Marchas Populares, A Great Lisbon Tradition Is Missing Men
The Marchas Populares, Lisbon's summertime carnival parades, are a spectacle of dancing and music — but a shortage of money, free time and men who want to dance are endangering this midsummer tradition.
LISBON — With evictions in the city's “soul” neighborhoods and the aging of residents who have carried on traditions, it sometimes seems that a basic sense of community in Lisbon is fading away.
Nine years shy of their 100th year, Lisbon's traditional Popular Marches — nighttime carnival parades through the city's neighborhoods — are having a hard time finding participants to join the march, especially men.
Meanwhile, just across the river from Lisbon, in nearby municipalities Setúbal and Charneca da Caparica, the solution is to take marchers from one bank to the other.
For many of the participants in this traditional choreography, it no longer matters whether they dance for the neighborhood São Domingos de Benfica, Bica or Campo de Ourique. What they want is to keep going every year, and to save the future of this tradition, which for years has been struggling with a lack of men.
The tradition started in 1932, sparked by journalist José Leitão Barros, who launched it in Notícias Ilustrado, in partnership with Diário de Lisboa. Luís Pastor de Macedo, a councilor responsible for culture, sponsored the first march and included it in the program of festivities in the city of Lisbon.
Some feel dancing is "not very masculine"
This year, Frazão is the marshal of the marches in the São Domingos de Benfica district. Everything from the costumes to the marches and lyrics will be created by him.
Many think that this is a woman's thing.
Frazão explains that it is not difficult to find women to participate. In São Domingos de Benfica, 38 showed up, but they could only take 25 – each march is limited to 25 men and 25 women. In Setúbal, they don't even open registration any more, he says: "They have been marchers for many years, and when there has to be a replacement, the daughter or a cousin usually comes to take the woman's place.”
With men, there is always a greater concern, both in Lisbon and in Setúbal.
“Many think that this is a woman's thing, and others that dancing is not very masculine. There are collectives that already choose to have only 10 men. The rest are women," he says.
Love at the marches
So why has the shortage of men only become a problem recently? In the past, marches were seen as a place to find a partner. This is less common today — although there are still some, like Carmen and Nuno Jones, who find love at the marches.
“They were born from the march and have it in their blood,” says Carmen Jones, pointing to three children walking a little further ahead, towards the rehearsal field. When she was about 14, she started going to the March of the Cosmos, an extinct collective in Setúbal. Then, in 1997, she joined the Independente march, where she met Nuno. She was 19 and he was 17. “He's the one who messed with me! He stole my first kiss before the presentation in the bullring. He told me it was for good luck,” she says, smiling. They met on the march, fell in love, got married and had three children. Carmen didn't stop marching even while pregnant.
“Joana, my eldest, was born in April. I didn't miss a rehearsal. One day I was rehearsing; the next day she was born and the next rehearsal I was here again. I left her with my sister and spent the rehearsal calling home to ask if everything was okay. For Alexandre, the middle one, I also marched while pregnant. On the day of the presentation, I had to fix the skirt with rubber bands because my stomach was so big that I couldn’t put the buttons together any more.”
Busy lives get in the way
This is the first year for Inês, the youngest, as a marcher. The 12-year-old has been part of the march since she was four, first as a mascot – the child who accompanies godparents in the parade. Too old to be a mascot and too young to be a street vendor, Inês stopped last year, but still went with family to rehearsals.
The busy day-to-day lives of families are making it difficult to maintain tradition.
Last year, the whole family except Inês joined people from Setúbal who decided to march through a Lisbon parish, in the name of a tradition that knows no borders. They marched through Baixa, at the invitation of Bruno Frazão, who knew it was difficult to find dancing feet in the area.
The event was too tiring to repeat this year, particularly for working parents and children with school and homework. The increasingly busy day-to-day lives of families are making it difficult to maintain tradition.
People dancing during a "Marcha populares" in Portugal.
Junta de Freguesia do Sado/Instagram
About the future, Frazão is not fatalistic. He doesn't believe the marches will end in the near future. Instead, he thinks they will change: marches with more women than men, or only women.
In São Domingos de Benfica, the march is joyful and lively, but also demanding. Frazão keeps the marchers on the marking lines lit by weak lamps on an outdoor soccer field in the parish. Any mistake takes them back to the beginning of the game. In one of the rehearsals, the men made a mistake five times, and five times they all returned to the starting line-up. There were scolds and calls for attention. That day, on the field, the referee, who is also a coach, handed a red card to one of the marchers, who was not taking the rehearsal seriously.
While the marchers rehearsed, Carolina and Afonso, aged nine and seven, sat on the stone bench of the soccer field. They were waiting for their parents, both marchers. Afonso was entertained playing on his cell phone while Carolina imitated the steps of the grown-ups on the pitch. Carolina wants to be a marcher when she grows up. “I already know a dance by heart! There's a new one that I still haven't managed to learn, but I'm about to!” says Carolina, who is never bored in a rehearsal.
Isabel Mendes is president of the residents' committee of São Domingos de Benfica. Since February, she has had her troops march twice a week. It is her second year organizing the parish march, and she does not let anything escape her, because keeping the tradition alive is a great responsibility.
What matters to us is that the community works well.
Men are lacking here too. Every rehearsal, nine men cross the bridge to reinforce the march. They tried to call up residents in the neighborhood, without success. Still, the rehearsals have to move forward, Frazão says, even if the shortage of people makes the work more difficult.
Mendes says that the only solution is to reduce the number of pairs of marchers. In addition to helping with recruitment, it also reduces the general costs of the march – expected to reach €40,000 this year.
In Lisbon, a city council committee provides €30,000 to each march. In Setúbal, the budget is half that. To make up for the difference, Mendes says the marchers are preparing lunches, raffles, sweaters and fairs to raise money.
In Setúbal, the march should not be far from €23,000. But there, the community itself provides the money, Mendes says: “Of course it makes a dent here in the accounts. What matters to us is that the community works well."
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