Those who watch TV shows like Dancing With the Stars or other similar programs might envision a pair of minimally dressed ballroom dancers slinking across the floor together to fast, pulsating rhythms when they think of samba. While others may picture scantily clad women adorned with feathers. Although both are indeed variations, samba’s authentic form has deeper cultural roots and a more vibrant history than the costumes themselves.

Sambas Scintillating Roots
Synonymous with all things Brazil to most, Brazilian samba actually has its roots firmly planted throughout West African history and culture. The word samba has different meanings in different languages, and is debated by some as to which exact root applies to the origin of the dance itself.

The music originated in part from batuque, a style of music and dance from Cape Verde. Over time and after contact with various cultures and music styles like polka, maxixe, lunda, semba and others, it began to reflect the blend of the other genres, eventually incorporating trumpets, string instruments and other instrumentation.

Early styles of samba, namely the samba de roda (samba in a circle), are traced back to 17th Century in Bahia Salvador, Brazil, where the slaves would dance as part of candomblé (prayer ceremonies stemming from a mix of West African, Native American and Catholic religious traditions). So although it originated from West African slaves centuries ago, it didn’t quite gain its national identity as a Brazilian institution until the late 1800’s and early 1900’s when slaves from Bahia brought it to Rio de Janiero. In Rio the samba was initially looked down upon by the European upper class and only thought of as a street dance of the poor. Ironically the perception of it as sinful, taboo and of lower class is what eventually led to its wide spread popularity. Initially people in poor neighborhoods would band together in groups called blocos to celebrate amongst their own. Then in 1928 the elite began to formalize and legitimize it by creating official samba schools of groups of up to 5,000 musicians, dancers and other artists. They rehearsed music, choreography and put together elaborate costumes to display for millions of spectators each year just before Lent. This blend of West African traditions and Catholicism brought by the Portuguese is what became the modern day Carnaval parade.

Samba is typically a 2/4 rhythm with three steps to every measure, which make it feel like it is danced in 3/4 time. The early samba first imported to Rio de Janiero was called samba-carioca or ‘Samba no pé’. Still the most common form of samba, it is danced solo (often amongst others simultaneously in large or small groups). Other sub genres are the samba-enredo which is the official samba performed by samba schools in the Carnaval parade. There is also the samba-canção (literally translated as samba song, usually with an instrumental intro followed by lyrical styling heavily influenced by Cuban-Mexican bolero, Argentine-Uruguayan tango and American pop ballads); the partido alto (a higher pitch harmony created with a particular way of playing percussive instruments); pagode (which added the banjo and tan-tan, along with a new type of slang or giria that people could relate to); samba de breque (literally meaning samba break, this style is characterized by sharply syncopated breaks in the music); the bossa nova (which mixed impressionist music and American jazz), and samba de gafieira. The samba de gafieira is a partner dance that is often described as a mix between waltz and Argentine tango. Although typically improvised, over the years it has evolved into a dance known for fast, flashy patterns and complex tricks and acrobatics. Although samba no pé can be danced to most of these musical variations, some of them are characterized by their own individual steps of the same name.The type of samba called samba-exaltação was characterized in the 1940’s by patriotic lyrics and melodic compositions. It garnered international attention and popularity for samba. Also, Brazilian icon Carmen Miranda further helped to popularize the genre world wide through her Hollywood films.

Just like many other styles of music and dance that become globalized, other influences begin to add to the traditional style, which eventually evolves into something new. This is how fusion genres of samba such as samba-maxixe, samba-rock, samba-reggae, samba-zouk, axe and others developed. Although ballroom samba is referred to as ‘samba’ in the international ballroom dance world, it is is not recognized in Brazil as such. And although there are elements of Brazilian samba included in ballroom style, the posture, tempo and overall feel is very different and often unrecognizable to heavyweights in the world of traditional samba. I will further examine the differences, similarities and other nuances of these styles in future posts, so stay tuned!

Unlike with most ballroom and many other partner dances, there isn’t exactly a written rule book for conduct on the samba dance floor. Most Passistas (samba dancers) find such restrictions to be counter-intuitive, as the essence of samba is about freedom of movement, with minimal structure and regulations. Since it arose from the suffering of enslaved people who danced it both because of and in spite of their oppression, the traditional solo form of the dance as it is seen in the world renowned Carnival Parade each year, is all about an amalgamation of art, emotion, tradition and so much more; the expression of joy in spite of hardship, celebration despite sadness, musicality through interpretation of rhythm and soul, sensuality, unity, culture – all so much more than a series of steps and rules. The only ‘rule’ I’ve ever heard of in samba communities throughout Brazil and around the world is to connect with the music, let go, smile and dance, dance, dance!

Samba Starter Playlist
Since there are so many sub-genres of samba music and dance, creating a brief playlist can be quite a challenge. There are those who debate over who are the true and original samba artists, what should be considered samba and so on. Since samba music is generally pretty fast and a difficult dance for beginners to learn, the following songs are simply recommendations to get newcomers started, with classic songs that they might actually be able to follow!

Sergio Mendes- Magalenha

João Gilberto ft. Stan Getz- “So Danco Samba”
Zeca PagodinhoVai Vadiar
Elza SoaresSamba do Mirerê / Capitão do Mato
Various Artists
Beth CarvalhoVou Festejar
Nelson CavaquinhoSempre Mangueira
Ary Barroso ft. Francisco Alves – Aquarela do Brasil
Demônios da GaroaSaudosa Maloca
Fundo de QuintalA Batucada Dos Nossos Tantãs – Do Fundo Do Nosso Quintal
Paulinho da ViolaNão Tenho Lágrimas
Antônio Carlos Jobim – Água De Beber
Jorge AragãoEnredo Do Meu Samba
Diogo NogueiraCai No Samba
Martinho da Vila – Pelo Telefone
ExaltasambaEu Não Sou Santo
Daniela MercuryVide Gal

Samba is described by most as a fun, high-energy dance that is impossible to sit still to. So whether you’ve danced samba before or have yet to try it, as it is an experience not to be missed. Check ATOMIC’s calendar of events for future Brazilian samba workshops and other special classes!

Next Brazilian dance workshop : September 27, 2014 at 12:00 P.M. at Atomic Ballroom.