Brazilian Dance Takes to the Streets

October 26, 2008

There are few countries in which dance takes a center-stage role in modern society. In Brazil, which covers nearly half of South America, dance is a functional, religious and artistic expression. On any given day, you can find capoeiristas performing the traditional martial artform in the streets of Salvador or long-legged beauties in Rio de Janeiro making their way to rehearsal at one of the many escolas de samba (samba schools). This passion for dance and movement comes to a climax during the largest party of the year, when masses travel from around the world to witness the spectacle that is Brazilian Carnival.


Carnival is a five-day party held in February or March (depending on the religious calendar) before the 40-day Catholic atonement period known as Lent. The U.S. has Mardi Gras in New Orleans and other regions of the world have acclaimed pre-Lent celebrations, but none rivals the grandeur and scale of Carnival in Brazil.


Carnival Dances

During Carnival season, samba music and dance are performed in the streets and on massive floats. Samba is based on a simple three-step and is conventionally danced at a frenzied pace to traditional samba music. Starting with the feet together, the right foot steps forward on one, the left foot steps in place on two and the right foot steps back to meet the left foot on three. The movement is then repeated on the other side, with the left foot leading. The basic step becomes more challenging as the pace of the music increases and sensual arm and hip movements are added, and when the dance is performed on the balls of the feet (sometimes in very high heels) and elaborate costumes and headdresses are worn.


The lambada, also known as the forbidden dance, began in small Brazilian bars and cafés called lambaterias, where people danced while entwined together seductively. The lambada is traditionally performed to lambada music, which was influenced by Caribbean music, but is a melange of Caribbean drums and electric guitars with sounds inspired by the local Spanish and Indian populations.


When Kaoma, a French group, recorded the #1 worldwide summer hit “Lambada,” in 1989, lambada dance and music took Europe by storm, then spread to Japan, the U.S. and the Middle East. Like samba, lambada is a three-beat step with a “quick, quick, slow” rhythm. In the basic forward and back movement, you step forward with your left foot, letting your hips follow. On the second beat, you step forward with the right foot, again, allowing your hips to follow. On the third and slow beat, your left foot moves backward. Lambada is danced with the whole body, not just the lower half, and usually on the balls of the feet, which originated when the lambada was danced barefoot on the beaches of Brazil, where the sand was too hot to step with the entire foot.


Developed as a means of self-defense, this Brazilian martial artform was originally used by Angolan slaves to resist enslavement attempts by traders. Capoeira has evolved into a graceful artform that has both combat and dancing characteristics and is usually performed as a stylized battle by a pair of capoeiristas. The friendly yet competitive dance emphasizes shuffling and weight changes while performers rely on acrobatic dodges and counterstrikes. Capoeiristas gather into rodas (circles) and provide musical accompaniment on the berimbau, a single-string instrument. There are regular displays of capoeira in the streets of Brazil, especially in Salvador, in the northeastern state of Bahia, where Brazilians of African descent are most concentrated.


African slaves developed maculele in the sugarcane fields of Brazil for entertainment. The dance is performed while holding a pair of sticks 12 to 20 inches long, to a four-count rhythm. On the first three beats, dancers hit their own sticks together or on the ground. On the fourth beat, they hit their right stick with that of their partner’s. Movements imitate the action of cutting sugarcane, and more experienced dancers use machetes. Now, maculele is performed strictly for entertainment, but during the Paraguayan War from 1864 to 1870, maculele was employed in battle.


Brought to Brazil by African slaves, candomblé is a religious ritual of song, dance and, most importantly, spiritual communion. When plantation owners forbade their slaves to practice candomblé rituals (spiritual communion with African deities), its practitioners sought to preserve it by coupling their orixas (deities) with Catholic saints to satisfy the masters. Its followers traditionally dress in white and worship together in ecstatic dance rituals accompanied by lots of drumming and singing, while communicating with and making offerings, such as meat, flowers, jewelry, perfumes, fruits and seashells, to the spirits. Devotees dance for hours to induce the trance that allows the spirits to enter their own bodies.