Brooklyn to Bristol: A Samba Teacher’s Journey

In conversation with Samba teacher Latisha Cesar on the power of dance, life as New Yorker in Somerset, and the changing face of Stokes Croft and St Paul’s.

Latisha (centre) and her Samba class

Over the past few months, so much energy and headspace in the Coexist office has been taken up by the campaign to try and buy the building — which is still happening behind the scenes- that it feels like we’ve lost sight of the original purpose of this blog, which is to tell the stories of some of the amazing humans who’ve found their to Bristol and made Hamilton House their creative home.

One of these is Latisha Cesar, dance instructor, Samba lover, and a New Yorker adjusting to life in Somerset, who teaches a regular Brazilian Samba Dance class on a Saturday. I caught up with Latisha recently and asked her how she became a dancer, and how she wound up in Taunton, where she currently lives.

I’ve been dancing in some capacity since I was three. And then I went to uni and my first real job after uni was teaching ballroom dance in New York city public schools; as an artist in residence in different schools. And one year, we had a Brazilian invasion to our company. There were like 4 or 5 Brazilians that started working there and I was like ‘oh guys, I know Samba’ and they were like ‘That’s not Samba!’. And then they introduced me to real Samba dance…

But how did the upbeat New Yorker wind up in Somerset? That part of the story involved a lost debit card in Mexico:

Many years ago I went travelling through Mexico. I was in the Southeast, and I lost my debit card, and then went to the Northwest of Mexico, needed to get some money, and I hitched a ride with a man, and that man is now my husband.

After marrying her ‘North Devon super-rural’ husband, Latisha ended up moving with him to Taunton, to try and get a balance of rural and urban life. But finding the social life in her adoptive home town a bit lacking, a friend recommended she try out visiting Hamilton House. She soon got in touch with Dmac, and started teaching Samba here, as well as in local schools and at the Malcolm X Centre.

By this stage, Samba had already become a big part of her life, not just in a professional sense, but in a personal one too. Dance for Latisha had become a “form of meditation — it’s the thing I need to focus on and I need to be mindful about. But at the same time, I feel like I can release any energy I need.” This meditative aspect of dance was quickly incorporated into her class, which for many of the people who come to it, particularly for those who are new to Bristol, or are going through a rough time, performs an important social function. The community aspect of dance is very important to Latisha. Drawing on her Haitian heritage, she sees dance as an important social bonding tool that isn’t just for “special talented people”.

The sense of community, especially in St Paul’s, was one of the things that first drew her to Bristol, and is one of the things she feels is threatened by the ongoing rapid changes in the area. “I love St Paul’s. Stokes Croft and St Paul’s remind me of the area I would have grown up in in Brooklyn. So the gentrification is breaking my heart.”

Having seen what’s happened in her own neighbourhood in Brooklyn, where rent rises have long begun to displace predominantly lower-income communities of colour, she’s fearful that similar processes are already happening in Bristol. While Hamilton House has become “a home away from home for three or four years”, she feels that in order to remain an active community space, it has to engage in better communication with the community around it, in order to recognise its needs and make sure it remains part of the solution and not part of the problem.

In her own words: “My concern is, as long as Hamilton House stays in touch with the people who live here and doesn’t move forward on its own, it’s fine. But if it’s an excuse to change the face of the neighbourhood without thinking about the people who have been here for a long time, then it’s a tragedy.”

Latisha’s Brazilian Samba Dance class takes place every Saturday at 11.00 am.

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