History of Dances

International Style Samba

The five dances: Samba, Rumba, Paso Doble, Cha Cha, and Jive, are danced the world over both socially and in DanceSport competitions. The dances are for couples, usually each consisting of a man and a lady. The holds vary from figure to figure in these dances, sometimes in closed ballroom hold, sometimes with the partners holding each other with only one hand. The figures in these dances are standardised and categorised into various levels for teaching, with internationally agreed vocabularies, techniques, rhythms and tempos. But it was not always so. These 'Latin & American' dances have some diverse origins.

The Romance languages (Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Rumanian) derived from the ancient Latin language, define a culture that has spread over a substantial part of the Americas. Three dances from this area plus one from Spain/France and one from the U.S.A. constitute the set of dances now internationally standardised as the 'Latin-American' dances. Note that the term 'Latin-American' here is an abbreviation of 'Latin and American' rather than a reference to the geographic area of 'Latin America' (Lavelle, 1975, 1).

The three dances from Latin America evolved as a fusion of Indigenous, European and Negro forms. The European conquerors imported Negro slaves from various parts of West Africa into a large part of the Americas at an early stage, mainly because of the difficulty the Europeans had in persuading the Indigenes to work for them. The Negro slaves were imported in such number that by 1553, they outnumbered the Europeans in Mexico, and the Viceroy, Luis de Velasco, urged Charles V of Spain to prohibit further influx (Sadie, 1980, 10/522).

Dancing played a substantial part in all three component cultures: European, Negro and Indigenous. In 1569, the Viceroy of Mexico ordered the Aztec Calendar Stone to be buried because the main recreation of the Negroes had become dancing around it. Subsequently, Velasco decreed that dancing be confined to Sundays and feast days only, and then only in the afternoons between the hours of noon and 6 p.m. (Sadie, 1980, 10/522).

Through the 17th and 18th centuries, a gradual fusion of the three cultures occurred to produce a new culture: Creole. As European dances were imported into Latin America, they were adopted and 'creolized' (Sadie, 1980, 10/529). In Cuba, the Contradance became the Contradanza Habanera (i.e., from Havanna) with the adoption of a syncopated rhythm: (Sadie, 1980, 5/86)

This became the 'Danzon'. Later, as the music became more syncopated with the inclusion of bars with the rhythm: it became abbreviated to the 'Son'. This rhythm had been used as early as 1795 in Brazil in a Modinha (love song) which had become popular in Europe at the turn of the 19th Century (Behague, 1979, 92). Complex syncopated rhythms are a feature now of all the Latin-American dances.

The Portuguese imported many slaves from Angola and Congo into Brazil in the 16th century, who in turn brought their dances such as the Catarete, the Embolada and the Batuque (Raffe, 1964, 313). These dances were considered sinful by the Europeans as they involved the touching of navels (Sadie, 1980, 10/47). The Embolada is about a cow with balls on its horns for safety, and became a term meaning 'foolish' (Michaelis, 1955, 281). The Batuque became so popular that Manuel I passed a law forbidding it (Raffe, 1964,60). It was described as a circle dance with steps like the Charleston done to hand clapping and percussion, and with a solo couple performing in the centre of the circle (Raffe, 1964, 60).

A composite dance evolved in the 1830's combining the plait figures from these Negro dances and the body rolls and sways of the indigenous Lundu (Behague, 1979,93). Later, carnival steps were added like the Copacabana (named after a popular beach near Rio de Janeiro). Gradually members of the high society in Rio embraced it, although they modified it to be done in closed ballroom dancing position (which they knew was the only correct way to dance anything) (Ellfeldt, 1974,77). The dance was then called the Zemba Queca, and was described in 1885 as "a graceful Brazilian dance" (Burchfield, 1976, III/1466). This was later called the 'Mesemba'. The origin of the name 'Samba' is unclear: perhaps it is a corruption of Semba, although another suggestion is that is derived from 'Zambo' which means the offspring of a Negro man and a native woman (Taylor, 1958,648).

The dance was later combined with the Maxixe (Raffe, 1964,438). This was also originally Brazilian: a round dance described as like a Two Step (Burchfield, 1976, II/865), and named after the prickly fruit of a Cactus. The Maxixe was introduced into the U.S.A. at the turn of the 20th century (Stetson 1956,30).

The Maxixe became popular in Europe after a demonstration in Paris in 1905. It was described as having the steps of the Polka done to the music of the Cuban Habanera (Chicago, 1985, 7/968). The present day Samba still contains a step called the Maxixe, consisting of a chasse and point (Romain, 1982,19).

A form of the Samba called the Carioca (meaning: from Rio de Janeiro) was revived in U.K. in 1934. It was popularised by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in their first film together: 'Flying Down to Rio' (Shipman, 1979, 23). The Carioca spread to the U.S.A. in 1938 (Raffe, 1964,438). In 1941, its popularity was boosted by performances by Carmen Miranda (Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha) in her films, particularly 'That Night in Rio' (Cawkwell, 1972, 189).

The Samba was further popularized in the 1950's by Princess Margaret, who played a leading role in British society (Rust, 1969, 103). The Samba was formalised for international propagation by Pierre Lavelle in 1956 (Lavelle, 1975, 69).

The dance in its current international form still has figures with with very different rhythms, betraying the heterogeneous origins of the dance, e.g. the Boto Fogo is danced to a '1 & a 2' quarter beat rhythm, whereas the Natural Rolls are danced to the simpler '1 2 &' half beat rhythm. It still retains a hip movement on the half beats between steps (the 'samba tic'), a flat carriage of the torso, and is danced with the weight forward onto a bent standing leg.