RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Standing 9 feet tall, Raquel Potí regularly graces the front pages of Brazilian magazines and newspapers, and on Saturday the artist donned a lavish feathered costume and lacquered her body in gold glitter. At one point she charged the length of the street party, sweeping her rainbow wings like she was about to take flight. It was the latest of her charismatic stilt walking performances that has prompted some media to call her the muse of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival.
But on a recent weekend, she had reduced herself to her natural, petite size and patched jeans. During a class outside Rio's modern art museum, she instructed a group of students to lock eyes with a partner. Each pair recalled someone who shaped them and shared their dreams. Then they hugged. Some wept, one while recounting how her grandmother taught her to smile.
“You weren’t tricked," Potí, 40, told them. "This IS a stilt walking class. And it has already begun!”
The class is at the center of her outsized footprint in Rio, which includes managing several government-funded social projects to teach stilts, theater and performing arts, running a production company and recruiting members of her ever-expanding network for event appearances.
At just over 5 feet tall, the tiny titan is chiefly responsible for the explosion of stilt walking in Rio, having trained more than 1,000 kids and adults over the past decade. That boom has altered the landscape of the world’s biggest Carnival, where hundreds of stilt walkers tower over the many raucous parties that occupy and dominate public areas.
For Potí, stilt walking is much more than a show; it's ancestral and ritualistic, and a springboard for people to radically change their lives and themselves.
Exercises in self-discovery weren't what many students anticipated from the lithe Carnival queen with the beaming smile. Forcing them to reckon with their vulnerabilities is key, Potí said in an interview, as stilt walkers' ability to enchant stems from becoming comfortable with instability, and they must be conscious of what they will communicate to a crowd.
“It could be a lot of pain, could be a lot of love, could be whatever, but it’s what is inside us. That brings people closer to our humanity,” she told The Associated Press inside her apartment, where elaborate costumes hang from every available space on the multi-colored walls, and the purple ceiling is marked by fingerprints from a stilts session with her son.
Those in Potí's orbit speak of her with reverence, as though she’s a mystic who, upon her stilts, gains access to some vaulted realm of wisdom. It’s lofty stuff to swallow given that, for many, Carnival is escapism or rambunctious bacchanal. But more than glitz and glitter, she said, it’s for uplifting people.
“She inspires me to think about how I’m going to impact others and get my message to them,” said Camille Campão, 35, a former student who now performs for children as Fada Folha, or Leaf Fairy. "It’s something that goes beyond her, and she’s totally in service to it.”
Potí — who sees herself not as a muse, but as a missionary — teaches all over the city, from the parks to the poor, crammed neighborhoods known as favelas and the little fishing village in Rio’s westernmost corner where she grew under her grandfather’s nets. Her cousins still take to the sea each day.
She attended a top university and, weeks before graduation, her partner died of cancer. She says the deep pain derailed her intended course and she set out traveling the world, first falling in with a circus troupe that showed her life could be different than the one she envisioned.
“When I first saw stilts, it was a very big finding. I saw the possibility of them as an instrument that could bring people together to build relationships and a society people believe in,” she said.
Potí researched popular culture and community relations as four years passed, then in 2013 moved back to Brazil and founded her stilts workshop. Captivating performances proved effective advertising. Campão quickly signed up after seeing Potí at the Friends of the Jaguar Carnival party, which today draws some 40,000 revelers.
Back at her class outside the museum, Potí was explosive from the get-go. She sprung from the ground, limbs outstretched in all directions, for the first game connecting students with the element of play that’s vital to Carnival parties. After the “interactive dynamic” — Potí's exercises akin to group therapy — she taught stilting technique, then the class strapped on the unwieldy apparatuses. First assisted by volunteering former students, everyone was soon ambling about on their own.
“I've wanted to do this for years,” Danielle Mello, a 43-year-old psychologist, told the group afterward. “I didn’t know I was capable.”
Some are in the throes of trouble and overcoming something previously thought insurmountable can be transformative. Many go on to perform at Rio’s parties.
Gabi Falcão, 37, was one of them. After separating from her husband of 10 years, she took their two young children and moved in with a friend, then enrolled in Potí's workshop, an experience she says was “emotionally profound” and exactly what she needed at that time.
“Her project changes lives. She pokes people, has the tools to get people out of their comfort zones,” said Falcão, who now performs in more than 10 Carnival parties and volunteers at Potí's class. “She has the power to make magic.”
Falcão and multiple other stilt walkers interviewed by the AP described Potí as someone who opens doors and awakens people. Some went as far as to say she has ancestral energy, teaching others to think and act collectively. Two called her a witch, and one said she appeared able to stop time. Most noted her capacity to be present, shown by intense eye contact in interactions, and offering every ounce of herself to Carnival performances.
Several also described her as a savvy organizer and promoter. Her workshop has a five-person production team, with planning meetings for communications and sales. A photographer is there to register first-timers' experiences that Potí said can be like a baptism. He shoots all her projects, of which there are about 15.
“Her work in the city is unequaled in building an empire, and she's still building,” said Carol Passarinha, one of the 30 stilt walkers Potí assembled to parade this week with the reigning samba school.
And Potí juggles her endeavors as a single mother raising a 7-year-old boy. She performed until three days before her water broke. Six weeks later, she was back on her stilts at Rio’s most iconic concert venue, Flying Circus, and nursing in her dressing room.
Toward the end of Saturday morning's party, Potí peeled off and crossed a highway overpass — still wearing her stilts and weaving through revelers who shouted praise. She was quickly back to her parked car, jam-packed with costumes and 15 sets of stilts, then driving while insisting a producer fix a problem with photographers' assignment for the next party. That one would feature more than 75 stilt walkers, many wearing folkloric costumes, and Potí is its artistic director.
Her hustle helps explain why she's always Carnival's stand-out sensation. She also invests considerable sums in her costumes and works the crowd. One photographer said she "creates moments.”
Over lunch at a vegan restaurant a few days ago, Potí recalled the editor of Rio's main newspaper once showing her all the photos from Carnival coverage and – with some amusement – grumbling that yet again he would have to feature her on the front page.
The spotlight doesn’t bother her. In fact, she appreciates it. After all, she was a pioneer, has strived for a decade and is receiving recognition, she said. But she wishes more people would look beyond her, to her causes and the change she's seeking to bring about.
“The cure is more important than being on the cover,” she said.
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