Starting to Samba

Originally published on SBS.

Last year, a video posted by a Melbourne dance school popped up on my Instagram. It featured a group of beautiful women dancing a style I’d never seen.

It was Brazilian samba no pé (samba “on the feet”), which is danced individually as opposed to with a partner. It looked ridiculously fun – energetic and powerful yet feminine. I signed up for a beginner’s class.

I’ve danced from a young age, but continuing as I’ve gotten older has proven tricky. As an adult, there aren’t many opportunities to put on a tutu and dance “The Nutcracker”. Could these samba classes be the outlet I was looking for?

First-time dance classes can be difficult as you inevitably trip over your feet and wear a deer-in-the-headlights expression, drawing stares from the other participants.

At the start of my first samba class, the teacher, Sophie, explained the structure of the lesson and outlined some reasonable expectations. Walk before you run (or dance) was the main message.

The class started with some on-the-spot steps. Sophie emphasised using the bend in your knees to drive your hips from side to side. She told us to relax and “let the butt cheeks fly” – or the bunda fly – to use the Portuguese term. Absolutely no tensing the bunda. This is the key to samba.

The drills increased in difficulty, moving to travelling steps. The class finished with a choreographic sequence. For a first class, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it.

During my samba journey, I’ve been reminded that you can learn anything if you have a fantastic teacher. This has been a major factor in me continuing samba.

As the classes went on, my enjoyment extended beyond the physical exercise. I’ve learnt how to say key samba steps in Portuguese, thanks to the quick language lessons Sophie integrates into class.

I’ve also begun to learn more about Brazilian dance culture. I’ve learnt that samba derives from Portugal’s colonisation of African states in the 1500s; the dance form emerged from traditional dances and religious practices of West African slaves taken to Brazil.

Throughout the past century, samba has morphed into a symbol of national pride. It’s now seen as a celebration of Brazil’s mixed-race landscape and a symbol of unity, with people of all races engaging in the dance form.

Although Brazilian samba is about having fun, there’s a real respect for technique and discipline. Experienced dancers know how to walk the line between flaunting and modesty. There’s a focus on great posture and “presenting” through elegant poses, with arms elegantly extended outward or upward. But when doing the actual samba steps, the inner thighs should stay reasonably close together. Dancing big, wide steps in a G-string (as dancers in Brazil often do) could show areas you don’t necessarily want to show.

At Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, dancers from all over Brazil and the world unite to samba in the streets to the complex beats of enormous percussion bands. Considered one of the most epic parties on earth, Carnaval runs for a week just before Lent in the Catholic calendar (usually between February and April), drawing about two million people to Rio’s streets every day.

I’ve discovered plenty of other bonuses since taking up samba. I’m more in touch with my body and feel excited about what it’s able to learn.

I’ve long known the value of having hobbies or starting new ones as we get older. As someone who has seen a loved one live with dementia, I’m keen to reduce my risk of developing it. A 21-year study led by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York found aging adults who regularly danced in a group had a 76 per cent reduced risk of developing dementia. Dancing had the greatest risk reduction of the 17 activities studied, which included reading, walking, swimming, doing crossword puzzles, playing cards, playing musical instruments, tennis and golf.

Back to the bunda. It has never been a goal of mine to travel to Rio, don large wings and a sparkly bikini and samba in the streets with careless abandon. But who knows? It just might happen one day.

Featured image: samba teacher Sophie Contreras, director of Fisica Dance school in Melbourne.

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