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Learning the Brazilian Candomble Dance

Candomblé, meaning “dance in honor of the gods” in Portuguese, is an Afro-Brazilian religion developed during the earliest days of slave trade by Africans forced into slavery in Brazil. Those of this faith believe that each individual possesses their own personal orixa, or deity, that both acts as a protector and controls their destiny. A main component of Candomblé is dance, and special dances are performed during important ceremonies such as religious rituals and exorcisms.

Dorothy Robinson Kidder, wife of Ambassador Randolph A. Kidder, was given the opportunity to participate in not one, but two Candomblé ceremonies during her time in Brazil from 1946-1949. Mrs. Kidder later became a White Magic Priestess of the Second Degree. She was interviewed by Jewell Fenzi in June 1998. 

Read about FSOs and witch doctors and some Halloween stories.


The Hex of the Cook

KIDDER: In Belém [Brazil], we had our first experience with black magic. Candomblé is a black magic but the word that principally means the dance, the procedure of application….But a situation developed which was unfortunate to say the least….I didn’t get along with Randy’s [my husband] cook, whose name was Ydalhia. I made the mistake of firing her. Also I made the mistake of going out right afterwards, not realizing that after I had gone, imprecations by Ydalhia were made throughout the house ‑‑ that she was going to put a “hex” on it, that we would know that Ydalhia was working against us. And, strangely enough, before long it began to happen.

I knew nothing of it; nobody said anything to me about Ydalhia’s imprecations. And [my daughter] Charlotte became sickly, but really quite sickly, and feverish. We had addressed ourselves to the medical unit at the Val de Caes, which was a wartime unit of ours…. Nobody could diagnose this strange fever the child had. One afternoon she and I were lying on the bed, my husband having gone back to the office…. The bell rang at the gate and the garden boy Pedro went down to open the gate…. He opened it and then struggled to shut it again. And I sort of wondered what had happened.

Then the door burst open again, enfolding Pedro, and up the drive, came this woman, Indian, Negroid, with a kind of insolent evil; you could just feel it in the walk. You know that picture called “High Yaller”? (At left) That’s exactly what this woman was like. She clapped her hands, which as you recall was the way to ask for entrance; she did. Then I heard the little maid downstairs calling up “Dona Ruth, Dona Ruth” quietly so as not to disturb Charlotte and me. And Dona Ruth went downstairs, then she came up in a few minutes, looking very drawn.

“That woman,” she said, “was applying for the position of cook.” And while I was talking to her, it was very strange. Herminia, who was the laundress, came from the laundry. She stood at the back window. And Teresa, the little maid, didn’t leave the door leading into the room where I was sitting, talking to this woman.

And just as she said that, we heard Pedro, the garden boy who’d opened the garden door, who never spoke, calling with great anxiety in his voice, “Dona Ruth, Dona Ruth!” Meanwhile, I had seen this woman leave.

Dona Ruth [my governess] came downstairs, then came back up in a minute, and she said, “You know, this is it, it’s really very serious.”

That was Pedro asking me, “You didn’t keep her, you didn’t keep her, did you?”

“No,” said Dona Ruth, “we didn’t.” “Ahhh,” said Pedro, “she is such bad news. She comes from the island of Marajó and she is a witch. And she is sent by Ydalhia, who fears that the imprecations are going too slowly, and she was to enter our service and accelerate them.”

Dona Ruth came to me and said to me, “You know, Mrs. Kidder, you are going to have the place exorcized. Because if you don’t, everything is going to wither around you. The rest of the staff will leave, and nobody will serve you in the market, and you will just be a pariah.”

I said, “Well, Dona Ruth, I can’t do that. As you know, the authorities don’t recognize Black Magic. How can we go along with it?”

She said, “Well, I don’t know what to do but I suggest that you call Mrs. McCray.”

Mrs. McCray, a wonderful lady, Nora McCray, was the wife of a British official who was the director of a streetcar network….Nora McCray was such a help and counselor in every way.

So I went downstairs….to the telephone, which was on the wall. Telephones in Belèm very rarely worked because they were activated by electricity, which was activated by wood, and as it rained all the time, there were very few sparks. That afternoon, fortunately, there was one. And I woke Norma McCray from a siesta ‑‑ a thing you never did ‑‑ and told her what had happened.

She said, “Yes, Dottie, this is very, very serious. You HAVE to have the place exorcised or you have to have some SEMBLANCE of exorcism. Something has to happen.” I thought, “Nora, I don’t know what it can be, what it can be, because Randy can’t lend himself to this situation.” Nora said, “I don’t know, but think about it.”

And an idea came. Our property backed up on the property of a monastery, and the monks had very much hoped to entice [my son] Mike to be one of their pupils in a sort of daycare thing they ran. And…they would frequently invite Mike over the fence by putting a ladder on the monastery side and a ladder on our side and Mike would go up, and he’d see all the interesting things that they had over there like animals of one kind or another.

And it suddenly occurred to me, “This is our one chance ‑‑ that Mike could invite them to come see our animals ‑‑ we did have some chickens, a turtle tank, a few rabbits, and probably enough to interest the monks anyway from the curiosity of wanting to see how we lived.

So that was planned for a certain Sunday, late Sunday morning. And I kept all the staff in. We put up the ladder and we ceremoniously invited them over.

We arranged with Mike how they would walk by the pen where the rabbits were, and the pen with the chickens, and by the turtle tank and underneath the avocado tree and right through the center of the house, then back into the barn where our “schoolhouse” was. There they would be offered a collation.

I had my heart in my mouth as I watched them go back up the ladder, over the wall, down the other side. At which moment Mike’s waving, we’re all waving, saying goodbye and the staff is standing around looking pretty impressed. There was no holy water scattered, there were no prayers made; just this presence. And then we let the staff out.

And the next day we had a very nice person present herself as cook. Charlotte’s fever receded.

Well, having got that close to what it meant, then when we went to Rio and we had this possibility of studying White Magic with Joãozinho Pãe dos Santos who came from Bahia, the center of the Candomblé. I did study with him and became ‑‑ well, I became a White Magic Priestess of the Second Degree.

“You will never know evil”

I got called into being a part of an exorcism in Rio of an absolutely beautiful Rio girl.… Her name was Branca Mello Franco Alvez. Actually, she was related to…[the former Ambassador to Brazil to the U.S.] Mauricio Nabuco (at left).

This girl was very high‑born and perfectly beautiful; God, she was beautiful…. Anyway, the problem was that she suddenly began to develop a strange allergy. Her beautiful face was swollen, there were great plaques of itchy red things all over her body and her face. It was almost like an attack of shingles. And she went to the dermatologists, who all tried different things, nothing for it.

So she began to think, “Well, maybe something is happening.” She was a Brazilian girl. So she addressed herself to her cook, or possibly it was the other way around ‑‑ the cook finally took pity on this frantic effort to see how this thing could be cured.

She came to her and said, “Madame, I think I know what’s happening. And if you will afford me time off, I will go back to San Cristobon,” which was a surrounding area which was known for Magic of both varieties. And she said, “I will try to ferret out what is happening.”

She came back a day or so later and said that she had found the way. She thought she knew the source, she also thought she knew how to combat the problem. She would send her a priestess.

Branca would require four witnesses. Branca knew what we’d been through and knew what our interest was in it, so she asked me to be one; and she had three other Brazilian friends to serve as witnesses, all pretty sophisticated girls. The meeting was to be at two o’clock in the afternoon and it was in a ‑‑ how should I say it ‑‑ I guess you’d say in a very sophisticated area of Rio, beyond Copacabana, it was in Ipanema. It was on the beach, it was Viera Soto. We lived on Avenida Mendonca about four blocks behind.

So, it was at two o’clock in the afternoon, and everything was perfectly normal. I went to meet with the others and we waited with Branca’s cook. Poor Branca: completely disfigured; and the three girls and myself; quite nervous, not knowing what would happen. And eventually there was a clap at the door and it was opened by the cook. And in came Dona Dora [the priestess].

Now Dona Dora looked as though she might be 35. She was very trimly dressed in a short white skirt, a bahiana blouse [white ruffled blouse typical of Bahia] but not an extravagant ruffly one and very attractively pressed. And she looked very simple and attractive. If you met her on the street you wouldn’t have had any idea.

With her was a somewhat older, heavier woman. The cook introduced Branca and the rest of us to them. And not the reverse, as might have been expected. And the acolyte, the heavier woman, asked if she might go off into another room ‑‑ no, Dona Dora asked if she might go and change, which she did, and left the acolyte to tell us that what was going to be needed was a glass full of cachaca [rum], on which a crucifix was then laid with a rosary that curled around the glass, and she would need an empty orange crate, which there was, for Dona Dora to sit on ‑‑ not a stool but an orange crate.

And how we were to be disposed around the room, how we the witnesses had to take off all jewelry, how we had to sit on the floor with our legs extended and our arms extended something so nothing would be cross, nothing would impede the movement of the Spirit.

And now Branca, who had masses of black hair, was told to loosen it, to take out all the hairpins. She was told that she would stand barefoot, in her slip, before Dona Dora.

Dona Dora came back in. She had on one of those bahiana skirts and a more ruffly blouse. Ah, but she still was extremely composed and she was 35 years old. And the Venetian blinds were pulled down, and the light was sort of slanting in this way. And Dona Dora sat on her crate and Branca stood before her. We were on the floor, two on each side.

Dona Dora began a kind of imprecation ‑‑ that mixture, you know, of the ‑‑ oh, what is the name of the language that they speak? I can’t think at the moment, it’s a mixture of the African conversion. She begins the invocation, which is a mixture of the Lord’s Prayer and an invitation to the gods, and so on.

It becomes more and more accelerated, and as it does so ‑‑ I assure you. It was two o’clock in the afternoon and none of us had anything to drink or anything other than our own nervousness and anxiety about this.

And out of that figure that was 35 [years old] came a crone [old witch].  I. Saw. A. Crone. The knuckles, the teeth, the gums, the voice ‑‑ everything…. And how they do it, I don’t know. The purpose is to rid the suffering subject of the evil.

After further incantations and prayer, the character of Dona Dora gave way to the appearance of a man, a young, virile man dressed in a skirt, with a kind of strange [in mysterious tone of voice] sort of fury of evil. And he walked around that room and he grabbed each one of us to our feet, and I really felt that I was being held in the grip of something really frightening; and allowed to drop back down again as he moved about.

By that time the acolyte had asked for an ironing board, just the flat top of an ironing board, and told Branca to stand on the ironing board. By that time, the light was coming directly down on the ironing board, almost like stabbing it. There was Branca with her black hair, the white slip, and this capering creature who was pacing on all four sides, emptying little bags which turned out to be gunpowder, and then lighting them.

And they went off with POOF and BRRROOOM and smoke. And there ‑‑ by that time it was maybe three o’clock, and this capering, evil kind of creature ‑‑

And then he would turn to a very hysterical kind of a prayer. And out of him returned our little old woman, absolutely drained. She was exhausted. You could feel that she was exhausted.

And she then went around, almost feebly, went around to all of us. Talked to us. She told me ‑‑ and Lord, was I ever grateful! ‑‑ that if the same thing ever happened again, she said, “You will never know evil.” Which was just too wonderful. The next person who told me that was [renowned theologian] Martin Buber. So I feel that maybe it’s true. So far, so good.

So, anyway, this crone ‑‑ by the time Dona Dora returned through yet another invocation, another creative process, very feebly enunciated, Dona Dora was finished, wobbly finished. All of this happened on a Thursday afternoon.

Dona Dora, in her guise of the old crone, had told us that on Sunday next the person who had perpetrated this evil on Branca would suffer retribution. She did! She went to visit her son in boarding school and fell down a flight of stone steps, breaking her leg. We all knew her, and knew she had a yen for Branca’s husband.

Soon after, Branca went back to normal, all the redness disappeared, and she went to inform, really, all the dermatologists whom she’d seen before, and they could not explain it.

I will say that the crone, at the last moment, had said to all of us, “If you speak a word of this, within two weeks time, you will suffer for so doing.” And of course none of us…dared open our mouths.