With Mardi Gras less than one month away, it’s time to dig up your bedazzled glittery bikini, 5-foot high headdress, and 4-inch heels! More commonly known as Carnival, this once-a-year celebration is marked with week-long street parades, masquerades, parties, costumes, dancing, and music. But no Carnival is ever complete without the dance that started it all: the samba!
Samba is a type of music and dance originating in Brazil in the early 20th century. It is recognized worldwide as a symbol of Brazilian culture. The beginnings of samba music arose in Bahia in the late 19th century by the African rhythms of ex-slaves. But it wasn’t until these individuals migrated from Bahia to the city of Rio de Janeiro and mixed their African styles with other Brazilian musical genres such as maxixe and lundu, as well as the European polka, that samba was born. The basics of samba music include a quick tempo-ed 2/4 time signature, meaning there are two beats in each measure and the quarter note gets a full beat.
Although the origins of the word samba remain unclear, it is believed by many to stem from African roots. Throughout Brazil samba is seen as the pure musical expression of urban Rio de Janeiro. It relies heavily on a loud and explosive drum beat, various stringed instruments like the cavaquinho, percussion instruments such as the tamborim, and other big band instruments like trumpets, trombones, and flutes. What results is a lively, vibrant, and happy form of music with enough energy to carry its very own dance.
What is considered to be the first recorded true samba song is “Pelo Telephone” (By Telephone) by a band of musicians organized by one named Donga in the year 1917. From there the genre spread throughout Brazil and the rest of the world. Samba was introduced to America in the 1930s, and made very popular by the 1940s thanks to the help of the so-called “Brazilian Bombshell” singer and dancer Carmen Miranda and her famous fruit hat.
If you’ve ever watched Dancing with the Stars you’ll know that the samba is one of the main dances all the contestants are required to perform…and one of the most difficult. That type of samba is known as ballroom samba or samba gafieiro, and usually involves dancing with a partner. That is just one of many variations the samba is performed in, but the type of samba we are exploring is the kind used in the Carnival celebration: samba no pé.
Samba no pé is a solo dance, usually performed either completely alone, in chorus lines, or among large groups, but never with a partner. Dancers stand tall and straight and alternate bending their knees, shifting their weight between the hips for a gyrating motion. The feet also move by lifting the heel of the bent knee and tapping the toes to the floor in a small step forward. The dancer repeats this motion one time on each leg and on the third step bends the knee, lifts the leg completely off the ground, bends the leg outward to show the inner thigh towards the front, and then places it down to start again with the opposite leg. So although samba music follows a 2/4 rhythm, the dance follows 3 steps per measure.
The samba is danced by both men and women, with slight variations between the sexes. Firstly women usually dance samba on the balls of their feet, seeing as they perform in high heels or boots, whereas men make complete contact with their feet to the ground. Secondly women usually focus on projecting their sexuality and femininity in a samba, twisting their heels and shaking their butts, where men tend to focus on performing acrobatic feats with their feet. Even though the samba is a very sexual dance, when males and females dance together they usually do not touch. It is common however for the men to dance around the women, spinning, jumping, and skipping their samba around them. Regardless of gender, the samba is always about hips, hips, hips!
Aside from the legs, the upper body is very much involved in samba as well. Dancers usually allow their arms to swing from side to side, creating elaborate arcs, and alternating reaching the hips with the shoulders. Arm movement is a crucial part to the dance, but much more improvised and based on creative free will rather than a set routine.
Samba steps can also vary depending on regions of Brazil. For example a Bahian samba usually has the legs tilted outward more throughout the dance, whereas in a Rio de Janeiro samba the knees are kept close together. However the Bahian variation is the one more popularly performed and seen at carnivals worldwide.
The last part of a samba may be the most important element: a smile. The samba is meant to be an energetic, happy, flirtatious, and exuberant dance. It is a celebration of joy and life, so sambistas (samba dancers) must always try to express as much happiness throughout the dance as possible. Smiling, laughing, cheering, and singing are all behaviors a great sambista must adopt. And the reason for stressing this element lies in the time of year the samba is most frequent.
The samba is a staple of the Carnival festival, a colorful and crazy celebration held 46 days before Easter. Street parades, outrageous costumes, loud music, and overindulgence of the senses are all characteristics of Carnival, which precedes the holy month of Lent. In Christianity, Lent is the period of 6 weeks before Easter in which followers must partake in pious practices and abstain from worldly pleasures like sex and rich foods. But in order to see the real reason for Carnival, and thus the samba itself, we must delve deeper into the season of Lent.
Historically speaking, Lent used to be a period of strict fasting, in which followers didn’t eat anything until sundown, and even then items such as meat, dairy, eggs, vegetables, or alcohol were not allowed. (Today most of those practicing choose to give up a single vice or guilty pleasure as opposed to days of complete fast.) The Lenten ban on celebrations and rich foods meant people had to rid of all their food and drink prior to the start of the season. What better way to empty the fridge than to have a great big block party! And thus Carnival was born.
The first recordings of Carnival came from medieval Italy, where the practice spread throughout the Catholic regions of Europe, and was carried to Latin America and around the world via Portuguese and Spanish explorers. The exact origins of the term Carnival remain a mystery, but some folk historians believe it to stem from the ridding of meat prior to the Lent season (carne vale is Latin for “farewell to meat”).
Carnival in Brazil began in Rio de Janeiro in 1641, imported by the Portuguese who were inspired by the masquerade balls of Paris. It evolved to its current state through assimilation of African and Latin elements. Rio Carnival is verifiably the biggest and most famous party in the world, Guiness-recorded and all. Nearly 70% of Brazil’s annual visitors come for Carnival, in 2011 accounting for 400,000 foreigners partaking in the festivities with over 4.9 million revelers in total. Carnival celebrations are held in dozens of countries throughout the world, most notably the countries of Europe, the islands of the Caribbean, and the countries comprising Latin America. Some of the biggest parties are held in cities like Venice and New Orleans, where Carnival is traditionally referred to as Mardi Gras. However the Rio Carnival is the biggest party of its kind, an extravagant production that stops nearly the entire country.
The Rio Carnival that we see today did not develop unil the late 19th century, around the inception of the samba, when pageant groups called cordões began parading through the cities during the holiday, dancing, singing, and representing their neighborhood in colorful costumes. Today these groups are called blocos and each one consists of sambistas, musicians, and groups of loyal party people. Each neighborhood bloco has its own special street, bar, or area near the beach where they will settle down and perform for the entire week of Carnival. This tradition of blocos has even evolved into an official samba competition held in the cities of Rio de Janeiro and Bahia.
In Rio, the samba schools prepare all year long for Carnival, for a chance to compete in a four-night competition at the Sambadrome, a 700 meter stretch of street converted to a parade area with permanent bleachers built on either side. Over 100,000 people fill the Sambadrome to watch the masses of samba schools make their way along the parade route. And each year one school is chosen as the winner, picked based on costume, flow, theme, music, and performance.
At its heart Carnival is a celebration of transformation, where the old become young, the poor become rich, and the plain become extraordinary. And for many the samba is to thank for this metamorphosis, a chance to get up in front of the world, to dance, to cheer, and to be noticed.