eventually left the cozy confines of her beloved beach town to continue her education at UCLA and its sprawling campus that stretches from the foothills of Santa Monica to the Los Angeles Basin.

“I chose UCLA because of the dance program. They offer a World’s Art & Culture Dance Program. It was brand new when I went and wasn’t even considered a major, which it is now.” 

Ferreira had taken her skills to the next level at home and was ready for more. “I knew it would give me what I needed as an artist to grow.”

The program exposed Gisella to new world dances, histories, and culture. School wasn’t the only motivation for moving to Los Angeles; her sights were set on a more significant challenge.

“I wanted to dance.” Ferreira paused before continuing. “I wanted to be a great dancer, and LA seemed like the place you go to if you were serious about making dance a career.”

Gisella Fereirra smiles while dancing in samba attire
Photo Credit: Stephen Dietrich
Gisella Ferreira stands in front of a large carnival parade float of a snake while wearing samba attire

After graduating, she discovered the path would not be handed to her.

“My first job after college was at an acai shop in Santa Monica.” Gisella found herself faced with a big decision during those long work shifts. “I finally just asked myself what I wanted to do. Was I going to work full time and just find time for dance, or should I just jump in and focus on what I love full time?”

Resolved to make a move, she began teaching dance and Zumba full-time. The success and popularity of her dynamic classes eventually created some breakthrough opportunities in television, entertainment, and movies with appearances in “Breaking Through” with director John Legend, the “Shakira T-Mobile World Cup Commercial,” “Zumba® World Party Video Game,” “Chuck,” and “Rio Hot Wings on American Idol.”

Ferreira has also shared the stage with such artists as Jamie Foxx, will.i.am, Sheila E, Quetzal Guerrero, Victoria Justice, and B.O.B.

Between entertainment gigs, she tours and performs worldwide and trains extensively in many dance forms, including Capoeira, samba, and she still keeps her connection to her days at Santa Cruz High with hip-hop. She was named one of “LA’s Hottest Trainers” in 2012 and has been active in “Health Day LA” as well as “Let’s Move LA,” dedicating time to help the LA community become more active and inspired through dance. In 2014, she was the “National Samba Queen” at SambaAZ! 

Her success and world travels only reaffirmed another love she was deeply connected to—her hometown in Santa Cruz.

“You sometimes have to leave to appreciate what you have. That’s what ended up happening.” Feeling that she had accomplished what she had set out to do, Ferreira was ready to get back home. “I felt like I had grown as much as possible in Los Angeles. It wasn’t fulfilling anymore, and I wanted to focus on my career and prioritize my quality of life.”

The glamour of the dance, from the exotic costumes to the annual Carnival of Brazil celebration, can sometimes overshadow what Gisella feels is the essence of the dance.

“The costumes are, of course, very special. Many people just see the bikini and the feathers and the passion of the dance and want to jump in immediately. I have a closet full of the costumes, and I take pride in designing them,  wearing them,  and representing my culture.” Gisella is just as committed to instilling a more intimate lesson when she teaches her students, “Samba is also about balance. Not just the compensation of balance you need to shift your weight and stay in rhythm, I mean balance from the inside. Samba is about transferring all your energies into something very positive. Samba is an opportunity to transform your sadness and hardships into joy.” 

Ferreira charted a path, followed her dream, and now counts as one of the few who turned a passion into a career. She also reaffirms that Samba is a dynamic and ever-evolving art form that represents the rich tapestry of Brazil’s history and culture. From its humble beginnings in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to its role as a symbol of resistance and celebration, samba has left an indelible mark on the world. It serves as a reminder of the power of music and dance to unite people, transcending boundaries and inspiring joy in the hearts of those who experience its rhythm.

“Samba is about transferring all your energies into something very positive. Samba is an opportunity to transform your sadness and hardships into joy.”

Gisella Ferreira
Gisella Ferreira smiles while wearing samba attire with the Santa Cruz harbor in the background
Photo Credit: Stephen Dietrich

While Samba is often seen as a single dance form, Gisella reminded us it is essential to recognize that there are five distinct styles of Samba, each with unique characteristics and regional influences.

  1. Samba no Pé: This is the most well-known style of Samba and is often the one people think of when they hear the word “Samba.” It’s a lively and energetic dance emphasizing quick footwork, hip movements, and a straight upper body. Samba no Pé is the centerpiece of the world-famous Rio Carnival.
  2. Samba de Gafieira: Originating in the dance halls of Rio de Janeiro, Samba de Gafieira is a partner dance that combines elements of Samba, Tango, and Forró. Intricate footwork, acrobatic movements, and a strong connection between the dancers characterize it.
  3. Samba Reggae: This style has its roots in Bahia and blends elements of Samba with Afro-Caribbean rhythms. Samba Reggae is known for its slower tempo and infectious drum beats, making it a favorite at street festivals and parades.
  4. Samba Pagode: Hailing from the city of São Paulo, Samba Pagode is a more relaxed and social style of Samba. It’s often performed in a circle, with participants singing and playing musical instruments, creating an inclusive and communal atmosphere.
  5. Samba Axé: This style emerged in Bahia and is characterized by its exuberant and upbeat movements. Samba Axé is often performed in a carnival or party setting, incorporating elements of African and Caribbean dance.

Each of these Samba styles offers a unique glimpse into the diverse cultural tapestry of Brazil. They showcase the nation’s rich history, blending indigenous, African, and European influences to create a vibrant and dynamic dance tradition.