What is Samba?

Updated: Sep 4

"Batuque" by German painter Johann Moritz Rugendas

"That's a ballroom dance, right?"

"Is it like zumba?"

"Oh I dance salsa too!!"


The word evokes vague responses indicating dance, music, and tropical origin. But what *is* samba really? Samba is an Afro-Brazilian cultural phenomenon of music, dance, and spirituality. The fast, shuffling foot motion of samba no pé is the core movement of the dance.


To me, samba no pé is a pure expression of self that radiates from the earth up through the feet, hips, shoulders, and is shared with others with a smile.



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GIF: Marpessa Dawn dances a joyful samba in the 1959 film Black Orpheus


The roots of samba reach back to the 1800s and the cultures of Black people in the northeast of Brazil. Trafficking and enslavement of Africans in Brazil caused a fusion of Yoruba, Bantu, Fon, and many other African cultures. Music and dances such as jongo, maxixe, and finally samba have evolved through enslavement, liberation, and sociopolitical change to become a uniquely Brazilian expression of African-ness. Afro Brazilian songs have represented varying political motivations throughout the decades. There were the state-sponsored and censored expressions of nationalism during the Vargas regime of the 1930s. There are the Negritude-influences lyrics and Caribbean-influenced rhythms of Olodum and other Blocos Afros in the 1960s. There are many songs which use metaphors and wordplay to express social and political counterculture, too. Fun fact: the original draft of a song considered the “first phonographic samba record" (Pelo Telefone in 1916) purportedly criticized the police, but was altered when the lyrics were officially registered (citation: http://enciclopedia.itaucultural.org.br/obra7091/pelo-telefone-1916).



This is a wonderful podcast talking about the roots of samba, starting with workers moving to Rio from the northeast in the 1800s:





The podcast references a Disney film in which Donald Duck learns about the music of Latin America:

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It’s definitely of it's time but it's fun and a cute introduction for kids. Here's one of the songs exemplifying the bittersweet concept of "saudade":



"Baía, it is like a song in my heart. A song with love and beautiful memories.




Samba songs expresses feeling, identity and history. They range from bittersweet and contemplative to cheeky and exuberant. To me, dancing samba no pé to a heavy batucada is an expression of my joy and defiance against anything that would hold me down.


What holds me down that I samba against?


Well, physical exhaustion for one! The band I dance with (Samba Bom in Saint Louis, Missouri) often plays 10+ minute batucada marathons at the end of two hour-long sets. During the last show I did with my team, we danced for longer and weren't sure when we were stopping! From what I hear, that’s not much compared with samba rehearsals in Rio, but it sure feels like a long time in the moment. As my weight shifts from right foot to left foot underneath me to the beat of the surdos, I find myself slipping into a trance. Have you ever heard of runner's high? I don't run like that but I imagine the feeling is similar. My dance becomes more of an involuntary reflex. My mind is less concerned with what steps go where and the brainy barrier between my soul and my body (conscious thought, telling my legs what to do, choreographing steps, counting, remembering tips from classes, etc.) starts to disappear.


I feel free, I feel happy, I feel empowered, I feel healthy, I feel one with music, I feel alive. And I can bring that power with me through anything I face in life outside the dance studio or stage.


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