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Philosophy of Dance

Have you ever wondered why each dance is danced in its own particular way?

The answer to that question, as it turns out, is not so simple. In this series, we will begin unpacking the authentic history of a wide range of dances from around the world, and look for ideas and inspiration for dance and for life.


Franco Formica and Oxana Lebedew are legendary for their samba in the ballroom "DanceSport" world.

However, searching for “samba rio de janeiro” will show you something that seems altogether different. You will see Carnival in the Sambadromo, which seats 50,000 people and is reserved exclusively for samba. At Carnival they dance “samba no pé” which means “samba on the foot.” It is totally distinct from ballroom samba.

This video features school students dancing samba no pé and also lambada, another Brazilian dance with ¾, ¾, ½ timing for 3 steps in 2 beats that later inspired Brazilian Zouk.

One small connection does appear clear already: International Samba “batucada” steps are essentially European stylized samba no pé. The word batucada comes from batuque, a West African word.

batuque: the act of batucar; to make some kind of rhythm using any kind of instrument or object, and also a Rio's version of martial art capoeira.1

Giant drum lines called baterías often play a flavor of samba called samba batucada for samba no pé.

Capoeira, which is a martial art mix of dance, acrobatics, music and spirituality, has many West African rhythms involved in its practice. Many recognizable samba tunes including ballroom music used by famous DanceSport champions for their performances have the same West African rhythms, for example, Tico Tico.

Check out some of the rhythms including Tico Tico on Wikipedia:

Compare with the song Tico Tico that Riccardo Cocchi and Yulia Zagoruychenko, many times world champions of International Latin, danced to:

The word Samba, in Portuguese, was derived from semba, a word common to many distinct West African languages with distinct meanings in each, and thus had a wide range of meanings for all of the slaves who lived in Bahia, Brazil, one of the biggest centers of Brazilian slavery.

This video shows modern Semba dancing, related to Angolan Kizomba and with shared roots West Africa.

“[Semba] meant to pray, or invoke the spirits of the ancestors, or the Gods of African pantheon. As a noun, it could mean a complaint, a cry, or something like "the blues"… To the distaste of Europeans, slaves brought with them a celebratory culture of music, drums and dance. As the years passed, Samba music and dance survived in Bahia through private celebrations.2"

From the 1880s to 1920s, large numbers of immigrants came to Brazil, and most were Italian, German, and Portugese.3 In Bahia, a new dance emerged as a result of the Polka that the Europeans had brought: the maxixe, which was an Africanized polka. It is not, as some sources cite, a Brazilian tango.4

There are many versions of polka all over Europe, including this one:

It is hard to find examples of Afro-Brazilians dancing maxixe, but these are some examples of videos of the dance available online:

You may notice some recognizable basic ballroom samba figures, including corta jacas, voltas, samba rolls, samba walks, and in other videos even botafogos or more. You also see certain moments that use a bounce identical to the ballroom samba bounce. Indeed, ballroom samba came about when maxixe began evolving into early partnered samba in Brazil in the 1910s. It then took off like wildfire in western society due to several exhibitions in Europe. The final exhibition that made an impact on the style of non-Brazilian ballroom samba was in 1923.

The following video shows 1960s European ballroom samba by one of the most influential dancers of the International Latin style. Walter Laird wrote the book considered to be the Bible of International Latin technique, and trained most of the great Ballroom champions before his death. You can see a lot of Maxixe in Walter and Lorraine’s samba.

International and American style ballroom samba evolved in the western world from that snapshot of Brazilian dancing. But partnered samba continued its evolution in Brazil into present day samba de gafieira, which is considered the true ballroom samba by Brazilians.

Samba no pé evolved when mass migrations after slavery ended brought the Candomblé religion, music, song, and dance from Bahia into Rio de Janeiro. It is important to note that the distinction between religion, music, song, and dance is not so clear in West African traditions. Candomblé came from a mix of Yoruba, Fon, and Bantu beliefs, and the dance was a way they could practice their faith. Samba no pé is a direct descendant of the technical music and dance ideas of Candomblé

What can we take away from scratching the surface on Afro-Brazilian music and dance?

Ballroom / maxixe-style samba is also not really originally about Carnival. All samba has roots in a West African music and dance which have a deep reverence for mother earth, and ballroom samba styles also have their roots in Afro-Brazilian interpretations of late 19th century polka. That is why all of the energy comes from the ground and goes back into the ground, unlike many European dance traditions (ballet and others) that are danced above the ground.

On the other hand, ballroom samba (not the Brazilian kind) has also been forced to become a “presentation style” by the competitive format of the “DanceSport” industry, and presentation styles project outwards.

Thus, ballroom samba sometimes appears to have balletic shapes or styling and certainly carries an elongated back and upright posture instead of the more natural demeanor of its african roots. However, these balletic shapes can be created relatively naturally using ideas from African dance: channeling energy from the ground to your whole body, including your fingertips and up your spine, as well as giving it back to the ground with soft landings. This is not pseudoscience, it’s potential and kinetic energy, stored and released by varying gentle muscle tone.

The samba music today most often used at the really good Ballroom competitions has its roots in Jazz Samba or samba-canção5, which is a hybrid of African American (USA) jazz and Brazilian musical ideas. Less authentic music often used for Ballroom dancing is often based on a reggaeton beat, but that does not have the same origins nor does it make sense to dance the rhythms of samba to it.

What if there were a way to reconnect ballroom samba with its African and European roots and incorporate more ideas from Brazilian dance? This would be one step in the right direction for DanceSport, to begin reconnecting it with its roots.



You may find your own takeaways from this that are different from ours! And we celebrate you for that if you do. Also, we encourage you to dive deep beyond just the links provided here, as there is truly so much knowledge on the internet. In particular, this post was already so long that we didn't even get to scratch the surface of the music, instrumentation, and rhythms of West Africa and those are each rabbit holes worth exploring.

In future posts we will explore other dances and their roots. We are starting with some ballroom dances, well, because there are 19 of them, and they actually have really really rich histories that can lead you to discovering plenty of incredible non-ballroom dances if you go deep enough.

One last bonus video, a beautiful insight into the relationship between rhythm and life in the Malinke tribes of West Africa. The Malinke tribes are also from West Africa, but there are some differences between them and the African cultures in Brazil as the Portugese empire got most of its slaves from the Bantu people of Angola. Their worldview is beautiful.