Samba Dance History

Updated January 19, 2018
Brazilian samba dancers performing

It's a carnival street dance, a ballroom competition dance, a 1930s classic movie number, and a powerful workout for your pelvis. Samba is a Brazilian dance with African roots and a global fandom, often performed in little more than sequins and feathers, but always with a mix of attitude and abandon.

Origins of the Samba

Samba dance is a little bit of this and a lot of that. Originating in Brazil in the 19th century, samba owes its rhythm and moves to the African slave dances on the Brazilian sugarcane plantations. The traditional African circle dance with a lone central performer relied on weight shifts, rapid steps, and slides to a 2/4 percussive beat, and a fairly still upper body with arms and hands responding to the hip and leg movements. Once slavery ended, the dancers migrated to the favelas or shantytowns outside of cities, where freed slaves put together dance troupes for carnival. The performances were boisterous and uninhibited, generally frowned upon by Brazil's Portuguese upper crust. But samba proved irresistible, its popularity spilling across classes and borders, its gyrations richly colored by regional and international influences. Today, it would be impossible to imagine carnival without samba.

Fred Astaire and Delores Del Rio danced a version of samba, the carioca, in the 1933 film Flying Down to Rio. Carmen Miranda, a Brazilian dancer who samba'd her way through That Night in Rio, became synonymous with the dance worldwide. The 1939 World's Fair cemented the American love affair with samba when the music and dance was featured in the Brazilian pavilion. Today, the many iterations of samba are a mainstay of pre-Lenten carnival in Rio De Janeiro and of Latin ballroom dancing everywhere. Now it's a solo dance, a couple's dance, a street-dancing exhibition, and a hybrid, merged with rock, acrobatics, and even reggae.

A Selection of Sambas

There has never been one definitive samba; the dance is as fluid as the pelvic isolations that keep it hot. Solo samba and partner samba styles work off the same rhythms with fast or slow percussive beats. You just have to concede you know it when you see it.

Solo Sambas

Samba no pé is traditional solo samba dance with simple, recognizable steps spontaneously inspired by the music. It follows a 2/4 count with three steps in every measure, a basic step-ball-change.

  1. Begin with your feet together. Relax your knees and keep them soft and bouncy throughout.
  2. Step back onto the ball of the left foot, shifting your weight to that foot.
  3. Take a half-step forward onto the ball of the right foot, again shifting your weight to the stepping foot.
  4. "Slide" (step) the left foot to just behind the right foot, landing on the ball of the foot and taking the weight on that foot.
  5. Step back onto the ball of the right foot, shifting weight again, and repeat the sequence.
  6. You don't "travel" as you step forward and back. As you catch the rhythm and pick up the pace to match the tempo of the music, your relaxed knees will give you the samba bounce and your hips will start to move to match the weight shifts.
  7. Allow your arms to swing naturally as you repeat the pattern to the percussive beat.

Men dance the samba no pé on the flat of the foot. Women, who wear high heels, dance on the ball of the foot.

Samba Axé is a modern variation of the solo dance -- very bouncy with elements of aerobics. Music groups release new songs with choreography tailored to each song as part of a marketing strategy. So samba axé is always changing, with specific moves dependent on the lyrics. Typically the dance will start slow and progress to a rapid tempo.

Partner Samba

Partner samba is one of the popular types of Latin dances in ballroom competitions. Before samba became a ballroom dance style, there were original partner samba dances, the most common of which is the Samba gafieira.

Samba gafieira is described as a cross between a waltz and a tango. Because it is a more spontaneous dance than the tango, the posture of the dancers is more relaxed. Samba dancers are infectiously happy, not dramatic and intense, but samba grafieira does have some common elements with tango. Originally, the dance was a simple partner dance that drew many of its characteristics from the Brazilian maxixe, a more genteel version of tango that evolved in Brazil as the tango took hold in neighboring Argentina.

But, as the samba changed over time, more and more linked legs, tricks, turns, and other acrobatic feats were added to the choreography. As with the solo samba, the samba grafieira partner dance has a quick beat, which means the footwork is fast. Learn it slow, one sequence at a time, and then pick up the speed. Try a paso giro simples -- simple spin step.

  1. Follow the waltz pattern of a simple box step; the body positions, space between partners and hand placements are the same as those for a waltz.
  2. Repeat the entire box step twice for a total of eight beats.
  3. Then, step to one side together, bending the knee as you shift your weight to the stepping foot.
  4. Immediately half-step your other foot in toward the weight-bearing foot; it's really more of a quick tap.
  5. Continue moving the tapping foot back in place as you step down firmly, shifting your weight to it and bringing the other foot in for a quick tap.
  6. Step out to the side again with the first foot and repeat the sequence for a total of four beats, or four side-steps in place.
  7. Now drop your hands without moving apart, step to the side with the original foot, turning your body in toward your partner as your swing the other foot around so you are facing apart.
  8. Once you are back-to-back, keep turning your head and torso in the direction you are moving, taking a step to the side with the original foot.
  9. Bring the other foot around, crossing the original foot and completing the turn so you are standing, facing your partner again. This entire turn, or spin, takes four beats.
  10. Resume the waltz position -- and hand contact -- to continue the dance.

Samba Pagode is another partner dance, a spin-off from samba party culture that features many elements of ballroom-style samba but can be very showy and athletic, with lots of dips, spins and lifts, depending on the abilities of the dancers.

Ballroom Samba

In ballroom competitions all around the world, there are dancers dancing the samba. This ballroom version of the samba is different from all of the sambas previously mentioned. The samba in ballroom dancing did not originate in Brazil; of course, the music is samba music, but the style is more Latin ballroom than traditional.

Entertaining to Dance or Watch

Latin dances bring fast rhythms, fancy costumes, and fun steps to traditional ballroom dances, which is perhaps why so many Latin dances have become part of traditional ballroom competitions. There's no doubt the samba is high energy and exhilarating, not only to dance but also to watch, whether you are in the crowd at carnival or checking out the moves on the dance floor at Bembe in Brooklyn's trendy Williamsburg.

Samba Dance History