Friday, February 17, 2012

Samba and the Frenetic Rhythm of Brazil’s Carnival

Fast. Fun. Lively. Energetic. Graceful. These are just some of the adjectives that describe the dance form that is synonymous with Rio’s grand carnival, the samba. Many of these types of dances originated from Latin America and have evolved into the structured dance forms that we know today. Many of the Latin dances are performed by couples while some are suited for a solo dancer, male or female. Samba, in the carnival sense is danced by everyone, whether they have a partner or not.

Samba is one of the most recognized symbols of Brazil and really a top draw for tourists and other travelers. It has become an international Brazilian icon and deeply interwoven in Brazilian culture and tradition. It is so popular that Brazil celebrates the National Samba Day on December 2 of each year.

The roots of Samba can be traced to the traditional African-Brazilian dance performed by ordinary workers and slaves during a Candomblé ceremony, usually accompanied by drums such as the atabaque, singing and hand clapping. It first appeared around the 17th century in Recôncavo, a region in Bahai, Brazil.  As is typical with informal gatherings by the indigenous people, a circle is usually formed and samba is a word equated to roda de dança. During those days, everyone is invited to participate in the dance that is characterized by spontaneous movements of the hips, legs and feet, often accompanied by clapping and sometimes drums, but traditionally accompanied by a cavaquinho guitar.  The Samba music that is known today, especially the ones that became popular in the United States after the Second World War are played by orchestras with clarinets, flutes, trombones, trumpets and choros.

Samba has a syncopated beat and if you are used to watching Samba performed in the movies or on dance shows on TV, you will notice the unusually missing beat which the dancer uses to her advantage by filling the gap with intricate and exaggerated but fluid movements of the arms, hands, shoulders or body. 

Samba today is included in the Latin dances performed in Dancesport competitions.  And true to the high-energy character of the dance, it is complemented with costumes that reflect the vibrancy of Samba’s rhythms. The arms, shoulders, legs and torsos of female dancers are typically exposed in Samba costumes that add drama, intensity and exotic appeal to Samba. And with the frenetic pace of the dance, the costume also helps the dancers from getting overheated. Samba costumes are quite elaborate and use vibrant and bold colors with accents and embellishments that are not limited to fringe, rhinestones and feathers. Samba ensembles can be bikini style, bikini and short skirt, bra top with longer skirt or loose samba pants and top. For carnivals and parades, the ensemble can be embellished with an elaborate headdress, boa feathers and back pieces. Other costumes include the use of sheer gloves, accents for the lower legs and calves, neckpieces and high-heeled boots or sandals.

History of Samba

Just like so many of the Latin dances that evolved since the 16th century, Samba originated from the tribal and folk dances brought by the slaves from Congo and Angola. These slaves were imported by the Portuguese into Brazil and they introduced Embolada, Batuque and Caterete. These dances were not inhibited by a prudish society and since the risqué movements included touching the navels, the Europeans considered them sinful. Actually Embolada, meaning foolish, was a dance about a cow whose horn tips were covered with a ball for safety reasons. On the other hand the popularity of the Batuque caused the passing of a law to forbid its practice. It was a lively circle dance not unlike the Charleston, with the steps in rhythm with percussion and hand clapping. In some of the gatherings by the natives, a solo couple may perform inside the circle. This is still part of the folk dances of Cape Verde.

Samba is not just one dance. It’s a combination of several dances from the African slaves and the music, sways, footwork and body movements characteristic of the Portuguese native dances and the rituals done by the native Indians such as the Lundu. It combines indigenous Portuguese dance and music as well as that of the African Bantu. As the carnival is part of the people in Brazil, particularly in Rio de Janeiro, steps taken from the Copacabana were incorporated into the Samba as it continued to evolve. But it was in Bahia that the dance form continued to develop. As Samba as a dance form becomes more formalized and the movements organized, it did not only become popular with the common folks; it was embraced by Rio’s high society and included in their ballroom dancing repertoire.

Around 1885, the graceful dance from Brazil was still called Zemba Cueca before the name became Mesemba, which means, “to pray.” And early in the 1900s, around 1914, the dance was mixed with Maxixe, another old Brazilian folk dance. Maxixe combines the moves of polka and the musical rhythms of the Habañera. Modern-day Samba still incorporates the chassé and point of Maxixe. By 1923 Samba was already gaining popularity in France and instructions on how to dance the Samba were included in a book written by Paul Boucher in 1928. During the meeting of the New York Society of Teachers of Dancing in 1938, an exhibition of Samba dancing was performed. Samba music was played at the Brazilian Pavilion during the World’s Fair in New York in 1939, attesting to the escalating interest in Samba music and the dance of the same name. “Brasil,” a Samba music that became a classic hit was composed by Ary Barroso. It became so popular that it was turned into a 1944 Hollywood musical, “Brazil” for which Ary Barroso wrote the musical score.

Some of the dance variations have incorporated the moves and rhythms of Bossa Nova. While the word “samba” may be derived from Zambo, which is what an offspring of a Brazilian native woman and an African man is called, the actual source of the name for the Samba dance is unknown.  

Carioca (also what the people in Rio de Janeiro call themselves) is a version of the Samba that was resurrected in 1934 in the United Kingdom, partly due to the popularity of the 1933 movie “Flying Down to Rio” that starred Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. By 1941, the popularity of the Carioca version of the Samba spread to the United States owing to the performances of Carmen Miranda, such as in the movie “That Night in Rio.” Carmen Miranda was a Brazilian samba singer who was born in Portugal. She starred in several films in Hollywood and was also a Broadway performer. Her birth name was Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha. In the 1950s, with her social position, Princess Margaret of England also had a hand in making Samba popular in the United Kingdom. With the popularity Samba had gained in British society, it only took a while for the dance to gain foothold and in 1956, European dance instructor Pierre Lavelle became instrumental in Samba gaining international recognition as new Latin dance form.

Samba Variations

Samba no Pé

Samba has many variations and in Brazil, the frame of the dancers shows the difference. The most popular one danced during the carnival in Rio de Janeiro is Samba no Pé, a Samba that can be danced by a single person and what is usually danced whenever Samba music is played. The dancers just follow the rhythm of the music and can vary from average to very fast depending on the tempo. In Samba no Pé the women dance on the balls of their feet as they usually wear high heels while the men dance with their feet flat on the floor. The body remains straight while dancing and the knees are bent one at a time. Small foot movements are executed to the 2/4 rhythm with three steps for each measure, just like in a step-ball-change step. Hip tilt is achieved by bending one knee slightly and the weight is shifted from one leg to the other.

Samba de Gafieira

This is samba for the masses, popularly danced in a lower-class dance hall or gafieira. This type of Samba is for a pair dance but differs to the ballroom samba. This variation is typically performed in the Catete, Centro and Botafogo districts of Rio de Janeiro and became well known around the 1940s. As it developed, it incorporated some acrobatic elements and borrowed some from the Argentine Tango, although of the more relaxed type, more like a combination of tango and waltz. It is danced with the partners in arm-length open embrace or in a closer embrace chest-to-chest, lead and follow movements. The basic steps or passo basico is quite similar to the box step or quadradinho in Portuguese. The beginner’s rhythm of quick-quick-slow is done in 4 beats. The whole sequence makes 8-beat basic steps with the lead dancer moving the left foot forward on the third beat and the right foot of the seventh beat.

The lateral movements are done almost in place on the count of one and two and on five and six. The lateral exit or saída ao lado is employed to enter or to exit the more elaborate steps of the Samba de Gafieira.

Samba Pagode

On the other hand, Samba Pagode, also a pair dance, is a simpler version of Samba de Gafieira and has fewer acrobatic elements. However, this version is more intimate than other sambas. Originating from São Paulo, Samba Pagode became popular when the Brazilian music style called Pagode, which came from Salvador in Bahia gained widespread acceptance in Rio de Janeiro around 1978.

Samba Axé

A solo dance and an evolving version of samba is Samba Axé, which started around 1986 in Salvador, Bahia in Brazil during the carnival season. It is danced to the rhythm of the music that replaced the Lambada, called Axé, which was popularized by music groups like E o Tchan. Samba Axé is a fully-choreographed samba dance that draws inspiration from the lyrics of the songs that accompany it. It is likewise energetic just like the other versions of Samba and is a combination of aerobics and Samba no Pé. However, there are no basic steps in this variation since the choreography for the dance goes hand in hand with the music that is released.  The Axé music is a fusion of genres from Africa and the Caribbean, such as Reggae, Calypso and Marcha and also influenced by Brazilian and African music including Carixada, Frevo and Forró. Axé means good vibration, soul or spirit and comes from a Nigerian religious greeting used in Candomblé, an African religion practiced in Brazil.


A playful version of Samba is called Samba-Rock, a nightclub dance version that originated from São Paulo. It is a combination of different Latin dance forms, including Salsa, Forró, Zouk-Lambada and Samba de Gafieira.

Samba Rhythms

Samba is a very energetic, exuberant and funky dance, accompanied by a percussionist and a singer. Hand clapping can substitute for the percussion instrument. It has a fast tempo of 50 to 52 bars per minute. The movements in Samba are flirtatious, its music infectious and its rhythms are quite lively. While you will see Samba danced in its international form today, it still retains the figures with varied rhythms characteristic of the different dances where Samba originated. The rhythms of the different variations are the distinguishing marks to identify one from the other. The Natural Rolls have a simple 1, 2 and a half beat while the Boto Fogo variation has a 1 and a 2-quarter beat. Hip movements are retained during the half beats between the steps, called the “samba tic” or a pelvic tilt. The dancers display a flat carriage of their torsos and their weights forward on their standing legs, which should be bent. 

The dance is also characterized by the unique “samba bounce action,” which is described as a rhythmic and gentle action that is felt through the knees and ankles but must be shown as a carefree and effortless movement. This is a difficult action to master but is an essential move to the whole make up of Samba. The pelvic tilt, the rapid footwork, the sway and pronounced rocking motion of the dancers are essential in the proper execution of the Samba.

Samba is not a dance for beginners who want to learn Latin dancing, as it requires fast footwork even for its basic steps. The footwork requires three-step changes with a slight lifting of the knee and led with alternating feet in a fast rhythm of quick, quick, slow and a slight pause. A Samba dancer keeps the shoulders slightly forward from the waist and maintains eye contact as well as a solid but never stiff connection with the partner. Due to the fast footwork, the dancers take their steps from the inside edge of the balls of their feet to make the small stop-and-go movement of the feet and hip while stepping to the side easier. The heel-and-toe are used when moving forward and backward. Throughout the dance, the dancers’ feet should always remain in contact with the floor. Samba is a combination of quick and slow, lingering moves that produce staccato movements, displaying the dancers’ form, their body outlines and defining movements. The arms of both the male and female Samba dancers must have some tension when they hold each other, although it should appear that the lady is held gently. The male dancer on the other hand must have firm arms and upper body. 

Samba music has a 2/4 beat and most of the steps are executed on a two-count that creates a quick snapping of the dancer’s feet together as well as a fast hip tic. Abrupt and smooth motions are combined in the Samba that makes it breathtaking to watch. The cabaca, reco-reco, tamborim and chocalho are some of the original instruments that accompany Samba dancers and singers.

Samba Moves

Bouncy and light should be the feel when dancing the Samba. It may be a bit difficult to master at the beginning, since you have to still have to learn to execute those small, frenetic steps and making the samba tic. There will be some flexing and bending and linear and circular movements. These moves are what create the bouncy and light look of Samba. For the couple dancing the Samba, most of the action is done by the body. It includes contractions wherein the dancer should suck in the stomach in order to tilt the pelvis back and compress it so that the pelvis can tilt forward. The contractions are also used to move the foot forward or back while the compressions are employed to recover the foot to the starting position. These movements are also combined with the straightening and bending of the knees as the dancers transfer their weights from the balls of their feet to the flats of their feet to give them the particular Samba bounce. It is not just a matter of shifting the weight. Timing is very important and the weight change is usually delayed until the last possible moment and then moving the foot swiftly into position to achieve the Samba Bounce. You can achieve this by applying some pressure on the floor with both feet except when a foot has to be quickly moved into the next position. The standing foot is used to push the body and the full weight should not rest only on one foot particularly during an “a” or ¼ beat step. Toeing off helps in keeping the balance and show off a more captivating look. The Samba Bounce is used when the timing is on “slow” “slow” (SS) and on a “slow” and “slow” (SaS) combination but not when the count is slow-quick-quick or the reverse, which is quick-quick-slow.

Samba is a one of the great Latin American dances that are truly entrancing and a joy to watch, seemingly a fast yet fluid dance when performed by experts. The flirtatiousness is seen in the facial expressions of the dancers, in the way their shoulders move to and fro and the way their arms, hands and fingers tease the partner and the beautiful small hip sashays the female partner executes.

Photocredit:  Wikimedia Commons


Teresa Halminton said...

Thank you for the interesting article about the symbolic event of Brazil.

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