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How To Samba

by Alma Guillermoprieto

How To Samba — Women's Version: 

1.  Start before a mirror, with no music. You may prefer to practice with a pair of very high heels. Though samba is a dance that started out barefoot, and can still be danced that way, high heels will throw your spinal column out of whack and give your pelvis the appearance of greater flexibility. Platform shoes with relatively wide heels provide the best combination of stability and shock absorption.

2.  Stand with feet parallel, close together. Step and hop in place on your right foot as you brush your left foot quickly across. Step in quick succession onto your left, then your right foot. Although your hips will swivel to the right as far as possible for this sequence, your head and shoulders should remain strictly forward. Otherwise you'll start looking like you're doing the hora. Practice this sequence right and left until you can do it without counting.

3.  Test yourself: Are your lips moving? Are your shoulders scrunched? No? Are you able to manage one complete left-right sequence per second? Good! Now that you've mastered the basic samba step, you're ready to add music. Choose Zeca Pagodinho, Jovelina the Black Pearl, Neguinho of the Hummingbird or any other sambista you like and start practicing. The key thing at this stage is speed: when you are up to two complete sequences per second you are well on your way to samba. Aim for four.

4.  A samba secret: Add hips. They're probably moving already, but if you are trying to hit required minimum speed they may be a little out of control. You want to move them, but purposefully. When you step on your right foot your hips switch left-right. When you step on your left they switch again, right-left. Two hip beats per foot beat, or about twelve beats per second, if you can manage.

5.  Stop hopping! Keep your shoulders down! Face front! The magic of samba lies in the illusion that somebody is moving like crazy from the waist down while an entirely different person is observing the proceedings from the waist up. Keep your torso detached from your hips and facing where you're looking, and practice with a book on your head until you can stay level at full speed.

You've mastered the mechanics of samba. Now you're ready to start dancing. If the following essentials seem a little daunting, don't be discouraged. Remember, you've come a long way from your beginning days. Dress appropriately for this next stage. Preferably something that emphasizes the waist, so that hip movement is maximized. Go for shine. Twelve hip beats per second will look like a hundred if you're wearing sequins.

Arms: If you are up to two to four sequences per second with a book on your head and your hips swiveling at least forty-five degrees in each direction away from the wall you're facing, you're ready to ornament your dance by holding your arms out and ruffling your shoulders as you move. Think of a fine-plumed bird rearranging its wings. Keep the movement flexible and easy. Reach out with your fingertips. If you can't shimmy without looking scrunched or panicky, drop it.

Smile: The key rule is, don't make it sexy. You will look arch, coy or, if you are working really hard, terribly American. Your smile should be the full-tilt cheer of someone watching her favorite team hit a home run. Or it should imitate the serene curve of a Hindu deity's. The other key rule: There is no point to samba if it doesn't make you smile.

Sweat: Obviously, you will produce lots of it. You will soon discover that it looks wrong when it is dripping off the tip of your nose. Don't let this upset you. Perseverance and practice have got you this far; keep at it. Practice. When you find that your body is moving below you in a whirlpool frenzy and your mind is floating above it all in benign accompaniment; when your torso grows curiously light and your legs feel like carving little arabesques in the air on their own for the sheer fun of it; when everything around you seems to slow for the rush that's carrying you through the music, you'll probably discover that sweat is clothing your body in one glorious, uniform, scintillating sheet, flying around you in a magic halo of drops, and you'll know that you have arrived at samba. 

How To Samba — Men's Version: 

Find yourself a street corner and pretend it is the edge of the quadra. Practice just standing there. You should feel loose, but pleasantly expectant. Check how much time elapses before you feel the need to look at your watch. When you can complete a two-to-three-hour stint without having to know the time, you are ready to start practice.

1.  The first thing is attitude. You should look and feel relaxed, yet vigilant, playful and ready to pounce. A slouching posture is easiest, but some crack sambistas manage a straight-backed nonchalance that is highly prized. Practice both and decide which suits you.

2.  Put the music on. Listen to the beat. It is the road you will walk on, but whatever flow develops in your movements will come from the little plinking guitar or banjo pegging away just behind the singer. Your task is to follow the drums with your feet and spell out their rhythm by flinging your legs as far away as possible from your torso on every beat. Master this, then practice the same movement with your torso casually thrown back at a forty-five-degree tilt.

3.  As your legs cut circles in the air with your torso planed back away from them, it is critical that your head remain level, as if you were dancing wedged under a shelf. Hopping up and down is tasteless. Also, don't fall down.

4.  If you have mastered cakewalking in place, swinging your legs under and over each other as if you were climbing an invisible spiral staircase, and pulling up to a sharp halt after sliding sideways very fast with your feet, you are ready to time your performances. Timing is the difference between dancing to devastating effect and looking like a fool.

5.  Remain in your street-corner mode until a woman approaches. Let her walk by. Let a few more women pass. Remember, you're not desperate.

6.  Wait until a woman you really like comes along, and let her go just past the point where she can see you out of the corner of her eye. Break into samba. If your energy is strong, she will perceive your movement with her back and turn around. Stop. Smile. (Not at her!) Tug your clothes sharply into place. Wait for another woman. Repeat many times. With luck, a woman will eventually walk by who turns your spinal column to jelly and sets your ears on fire. She will stop and look at you and smile and avert her eyes and look at you again and start to walk away and turn and grin and throw caution to the wind and break into samba …


The above is excerpted from Samba by Alma Guillermoprieto, 1990, p. 37–38 and 97–99, Alfred A. Knopf, N.Y. It paints a colorful picture of the Brazilian Samba. A few points may be applicable to our Round Dance version.

this article was published in the
Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC)
Newsletter, April 2009

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