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Character & Origin of Samba 

by Dwain & Judy Sechrist 

It's got a lot of character — The festive style and mood of the dance has kept it alive and popular. Samba is a fun dance that fits most of today's popular music. Samba music has a joyful and contagious rhythm that can be found in many top-40 songs. So why have so many shied away from the Samba? Is it because it's too fast? Well let's face it, if a Cha or Jive is too fast to dance comfortably, then we slow it down — so why not Samba? Is it because it's too energetic? As most people have already found out when dancing the Cha or Jive, if you take smaller steps, then they both dance quicker and easier — the same is true for the Samba. Or is it because of the infamous Samba Bounce? Possibly it's because they found the bounce too "uncomfortable to do" or too foreign to their comfort zone. Well, rest easy … the Samba Bounce, although still present to some degree in contemporary ballroom competitions, is not as exaggerated as it once was; so let's just tone it down a bit and enjoy the dance. 

A little of the technical side — Ballroom Samba is danced to music in 2/4 or 4/4 time. In 2/4 time, the basic movements are counted either1, 2, consisting of two steps, each using 1 beat [SS]; or three steps counted 1a, 2, [SaS] with beat values of 3/4, 1/4, and 1. Additional rhythm structures may be used, such as 1, 1/2, 1/2 [SQQ]; 1/2, 1/2, 1/2, 1/2 [QQQQ]; and 3/4, 1/2, 3/4 [123]. Most Samba movements require two measures to complete a rhythmic structure in 2/4 time. For this reason, many movements lend themselves to descriptions as if using one measure in 4/4 time. 

Walter Laird's Technique of Latin Dancing (IDTA) tells us that only movements containing three steps to the measure are danced with the Samba Bounce action; whereas the Revised Technique of Latin-American Dancing (ISTD) tells us that the Basic Bounce action will be used for movements with two steps to the measure and an Alternative Basic Bounce will be used for movements with three steps to the measure. Both agree, however, that the bounce action should not be used in movements with a half beat. 

Regardless of the different schools of thought — the action is created through the bending and straightening of the legs. For example, let's think about a single Samba Walk (1a2). We might be in semi-closed position, and our first step is forward on the lead foot. We flex the knee (legs bent) as full weight is taken (ball to flat), pelvis forward and hips tucked under, which results in a lowering of the body. As weight is transferred, the knees are slightly straightened to "push off" to the second step, back on the trail foot on the "a" or 1/4 beat, lifting the pelvis back and up. Only partial weight is taken to the ball of the trail foot and at the same time the lead foot that will be used to take the third step is "pulled" into position and full weight is then transferred (ball to flat). 

A bit of history — The Portuguese imported many slaves from Angola and the Congo into Brazil in the 16th century, who in turn brought their dances, such as the Caterete, the Embolada and the Batuque. The Batuque was described as a circle dance with steps like the Charleston done to hand-clapping and percussion with a solo couple performing in the center of the circle. The Lundu, a very sensual dance of couples, was brought to Brazil by imported Bantu slaves from equatorial Africa. It became popular all over Brazil in the 17th & early 18th centuries. In Rio de Janeiro in the 1870s the Lundu fused with the Polka, Argentinean Tango, and the Cuban Habanera (from Havana), giving birth to the first original Brazilian urban dance, the Maxixe (pronounced ma-shi-sh). The Maxixe was introduced into the U.S.A. at the turn of the 20th century, described as a round dance like a Two Step, having the steps of the Polka done to the music of the Cuban Habanera. Both the Lundu and the Maxixe are still a part of the Brazilian musical vocabulary. 

The oldest, most popular, and traditional form of Samba danced in Brazil is the Samba no pé (Foot Samba). It originated in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro in the early 1800s, and it's the type of Samba we see in the modern Brazilian Carnival. Samba no pé is a solo dance; the basic movement involves a straight body and a bending of one knee at a time. The feet move only a few inches at a time. The rhythm is 2/4, with three steps per measure. Men dance with the whole foot on the ground while women, often wearing heels, dance just on the ball of the foot. The dance simply follows the beat of the music and can go from average pace to very fast. 

The modern Brazilian Carnival finds its roots in Rio de Janeiro in the 1830s, when the city's affluent middle-class imported the practice of holding balls and masquerade parties from Paris. It originally mimicked the European form of the festival, over time acquiring elements from African and indigenous native cultures. The Carnival is an annual celebration marking the start of Lent. During Lent, Roman Catholics, who constitute the majority in Brazil, are to abstain from bodily pleasures. Carnival, which is celebrated as a profane event, can thus be likened to a "farewell to the pleasures of the flesh." During the Carnival, a fat man is elected "king" of Carnival and presides over the elaborate parades staged by the city's major samba schools. 

Also in the 1830s, the Zemba Queca evolved as a combination of the Samba no pé, with the body rolls and sways of the Lundu, and carnival steps like the Copacabana (named after a popular beach near Rio de Janeiro). Gradually, Rio's high society embraced it, although they modified it to be done in closed ballroom dancing position. The dance was later called the Mesemba. In the early 1900s, the Mesemba was combined with the Maxixe and became known as the Samba. The present day Samba still contains a step called the Maxixe, consisting of a chassé and point. 

In the 1930s, radio spread the genre's popularity throughout the Brazilian countryside, and with the support of the nationalist dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas, Samba became Brazil's "official music." In 1933, a form of the Samba called the Carioca (meaning native to Rio de Janeiro) was choreographed by Fred Astaire for the movie, Flying Down to Rio. In 1941, its popularity was boosted by performances by Carmen Miranda in her films, particularly That Night in Rio. Around 1958, the Bossa Nova (new wave) appeared as a joyful and soft form of Samba. In the Sixties, the Bossa Nova hit America big time with The Girl From Ipanema and became increasingly popular over time. 

During the 1930s, the dance academy of Pierre and Doris Lavelle popularized Latin dancing in Britain. Ballroom Samba, while maintaining elements of what the Brazilians consider the true Samba, was formalized in 1956 by Pierre Lavelle. It is said that in the 1960s, Walter Laird and partner Lorraine developed the Samba partner dance, as we know it today. 


This article was adapted from clinic notes prepared for the
2006 URDC Convention in Winston-Salem, N.C. and was published in the
Dixie Round Dance Council (DRDC) Newsletter, November 2009

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