Introduction to Brazilian Ballroom Samba

Filipe de Moraes Paiva - October 1996

This is part of my main page of Ballroom Dancing and Music.


The music (Drum set style - Samba partido alto - Samba de enredo - What to listen to)
The rhythm of the dance
The steps


People outside Brazil wonder what form of samba dancing is used here. Is it the international style ballroom samba? Is it the carnaval samba? Is there a Brazilian ballroom samba different from both?

The answers are: No, we do not dance the international style ballroom samba. Yes, we like and enjoy very much the carnaval samba also called ``samba no pé'' (which is not ballroom). Yes, we do have a Brazilian ballroom samba different from both which is very popular.

This essay shows that our ballroom samba, although different from the international style ballroom samba, is indeed a ballroom dance. With this aim its similarity to the well known waltz is explored.

1- Introduction

Brazilian ballroom samba, samba for short (since I am Brazilian and this is about ballroom, when I say samba I mean Brazilian ballroom samba) will be described. How to describe a dance with words? Beginning by the rhythm of the dance (not to be confused with the rhythm of the music) followed by the steps them selves, which are compared to other known dances. Actually, first of all the rhythm of the music itself must be discussed.

The basic ideas of the samba music, the rhythm of the dance and one of its basic steps are covered. This will give an idea of the movement. Very important, but not covered here are the posture, the leading, the musicality and all the little features that give what we call in Portuguese the ``ginga'' and which may differ very much from other dances. Briefly, take the waltz posture with some more of hugging (quite more indeed) and do not look to opposite sides, but to each other or both to the left side of the gentlemen, cheek to cheek. Check my main page of Ballroom Dancing and Music for future and previous essays on the subject.

Nevertheless, to really dance samba and know what it is one needs to listen to lots of good samba music and watch good dancers, videos or perhaps have some classes. Keep an eye on a forthcoming video.

Begin the beginning.

2 - The music

This section is mainly about rhythm. Melody is left to another opportunity.

Samba is binary (2/4). Nevertheless, two measures are necessary to complete the rhythm of the music. So, students sometimes think of samba as quaternary (4/4). There are mainly two ways of playing samba: with a drum set (like in Jazz or Rock and Roll) or with separated drums and rhythm instruments played by several people. Also a combination of both is possible.

First of all, the notation. The following abbreviations are used:

b = beat
o = off-beat
e = and (``e'' means ``and'' in Portuguese)
To denote two measures of samba music one can use either one of the following:
b   o   b   o   b   o   b   o   b   (beat, off-beat counting)
1   e   2   e   1   e   2   e   1   (2/4 counting)
1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1   (complete counting)
The first two lines are quite obvious. The last one, which I call the ``complete counting'' will be the most useful for describing both, the music and the dance. Its meaning is:
1 ---------> the beats
3 ---------> the off-beats
2 and 4 ---> the syncopes, 
             where 2 is the syncope just after  the beat 
               and 4 is the syncope just before the beat

Drum set style - samba balanço (samba de gafieira)

The drum set style is the form of samba music more frequent on ballroom nightclubs. It is called by musicians ``samba balanço'', literally: bounced samba.
a) 1   e   2   e   1   e   2   e   1  (two measures)
b) 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1  (complete counting)
c) B     b B     b B     b B     b B  (bass drum)
d)     x       x       x       x      (hi-hat)
e) R r R r R r r R r R r R r R R r R  (right hand)
f) l   l   l     l   l   l   l l   l  (left hand)
On (a) is the 2/4 counting.

On (b) is the complete counting.

(c) is the basic bass drum, where B is strong and b is weak. The bass drum has actually more freedom, producing a bouncing which is already enought to characterize samba, for example:

b) 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1  
c) B     b B     b B b   b B     b B
On (d) is the hi-hat played with the foot. If the right hand plays (e) on the hi-hat, several different effects can be produced.

(e) is the main rhythm played by the right hand on the cow bells, cymbals, hi-hat etc. Capital R is medium sound and small r is low sound and can be omitted for high speed samba (as carnaval samba). There are several variations of this pattern but the most important is to keep the following characteristic: for about one measure, one plays on the beats and off-beats (1 and 3); for about another measure one plays on the syncopes (2 and 4). Nevertheless, care should be taken otherwise a jazz pattern would be produced, like

b) 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 
e) R   R   R     R   R   R R       R  (to be avoid)
By the way, Bossa Nova, is
b) 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 
e) R r r R r r R r r R r r R r r r R  (Bossa Nova)
e) R r r R r r R r r r R r r R r r R  (Bossa Nova)
Several variations are of course allowed. But basically speaking, Bossa Nova is rhythmically simpler and easier to play for the percussion and more complex in the harmony.

Finally, (f) is the left hand playing crossed on the rim of the snare drum. It actually is quite free on the drums etc or can sometimes repeats the pattern of the right hand as shown.

The drum set tries to mimic a whole set of percussionists with several drums and other percussion instruments. It is usual to have together with the drum set, another percussionist with ``tumbadoras'' (conga drums), which gives a more primitive and bounced samba sound.

Taking the 2/4 counting (and the bass drum)

a) 1   e   2   e   1   e   2   e   1 
c) B     b B     b B     b B     b B
one notes that the drummer does not distinguish the first beat from the second. Some other bass instrument (may be the drummer him self) usually stresses the first beat of each measure, characterizing the binary signature. But not always; often it is not possible to differ the first from the second beat.

Samba partido alto

Unfortunately ``samba balanço'', which is one of the best for ballroom dancing, is almost dying, since its too difficult and musicians do not get much money nowadays in Brazil. The untrained drummers usually play more on the snare drum and make a samba that sounds sometimes (to me) like rock and roll. The solution is to go back to three or four percussionists with traditional instruments, playing a form of samba called ``partido alto''. Fortunately, this is wonderful and very nice to dance.

Samba ``partido alto'' is a rightly bounced samba, very traditional, with traditional instruments and may be the more bounced and the best form to listen or to dance either Brazilian ballroom samba or ``samba no pé''.

Samba de enredo

Another form of samba is ``Samba de enredo'' (a samba which tells some piece of history, the ``enredo''). It is the carnaval parade samba. It is good for ``samba no pé'' but not very suitable for ballroom samba (it is too fast). To hear to good ``samba de enredo'' one should try old ones, let us say, before 75 or so, when they were slower and more bounced - nowadays they look more like a samba-march.

What to listen to

``Partido alto'' is not to difficult to find. Look for the composer and singer ``Martinho da Vila''. He is always together with good instrumentists. His new faze is quite different from the old (70's perhaps 60's) but they are all good. ``Paulinho da Viola'' is also quite good for dancing. There are many others, but unfortunately I am not DJ-like, so I do not know much.

``Samba balanço'' sometimes comes on the same CD's as bossa nova. I would suggest drummers like ``Wilson das Neves'', ``Milton Banana'', and some orchestras (big bands) like ``Maestro Carioca'', ``Raul de Barros'', and ``Tabajara'' and also small groups like that of ``Zé da Velha''. About bossa nova, ``Vinicius de Moraes'' and ``Tom Jobin'' are easy to find outside Brazil.

``Samba de enredo'' is the easiest to find outside Brazil. Look for old stuff (before 75 or so). One should try also the percussionist ``Luciano Perrone'' who has great drum music of many kinds of samba.

Begin the beginning.

3 - The rhythm of the dance

The rhythm of the steps should not to be confused with the rhythm of the music itself, in other words, to each musical rhythm, one can dance using many different rhythms of steps. To fix a notation, the rhythm of some known dances are shown.

Waltz music is usually 3/4, that is, ternary, that is, 3 beats per measure. The dance rhythm is quite simple: a step for each beat, i.e., beat, beat, beat (for beginners at least).

Rumba music is quaternary, i.e., 4 beats per measure. The rhythm of dance rumba is, using our previous notation:

a)    1   e   2   e   3   e   4   e   1  (one measure)
b)    1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1  (complete counting)
c)    r       l   r   l       r   l  (r) (right and left feet)
Other obvious notations are: slow quick quick slow quick quick or beat, beat, off-beat, beat, beat, off-beat. Based one the complete counting, we introduce the following numeric notation: {1...1.3.1...1.3.(1)}. The round brackets separates parts that are out of the basic measures. The curly brackets are used to mark the begin and the end, so one does not confuse the notation with other marks on the text (like full stops). The rest is obvious; the dots are for visual effect and could be neglected given just {113113(1)}.

I think that the rhythm of its steps is one of the main characteristics of a dance. When you think about waltz you immediately come with the `one two three' steps into your mind. When you think about rumba you think slow, quick, quick etc, in whichever notation you like.

So, how is samba (the Brazilian ballroom samba, the ``samba de gafieira'')? It has, as waltz, rumba, and any other dance, many different rhythms for the steps, depending on the step. In what follows, some of them are shown, in two or three different notations (so you can pick up the notation you like better). Although left and right feet are shown, it really does not matter which is each, a long as the dancer alternates the feet. The forms 1 and 2 are the most suitable for the basic steps; the others (including 1 and 2) are used on more advanced movements.

Form 1 (off-beat )

a)    1   e   2   e   1   e   2   e   1  (two measures)
b)    1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1  (complete counting)
c)    l       r   l   r       l   r  (l)
d)    l   r   l       r   l   r      (l)
That is: slow quick quick slow quick quick or beat, beat, off beat, beat, beat, off-beat. In the numeric notation: {1...1.3.1...1.3.(1)}. Note that this is exactly like rumba. (d) presents a shift of one beat: quick quick slow quick quick slow or beat, off-beat, beat, beat, off-beat, beat or {1.3.1...1.3.1...(1)}.

Form 2 (syncopate )

a)    1   e   2   e   1   e   2   e   1  (two measures)
b)    1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1  (complete counting)
c)    l     r l       r     l r      (l)
d) (l)r       l     r l       r     l(r)
This is similar to form 1, but with some steps shifted. The ``1 3'' is shift to earlier, precisely to ``4 1''. In the numeric notation: {1..41...1..41...(1)}. On (d), is the shift of one beat: {(4)1...1..41...1..4(1)}.

Form 3 (beat)

a)    1   e   2   e   1   e   2   e   1  (two measures)
b)    1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1  (complete counting)
c)    r       l       r       l      (r)
This is: slow slow slow slow or beat beat beat beat or {1...1...1...1...(1)} or just {1111(1)}.

Form 4 (full syncopate)

a)    1   e   2   e   1   e   2   e   1  (two measures)
b)    1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1  (complete counting)
c) (l)r     l r     r l     l r     r l
This is: {(4)1..41..41..41..4(1)}.

Form 5 (mixture)

In some steps, a combination of the above forms are used. Also, the ``samba no pé'' bellow is also used sometimes. Besides, in some steps, even more freedom is allowed.

Form 6 (samba no pé)

And finally, the basic of ``samba no pé'':

a)    1   e   2   e   1   e   2   e   1  (two measures)
b)    1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1  (complete counting)
c)    r l r   l r l   r l r   l r l  (r)
c) (r)l r   l r l   r l r   l r l   r(l r)
This is either {} or {(4)12.412.412.412.4(12)}.

Begin the beginning.

4 - The steps

The steps them selves, will be described by comparing them with international ballroom dances steps. Indeed the basic step of samba is very similar to (Viennese) waltz steps. The following notation for the basic steps of waltz will be used: Then, the basic steps of waltz can be described as: Samba is quite similar. The main difference seems to be that the Viennese waltz turns most of the time while the basic step of samba can go from the turn of the waltz to a forward-backward movement. Beginners use the ``right forward'' more than the ``left forward'', with no much turn. What is left now is to describe how to perform the waltz movement on the samba rhythm of the previous section.

The rhythm of waltz dance could be written as:

a) 1   2   3   1   2   3   1          (two measures)
b) 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1  (complete counting)
c) l   r   l   r   l   r  (l)         (waltz steps)
On (a) is the 3/4 counting of two measures of waltz. (b) be shows the samba complete counting, which here is meanless but will be useful soon. (c) shows the steps, where one could begin with the right foot also.

Now, to transform this into samba, the measures are stretched in order to introduce another beat between the first and the second beat. Therefore, the ``1 2 3'' becomes ``1 X 2 3'' where ``X'' is the extra beat introduced. Afterwards, the beats ``X'' and ``3'' are transformed into off-beats to get ``1 e 2 e '' which is the samba binary measure (remember that ``e'' means ``and''). The figure bellow describes whole the process.

a) 1   X   2   3   1   X   2   3   1  (2 waltz measures stretched)
b) 1   e   2   e   1   e   2   e   1  (two samba measures)
c) 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1 2 3 4 1  (complete counting)
d) l       r   l   r       l   r  (l) (waltz steps)
Note that the dancer does not step on the ``X'' beat. Therefore, a pause arises between the first and second waltz steps, giving the samba dance rhythm (off-beat ). Using the quick-slow notation, this can be re-explained as follows. Count waltz as: quick quick quick quick quick quick and change the first quick of each measure into a slow getting: slow quick quick slow quick quick, which is the ``off-beat'' form of samba.

From the off-beat form of samba, one can pass to the syncopate form by shifting the ``1 3'' to earlier, precisely to ``4 1'', as explained when the the syncopate form was introduced.

The other rhythm forms of samba described at the previous section are not often used on the basic step, but on more advanced steps.

Keep in mind that only some features of samba was described. This alone does not characterize the dance as said at the introduction.

Begin the beginning.

Check my main page of Ballroom Dancing and Music for forthcoming essays.
This page is part of Ballroom Dancing and Music.
Page revisited on 09-October-1996
Filipe de Moraes Paiva -

De 16/02/1998 vi estas la vizitanto