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Samba - What Is It?

posted Jul 25, 2015, 8:04 PM by Joreth InnKeeper   [ updated Jul 25, 2015, 8:05 PM ]
Samba is the dance of Brazil.  It has its roots in African rhythms , having found its beginnings during the slave trade.  Probably originating from the African word "semba" there are two competing ideas for the meaning of that word, depending upon which African language being used as the origin:  it either means "an invitation to dance" or it means "belly bump" or "belly thrust" or "navel thrust" for the characteristic motion of the dance.  There is also some debate over how the dance got started, and is probably some combination of the leading theories.


Officially, samba was introduced in 1917 with the first registered and recorded samba song Pelo Telefone and was mostly danced solo (and still is).  In the 1930s, it was finally introduced as a ballroom partner dance, after the music of the samba became popular in America and Europe.  The tempo of the Samba is around 100 beats per minute and is usually in 2/4 time, unlike most other ballroom dances which are done in 4/4 or 6/8 time (excepting the waltz, which is 3/4 time). 

The music is fast paced and is best characterized by traditional African instruments like the tamborim, chocalho, reco-reco and cabaca, which were passed down by the slave generations brought over by European colonialists between the 16th and 19th centuries.  It is also characterized by the later additions of brass instruments like trumpet and trombone that were introduced in the jazz era.  Because of the fast tempo and the loud, exuberant music, the samba is known for being a flirty, fun, energetic dance that epitomizes the party atmosphere of the Carnival in Brazil, best associated with Rio de Janeiro.

Since the dance came out of African music and blossomed in the urban environment of Rio de Janeiro, it was originally considered a lower class form of music and shunned by the upper classes.  But thanks to the advent of radio spreading the music's infectious beats, melodious tones, and playful lyrics, it quickly won over the upper classes as well starting in the 1920s.  Brazil is an incredibly diverse nation with lots of ethnicities and classes being represented.  Starting in the 1930s, the federal government made a concerted effort to unite the nation under a single cultural banner, and one of the methods used was to establish the samba as part of a homogeneous national culture.  Between the radio broadcasting the sound into all homes and classes across the country and a summit meeting of sorts between culturally elite white musicians and lower class musicians of other ethnicities bridging the gap, the effort was wildly successful and samba is generally considered to unify the nation even when it is otherwise fractured by politics and cultures . 

There are several distinct sub-genres or sub-styles of samba: Samba no pé is a solo, impromptu dance that is done when the dancer is inspired by samba music. Samba de Gafieira is a partner dance (but very different from the ballroom samba) that seems to be a Latin fusion between the waltz and the tango and is the most acrobatic and complex version of the samba. Samba Axé is a choreographed version that came out in 1992 and contains no "basic" pattern because it is choreographed to the songs.  Samba de roda is a traditional Afro-Brazilian dance done in celebration after a particular ceremony, using the same instruments from the ceremony.  Its rhythm comes from an African rhythm called Lundu, which was brought to Brazil by the Bantu slaves and illustrates the mixing of the black slaves, white Portuguese, and local indigenous cultures.

And finally, there is ballroom samba.  Of all the ballroom dances, this one differs from its origins the most.  It is rarely danced to traditional or even current popular samba music and there are very few samba de roda steps included in ballroom samba.  Because of that, the samba can be danced to pretty much any song with African or South American beats.  The ballroom samba is danced with a bouncing, syncopated rhythm, created by the bending and straightening of the knees.

While not a very polished video, this one very clearly shows some basic samba steps, the bounce, and the syncopation that defines the ballroom samba:


Here's a competition in which you can see several professional couples all dancing at once.  This is good to show a variety of steps and patterns that characterize the samba:


TV shows like So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing With The Stars offer excellent opportunities to see professional quality performances and the judges comments and pre-dance packages (video reels explaining the upcoming performance) offer insight into what makes a good dance of that style.  Here is a selection of professional samba demonstrations from the show Dancing With The Stars:


For an example of some of the more traditional samba dances, here is a demonstration of Samba no pé, the solo, impromptu, dance of Carnival: