The Origins and History of Samba Dancing

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Has music ever made you feel the urge to get up and dance? In Brazil, this certainly happens when you hear samba! In this lesson, explore the origins and history of samba dancing.

Origins of Samba Music and Dance

Samba is both a style of music and a type of dance that hail from Brazil. Samba's origins lie in the intertwined history of colonialism and slavery. The word 'samba' is thought to possibly come from a West African word semba, meaning a navel thrust or kind of physical invitation, an intimate movement possibly connected to religious and community celebrations in an African homeland. In the 16th century, Portuguese traders brought West African enslaved men and women to the state of Bahia in Brazil. The slaves retained the customs of their homelands, including a tradition of drumming and dancing, despite attempts by the Europeans to forbid such displays, which they considered vulgar.

Through the 17th and 18th centuries, the music and dance survived in private celebrations held by slaves and former slaves in Bahia. In the mid-19th century, Brazil abolished slavery and descendants of the slaves moved south to Rio de Janeiro. They settled in the favelas or poorer neighborhoods on the hills surrounding the city. They continued dancing to percussive music, and developed samba out of a mix of styles, including Brazilian maxixe, a dance similar to tango. In 1914, the first phonograph recording of samba music brought wider recognition, and samba grew in popularity.

Samba Schools

In Rio in the late 1920s, clubs dedicated to samba, especially a type of solo samba called samba no pé, where a single person (no partner needed) danced as rhythm moved them, began to develop. A dancer who becomes good at samba is known as a sambista. Today, the members of these clubs, which are known as escolas de samba or samba schools, gather to dance samba during Carnival season. The name school is a bit of a misnomer, because these groups are more like fraternal organizations or associations. Members practice music and dance routines for months in advance, and perform in themed Carnival parades decked out in elaborate costumes. It's a colorful spectacle to behold!

Images of performances by different samba schools at Carnival 2004 in Rio de Janeiro
Images of performances by different samba schools at Carnival 2004 in Rio

How to Dance Samba

Samba has many regional variations. There is even a kind of ballroom samba, in which partners dance in a style that's sort of a combination of waltz and tango. It's often featured in ballroom competitions and looks quite different than solo samba. We're going to concentrate on Brazilian solo samba, the more traditional variety.

A samba dancer in costume at Carnival 2010, Rio de Janeiro
samba dancer, 2010, at Carnival in Rio

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