While football is arguably Brazil’s most popular sport, the country’s national rhythm is samba.

When she walks she’s like a samba
That swings so cool and sways so gentle
That when she passes, each one she passes
Goes “Ahhhhh”
The Girl from Ipanema, Stan Getz and João Gilberto, 1964

Samba is a genre that encompasses a vast array of dance and music styles with complex lineage. In dance terms, samba includes everything from a partnered dance, performed in a close embrace, to the intricate footwork and rapid hip movement of the individual dancers in annual Carnival celebrations.

Samba’s origins lie in the dances and religious practices of the West African slaves that were brought to Brazil beginning in roughly 1532, during Portuguese colonization.

As famous dancer Jaime Arôxa explained in his 1996 video, Samba de Gafieira, early samba, developed mainly in the Northeast region of Brazil, was danced individually in a circle or line, accompanied by percussion and clapping. When samba spread south in the late 19th century, arriving in large urban centers, other forms of the dance started to emerge.

The evolution of samba in Brazil

First, there is the samba we see at the Carnival parades. The samba in this context is danced individually as a part of a very large group, done so to complex percussion music played by a large marching band. Carnival is, as London-based arts author Ian Driver writes: “partly a modern manifestation of medieval Christian festivals that marked the coming of Lent with subversive and anti-authoritarian festivities and partly a descendant of the African coronation traditions.”

Originally, Afro-Brazilian people used the Christian event as a way to engage in aspects of their culture which were repressed by the government, namely dance and music. The original Carnival groups (cordões and blocos) first appeared in approximately 1917 in Rio de Janeiro, and the first government-sanctioned, and re-named, samba school —a collective of dancers and musicians—was founded in 1928.

samba school brazil rio de janeiro carnival

In the 1930s and 1940s, Carnival samba was harnessed for nationalist political purposes under the rule of Getúlio Vargas, promoting a celebration of African heritage in Brazil’s mixed-race culture.

The Rio de Janeiro samba schools now participate in annual competitions in a purpose-built venue which was first used in 1984. The sambadrome is a road-like structure flanked by seating on both sides, with a capacity of 90,000 people. While the celebrations in Rio de Janeiro are perhaps the most well-known outside of Brazil, Carnival is celebrated all over Brazil, usually in February.

In musical terms, samba involves a syncopation which creates a feeling of suspension, and this, as described by American cultural critic Barbara Browning, “leaves the body with a hunger that can only be satisfied by filling the silence with motion.”

As can be seen below, while the dancers Brenda Carvalho and Anderson Mendez da Rocha do not step on count four, the hips continue to move and therefore fill that count.

The following is one version of the footwork for samba no pé, which is samba danced individually. There are many versions of the footwork. Here it is shown with a back accent, and not in progression. The hips drop on the side of the working foot, which is achieved by relaxing the corresponding knee.

In the 1930s another kind of samba emerged in Rio de Janeiro and became a popular social dance in the 1940s: samba de gafieira, often referred to as simply samba. This partnered dance, that took place in a type of dance hall called a gafieira, was danced to new urbanized samba music styles that utilized non-percussion instruments such as the guitar and flute.

Samba de gafieira bears some resemblance to tango in terms of how the dancers’ legs entwine. However, it is less serious and more playful and cheeky in demeanor.

Above is an example of a modern style of samba de gafieira, in this case denominated funkeado because of the influence of funk on the movement and the music typically used. This is, of course, performance work. Social dancing, in contrast, is not choreographed and typically contains less acrobatic elements.

It was at the end of 1938, at the opening day of the 1939 New York World’s Fair, that samba de gafieira was first performed outside of Brazil.

Carmen Miranda

Carmen Miranda

In the 1940s and early 1950s partnered samba was a popular social dance in America and Europe (including England), but it was a highly modified Westernized ballroom version of samba that people were learning, and not samba de gafieira.

Certain Hollywood films of the period such as That Night in Rio (1941) and The Gang’s All Here (1943) were important in popularising ballroom samba as they depicted Rio de Janeiro or featured Portuguese-born Brazilian dancer, actress, and singer Carmen Miranda.

The styles of samba described above, as well as others, are still practiced today, both in Brazil and internationally. Long may they continue!


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SocietyDec 02, 2018

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BY Rachel Pedro

Lecturer in Dance Theory, Queensland University of Technology