This article first appeared in a series called Perfect 10 in Dance Today (www.dance-today.co.uk)
The samba – notoriously the hardest of the Latin dances – captures the atmosphere of Rio’s carnival. It brings to mind street parties, with loud, infectious music, bright colours and scantily clad passistas in headdresses dancing through the night. But how relevant is this image to the samba danced in competitive ballrooms today?
Samba is a progressive Latin dance that evolved from various different dances – mostly in Brazil
It is known for its “samba tick” or bounce action. The technique is difficult to learn, but essential for the look of the dance – the action requires compression of the knees and ankles and a forward-back movement of the hips, although the degree of bounce is different for different figures. The lively music – at 50 bars per minute, typically with strong percussion – helps create the carnival atmosphere where dancers use many different rhythms to create variety in their choreography.
Like most ballroom and Latin dances, the samba evolved from various different dances – mostly in Brazil, though its earliest origins are in Africa. In the 16th century, the Portuguese imported many slaves from Angola and the Congo to Brazil, who brought with them dances such as the Caterete, Embolada and Batuque, which they used to call forth various gods.
These rhythmical dances were performed to the sounds of percussion and clapping. The Batuque is a circular dance in which a couple performs in the centre of the circle. Such dances were considered quite risqué and looked down upon by the Europeans as they involved close contact at the navel – the Batuque was eventually outlawed by King Manuel I of Portugal.
A composite dance began to evolve as plait figures from African-American dances and the body rolls of the indigenous people combined. By the mid-19th century it had become more popular with members of high society in Rio. However, they had modified the dance, so it was danced in a closed ballroom dancing position and looked more graceful. This dance became known as the Zemba Queca or Mesemba, and this may be where the term samba came from. Another theory is that it may have derived from the word Zambo, used to describe someone of mixed race, or the Bantu word “samba”, meaning to invoke the spirit of your ancestors.
The Mesemba continued to evolve and was combined with the Maxixe
Maxixe is another Brazilian dance that has been described as “a round dance like a two-step” and “the steps of the polka done to the music of the Cuban habanera”. The Maxixe was introduced to the US at the beginning of the 20th century and it became popular in Europe slightly later after a demonstration in Paris. It was combined with other ballroom and Latin dances to form the “Carioca” – the same name is used to refer to an inhabitant of Rio.
The Carioca was made popular through films: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers performed it in their first film together, Flying Down To Rio, in 1933. The dance was performed with foreheads touching, but it is possible to perceive the origins of the roll actions similar to today’s samba rolls.
Carmen Miranda also helped to boost the popularity of the samba through her films, such as That Night in Rio, which also featured the Carioca. The Carioca was also performed at the World Exhibition in 1939 in New York and after World War II Latin bands, with their lively, infectious rhythms, popularised the dance.
The dance was developed by Walter Laird and Lorraine
The steps became standardised for international competition in the UK, with the first Latin American championships held at the Blackpool Dance Festival in the 1960s.
As more space on the dancefloor became available the steps were opened out from a closed position, and during the second half of the 20th century the tempo of the samba was slowed down. This permitted dancers to utilise many different rhythms within the music, which had not happened in the historical versions of the dance. It also enabled the development of different figures, though the hip movement on the half-beats, the samba tick and the bent standing leg are characteristics that remain.
Former World Professional Latin champion Alan Fletcher describes the nature of the bounce action: “The bounce created through the feet should provide the contract/release action through the diaphragm by not allowing the bounce to continue higher than the ribcage – like shock absorbers on a car.” Former UK Closed Professional Latin champion Graham Oswick believes that the complexity of this bounce action is why samba is “one of the least understood and [most] badly performed dances”.
Alan Fletcher: “A samba routine should include recognizable fundamental figures!”
Alan advises that a samba routine should include “recognisable fundamental figures, which should be interesting but readable, some highlights and a mixture of movements that progress easily around the floor. Some solo work can be characteristic but needs to be in balance.”
Typical figures in a samba routine will include a samba roll, which can be in natural, reverse facing or shadow position. Alan believes the attractiveness of this figure is through “the lack of body isolation combined with the stillness and one-piece movement of two bodies shaping and moving in unison”. Botafogos, walks and voltas have a constant 1-a-2 rhythmical action throughout the lower body and are fundamental to the dance. The contrasting rhythms in the dance provide variance – different timings can give different actions to one figure, as can be seen in promenade and counter promenade runs.
So how does a competitor master this difficult dance? Karen Hardy believes it is down to understanding the rhythms. At her lecture at the Ballroom Dancers’ Federation Congress in 2011 Karen encouraged the audience to clap out different samba rhythms as she fears too many couples are not showing the rhythm of their steps clearly enough and are subsequently in danger of looking out of control: “Samba is the hardest dance to master because there are 11 different rhythms to understand and which you must construct your choreography around.”
Graham Oswick explains what he looks for when judging samba: “I want to see the undulating rhythms of this dance with a good understanding of the bounce, encapsulating the mood of a Brazilian street carnival. Sadly, too many people seem to dance a straight-legged flat version of the samba. I often ask dancers to name a dancer with a good samba action – I always get the same two names Franco Formica and Bryan Watson.”
Says former World Latin champion Bryan Watson: “The samba was always my favourite Latin American dance because I loved to move all parts of my body to all the little nuances in a really authentic samba track.” He agrees that competitors need to understand fully the diverse rhythms within the dance in order to protect the future of the samba.
The essence of samba needs to be protected
All the Professionals I spoke to expressed concern that the essence of samba needs to be protected. Hazel Fletcher explained that over the past four decades the tempo of samba has been slowed to make the dancers look less like they were running down the floor. “However, each time the tempo has been reduced the opposite has occurred and choreography has become more complicated, with more steps in one bar!” One example Alan cites is the batucada danced quick-and-a-quick-and-a (ie with six steps in one bar).
Karen Hardy: “Our five syllabus dances are beginning to look the same.”
Karen Hardy agrees: “A major complaint from the judging and teaching world at the moment is that our five syllabus dances are beginning to look the same. What does get frustrating today is that steps are not being created through a couple truly understanding this dance. We see steps that were designed wholly for the other dances being taken from other dances and placed in a samba.”
Bryan feels that the essence of the samba basic is being lost: “Imagine the cha cha cha without the lock, the jive without the chassis – well, already no competitor dances the ‘samba basic’ as we know it. The individuality and identity of the samba needs to be protected.”
So can we turn to the Brazilian samba for inspiration? The Rio carnival is held 40 days before Easter to mark the beginning of Lent. This is when samba schools, which have existed in Rio since 1928 and have several thousand members, parade around the streets. Hazel and Alan Fletcher visited samba shows in Rio and were surprised to find that they were predominantly presented on a small stage, with dancers hardly moving across the floor, using steps that would be difficult to define. “Some cynics suggested we should adhere to the more purist origins of the dance,” explains Hazel, “but when we visited the samba shows in Brazil we felt there was little we could take back to use in competitive samba”.
The Brazilian samba actually involves a set of dances, which evolved from the Maxixe; music is in 2/4 time but there are three steps to the bar. The samba no pé is the most common style, which is danced solo, bending one knee at a time. Samba de gafieira and samba pagode are danced in couples and the former can be quite acrobatic. They use elements of the Maxixe, but, rather than polka steps, they feature entwined leg movements influenced by Argentine tango.
So it seems, despite shared roots, today’s Brazilian and ballroom samba are now worlds apart. However, many experts feel it is still important to keep in mind the Rio Carnival when characterising this notoriously tricky dance.