What is the Samba?

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  • Written By: Sheri Cyprus
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 12 October 2019
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The samba is a lively dance made up of a combination of other dances with South American beats. It was inspired by the lundu, an African dance that resembles the Spanish fandango. The samba is known for its knee and hip movements as well as its rhythmic walking, bounces on the ball of the foot and wide open arms.

The dance is associated with Brazil's Rio Carnival and its many escolas de samba, or samba schools. In 1917, the samba first became a part of Rio Carnival. The costumes worn by dancers are often colorfully embellished bikinis and extravagantly feathered headpieces.

The samba began as music for Brazil's working class, unlike the bossa-nova, which it partly inspired. The bossa-nova included jazz-like sounds and was popular with Rio de Janiero's upscale beach communities. The samba, on the other hand, was popular in the slums of Rio de Janeiro.

The dance, or walking samba as it is sometimes called, is based on a bouncy step that uses the ball of the foot. Effort must be taken to make the step smooth and not jerky. Proper movement of the knees is also essential as the movements should be flowing and rhythmic.


The volta is the samba movement of stepping across with the knee bounce, while the botatogo is one of the walking moves and includes steps that alternate in direction. The dances have a mix of walking steps and steps done in one spot and are also characterized by widely spread arms.

The conga, mesemba and carioca are just some of the many types of sambas. The differences between them are not as noticeable as their similarities as they are all danced at the same tempo. European and North American versions often have waltz steps included.

The samba tempo is 50 measures a minute, or 100 beats a minute. Dancing is done with three steps for every two beats of music, which is triple time. Madonna's "La Isla Bonita" contains samba dance music.


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