Dance to Live
“Patient is stable. Two millimetres to the left and the wound would have been fatal. We were able to remove the bullet…” Those were the doctor’s words to Mariana Rocha’s parents in Sao Paulo, Brazil. After a fun night out at a local dance, Mariana was hit by a stray bullet while driving in a car. She never thought that her view of life would change so drastically. At only 19, her yearning for freedom and safety leads her to Toronto, where – with her best foot forward and dancing sandals in hand- she felt she had finally regained her right to dance through safer streets.
“Patient is stable. Two millimetres to the left and the wound would have been fatal. We were able to remove the bullet from her clavicle with no serious damage. She will only have a small scar behind her ear and another on her shoulder. We will keep her here for at least 48 hours to monitor her.”
Those were the doctor’s words to my parents. The words that were so deeply engraved in their memory cells. I recall none of it.
It had been a fun night. I had learned that one of my favourite bands was playing nearby, so I rushed back home from university to get ready and called up my friends so we could all meet for a long night at the club. I had been following this college “forro” band (a rhythmical music genre that’s danced in pairs, popular amongst university students in Brazil) for the past month, attending their concerts religiously.
I got home late because of the traffic, giving myself almost no time to eat. Instead, I began my daily ritual: Zip up the back of my loose, flowery sundress. Do a slow “pirouette” to check if the skirt will nicely open like petals below my waist. An array of red, yellow and green fill my eyes with contentment. I giggle in approval. “It’s just perfect”! I told the young woman in the mirror. I braided my long hair to one side and opted for a bright yellow headband to hold my bangs back. Grabbing my favourite pair of flat sandals from under the bed, my favourite “rasteirinhas” (flat sandals like those from ancient Greece, an essential accessory for dancing forro). I untied them. I wiped off the dirt from their laces. Tied them loosely around my calves. Got on my tiptoes, making sure their rough leather won’t dig into my skin. “My favourite dancing partners, we’ll get busy tonight,” I assured them. Filled my pockets with change for some tequila shots. I rush to the door as the moon climbs higher in the star-filled sky. “Bye, mom, don’t wait up for me!”
I shut the door fast behind me, ignoring the fact that my mom won’t so much as blink until the sun rose and I returned, drenched in a night’s long dancing sweat, faithful sandals in hand, longing for the next night out.
But that was not how it went on that Thursday, March 22nd: the night the rhythm ceased, thus ending the dance.
“Get down, did it get you?” my friend was screaming from the driver’s seat next to me as I ducked down between the passenger seat and the floor.
“Are you ok?” he kept screaming. I could see tears pouring down from his pale fear-struck face. The smell of burning tires and flesh was nauseating. I felt something heavy pouring down my neck, and the unmistakable metallic taste of blood made it clear, “I got shot.” That was my last memory.
Weeks passed, but I still had no uninterrupted nights of sleep. The reality of being a victim of a random violent attack was starting to take control. Once the top student in my class, I was now failing subjects. As soon as dusk arrived, I would retreat into my room. Some days, I wouldn’t leave home.
“You need to go out. You can’t spend your life indoors,” my sister would insist. “Take a sabbatical year and go abroad. I have some friends living in North America. Go visit them”.
Was this insistence or clarity? Two weeks later, on my birthday, I arrived in Canada.
From the airplane window, I couldn’t stop noticing how flat and monochromatic Toronto looked compared to the familiar landscape of Sao Paulo. “As flat as my beloved rasteirinhas,” I noted. “This place will be different!” I assured myself.
Although summer days were longer and having the birds still chirping at 9 pm made going out sound more plausible, it was still a challenge. Any foreign noise would still trigger anxiety, but with time and support, the fear began to fade. Once I felt the magnitude of being able to walk freely, to put on my shoes to wander and explore the city, I could no longer bear the thought of the lack of freedom back home. Living behind walls and bars shouldn’t be the norm.
It wasn’t what made me leave my hometown that mattered, it’s what made me stay here: I felt secure, I fell in love – not only with my future husband but with the city of Toronto as well – and especially with the idea of simply being able to exercise my right to dance through safer streets.
MARIANA ROCHA left Brazil for Canada and lives in Toronto, where, with her sister, she owns and runs a coffee shop called The Last Drop.