Samba, like Cuban Rumba, has a long history. Many different musical genres and dances have merged over the past two and a half centuries, leading to steps and figures that are still danced today.
Let's stroll through the ones that are the most important. In 1868, African rhythm and dance Lundu, in combination with European Polka, gave birth to the Brazilian couple dance named Maxixe, which spread across the USA and Europe in the first two decades of the 20th century. Maxixe with its graceful sways and lowly dips gave figures to today's Samba like Corta Jaca, Rocks, Rolls, Botafogos, Voltas and was one of eight competitive dances at the World Championships in Paris in 1920 (along with Paso doble, One step, Tango, Valse, Foxtrot, Spanish schottische and Shimmy).
In the 1930s and 1940s, two new dances evolved from Maxixe – Samba De Gafieira in Brazil and Samba International style in Europe and USA, which really exploded after the Second War. Samba de Gafieira is very Tango-flavoured, quite bouncy, full of swivels and rocks, danced in a rolling manner, and is still a very popular Brazilian couple social dance today.
Over the past few decades authentic Brazilian Samba no pé movements were additionally implemented into International style competitive Samba. Samba no pé means Samba “in the foot”, therefore the word “Sambista” symbolically refers to “the one who talks with feet”. Samba no pé is the most common type of solo Samba dancing in Brazil, danced since 1700, first by African slaves in favelas of Rio and still seen in the carnival and on the streets today.
In competitive dance circles this kind of fast feet percussive movements are called “batucada”. In Brazil, this is a term for a sub-style of fast-paced percussive Samba, very popular in Bahia.
The above mentioned dances set the major movement characteristics of today's competitive Samba. The fusions are the reason that Samba is one of the most complex Latin dances in rhythms and design – syncopated, full of unpredictable accents, sparkling, vibrant and flexible in shaping and space setting.
Samba rhythms are extremely syncopated, with many unpredictable accents ready to surprise the listeners and dancers.
Nine percussive instruments (*surdo, ganza, tamborim, agogo, pandeiro, reco-reco, caixa, cuica and rebolo) create the Samba groove, therefore Samba rhythms are dense, closely compacted in substance.
African percussive roots place the movement feeling either backwards in time (due to long and low sound resonance of the surdu drum on the second beat in the bar) or in present/now (due to syncopations that surprise).
Percussionist - Michael de Miranda
Nearly all instruments play differently accentuated quarter beats (1/16thnotes) and create a variety of syncopated polyrhythms. To syncopate means to cut short and to place an accent where it is normally not expected or omit the accent where it is expected. In any case, the outcome is a surprise, excitement and arousal.
That's the way Samba movements on quarter beats are danced with part weight transfers, possibly with minimal time consumption and minimal weight to oppose whole and half beats with full weight transfer and maximal time consumption in order to feed the bounce or any other body action to the fullest.
3/4, 1/4, 1 timing is considered the most popular one, including the variations over two bars of the music like 3/4, 1/4, 3/4, 1/4, 3/4, 1/4, 1 as many instruments play rhythmical patterns over two bars (*tamborim, agogo, reco-reco, caixa, pandeiro).
A skillful tamborim player would often interpret quarter beats in a way that we feel them like a triplet/triola. This might be the reason why authentic Samba no pé has three weight transfers on one beat.
Percissionist - Michael de Miranda
To oppose syncopated movements there are many figures danced on whole and half beats (slows and quicks). In the context of percussive impact, it is not easy to stay calm and dance those movements to the full extension of the beat value. Samba Rolls are a good example to test your ability to slow down and keep the energy flow inward.
Why do we bounce in Samba? Samba has deep African roots and triplet (splitting beats in equal three parts) makes the rhythm cycle in a unique way. Like in Jive, Samba sound swings, you perceive it as circular/round and not linear/direct as for example in Cha Cha Cha. Your body would therefore respond with actions like bounce, rolls and inclinations.
Samba offers a great variety of body motions, from percussive, vibrate body rhythms with free energy to sustained, continuous movements with bound energy. Due to the rhythms and overall musical atmosphere Samba actions from footwork to pelvic swing, rolls and inclinations are indirect.
Foot articulation and landing are employing the whole foot range, from toe or high ball to flat. The best Samba dancers are the best landers, always giving bodyweight back to mother earth.
The movement flow is often interrupted with various accents. You can apply nearly all movement accents into this dance, from impulse (lilt, upswing or abdominal contraction before the weight transfer) to impact, percussive (Samba no pé), swing, rebound (ex. rock action, bounce), vibration (shoulder, pelvis or ribcage body shakes), constant and suspension (ex. conclusion of travelling Volta or any repetitive movement).
Impulse would be, in my choice, the dominant accent. In music anacrusis means to pick up, an upbeat, a beginning before the hard beat. In movement that means that you are speeding up/impulsing before the weight transfer – a1, a2, ... It can be felt like a little inhale, preparation of the body before surrendering your body weight to the ground. Giving into gravity is essential and can be impacted or rebounded as long as it is created with a sense of heaviness in weight.
The contrast between static and travelling figures gives Samba a unique design. Travelling figures are the result of the repetition of certain movements and not of intention to progress or run far.
A good choreography in Samba in not attacking the space, but rather embracing it, in a zig-zagging or circling manner. What makes it special is not only movement material (movement matter), but most of all the movement manner, the way how you move, how you treat the movement, from sustained to sudden, bound to free, heavy to light and at most times flexible. Without a properly chosen choreography it is impossible to create the right Samba atmosphere.
How to preserve the character of Samba?
Let's skip the story that Samba is about the carnival and proceed towards decisions you can make in order to preserve the true character of this dance.
Mind that a choice of figures that have a taste and history of Samba and are not from the Cha Cha Cha department, where movement manner is more direct. Try to figure out what makes the Continuous Lockstep look different in Samba than in Cha Cha Cha, study the footwork and leg actions in more detail.
Don't confuse bounce action with the bending of the knees. Bounce action starts in the ankle joint, like in classical ballet plié and relevé. The knee flection is the reaction of the knee joint on the change of the angle in your ankle (compression). Correct bounce action cannot be replaced with jumping or "pumping".
Samba carries the history of slavery. There is a particular sense of resistance in motion. You can express that beautifully in acknowledging the second part of the bounce, where you resist the gravity through relevé. For that you need to have your heel on the floor. If you stay most of the time on the ball of your foot and too high with your weight, there will be no proper bounce action.
There is no need to anticipate and rush as the movement impulse comes from the past and falls into the present and not into the future. And mind the difference between "making a step" or African flavoured "indulging your body weight to the ground". Every milligram counts.
To prevent running into the future you need to acknowledge your body weight release whenever possible. It is a vertical perception and not a horizontal progression. Try not to gasp for the future, because the felt sense exists only here and now. Samba can be strong, light or heavy, but mother Africa teaches us to be grounded and organic.
Impact in today's Samba is highly overrated. The strength is in indulging in Samba sounds and movement, rather than fighting it all. Fighting energy makes you feel exhausted and empty. The Latinos urge to express rhythmically is not stressful, but rather explosive, unpredictable and smooth.
The choice of authentic Samba music for your practice can lead you closer to the character of this dance. Bossanova is a good choice when you need to practice at a slow pace as it is a version of slow Samba, just a bit jazzier and softer.
Reggaeton music has been used a lot nowadays to replace Samba, even in some competitions. Unfortunately, it is quite far from the original ballroom Samba rhythm and may disturb the timing of your movements. Reggaeton rhythm is similar to Cuban Habanera (using 3-3-2 - tresillo rhythm) and not Brazilian Samba.
Dancing happens beyond physicality. Pushing the body to the extreme speed, size and distance, over-impacting and attacking attitude with a hiper energy level and over-toned muscles can abuse the body. It looks as if the body is like a horse pulling the cart, the dance.
Imagine the opposite, that the dance is a horse who is inviting the body to follow your ideas and your intention. In that case, the body and mind can relax and surrender to the mission.
Source of inspiration
Tulley, Roger. Song Sings the Bird: A Manual on the Teaching of Classical Dance. Gremese Editore, 2009
Browning, Barbara. Samba - resistance in motion. Indiana university press, 1995