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Samba

by Pete & Mary McGee

Samba is now one of our favorite dances to do. I must admit it definitely wasn't when we first learned it, but the more we worked at it, the better it felt, and when it started to really feel good, of course it then became one of our favorites! I believe this is true for everyone. The more you know about a rhythm, and the more you understand it, the more you like it, and that is the reason we are writing this article. We would like everyone to think of samba as one of their favorite rhythms, and then maybe, just maybe, we would get more choreographers to write sambas, more teachers to teach them, and more dancers to dance them. In order to understand this rhythm a little more, we would like to tell you a little bit about what the samba is and where it originated.

The samba is an animated dance with a strong and characteristic rhythm. It originated in Africa and was taken to Bahia in the north of Brazil by the slaves sent to work on the sugar plantations. The dance gradually lost its ritualistic nature and eventually became the Brazilian national dance.

Carnival Time in Rio de Janeiro first put the samba on the Western map. The Bahians and others from the sugar plantations and villages traveled to Rio for the annual festivities. Gradually the subtle beat and interpretative nuances of the samba began to take over in the street dancing, the cafés, and the ballrooms, until eventually it became the musical and dancing soul of Brazil. Originally, the dance had very characteristic hand movements, derived from its ritualistic function, when small containers of aromatic herbs were held in each hand and moved in front of the nose to "drug" the dancer with the exciting fragrance. There was much solo work and, before it became a ballroom dance, it contained steps incorporated from the Indian "Maxixe" (pronounced as "Mah-chee-chay").

The great American dancers, Irene and Vernon Castle, used the samba in their professional routines, and so it began to spread. But it was probably Carmen Miranda, the best known Brazilian of them all, who, with her tremendous vitality and showmanship, gave the samba its established place as one of the most exciting and catchy rhythms in the world. In Brazil, the "Samba Schools" grow and flourish, and the country has now developed its own balletic art, which has the samba rhythm and basic movements as a marked contribution.

The samba is a sensitive and smooth dance. It is characterized by the tiny, light footwork, the rise and fall of the body -- always turning and at the same time swaying back and forth at an almost impossible pendular angle. When watching samba being done correctly, you will notice a slight bounce. This is also a characteristic that gives the dance a great deal of animation. This easy springing motion comes from the ball of the foot, the flexible ankle, and the easy relaxed knees. In samba, the hold is the same hold we use in rumba. Also, the upper body is held firmly poised, never sagging, and seeming to sway forward and back about an axis which centers in the diaphragm. The arm position, when not in contact with the partner, is held out from the body, a little above waist level, bent at the elbow, parallel to the floor, palms down.

For the dancer who is being exposed to samba for the very first time, all this must sound impossible, but remember, learning waltz for the first time, or rumba, or foxtrot, etc., etc. wasn't a piece of cake either. As the old saying goes, "Rome was not built in one day!"

There are two types of bounce in the samba: the Basic Bounce and the Alternative Basic Bounce. Here, we are only going to be explaining the Alternative Basic Bounce. Although samba music is written with two beats per measure (2/4 time), in the writing of cue sheets we count our figures as four beats per measure (4/4 time), and this is how we will consider the music below. To get you started into learning this rhythm, let's use a familiar figure: the Whisk.

The Alternative Basic Bounce means 3 steps to 2 beats of music, counted 1a2. The 1 gets 3/4 of a beat, the "a" gets 1/4 beat, and the 2 gets a whole beat. The knees are flexed when weight is taken on the stepping foot (on the 1), straightened on the second step (on the "a"), and flexed on the third step (on the 2). The knees will again straighten between the third step and the fourth step. Now you can begin to practice the samba Whisk:

MAN --

Step 1 -- R foot to the side, count 1

2 -- L foot behind R foot, toe to heel, count "a"

3 -- Replace weight onto R foot, count 2

4 -- L foot to the side, count 3

5 -- R foot behind L foot, toe to heel, count "a"

6 -- Replace weight onto L foot, count 4

LADY --

Starting on R foot, dance man's steps 4, 5, 6

Starting on L foot, dance man's steps 1, 2, 3

Using the above footwork, think of each Whisk as ball-flat/ball, ball-flat. Start practicing the Right Whisk by pushing off the supporting foot -- L for Man and R for Lady -- and at the same time take a slight breath and say AH. Now step side onto the ball of the R foot (Lady L) and lower onto the whole foot (ball-flat). While you are lowered, push off the R foot (L) while taking a slight breath and saying AH, onto the ball of the L foot, placed behind, partial weight, and quickly replace complete weight onto the ball of the R foot, lowering onto the whole foot. This will feel like an up-down-up-down action. Repeat this sequence on the opposite feet for the Left Whisk.

This will surely feel confusing for a while, but with a little practice and patience, you will soon begin to feel the bounce that is so important in samba. But most of all, remember the two magic words that will help. For those of you who have grandchildren -- NO, they are not Please and Thank You; they are Patience and Repetition !!!

Happy Dancing!


From an article published in the ROUNDALAB Journal, Spring 2000. Reprinted in the Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, January 2014.



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