How to Dance the Samba: My Experience at Samba School

Brazil, Cultural Travel, Dispatches from the Road — By on November 29, 2010 at 12:00 pm

By Erin Griffith
LG Correspondent

On a recent month-long trip to Brazil, I was determined to learn the hip-shaking language they call samba. But, I’ll be honest: After many, many long evenings trying, I never really found my groove.

So when I say I “went out samba dancing,” I’m referring to the times I went out and stared unabashedly in amazement at What Brazilian Hips Are Capable Of. I will maintain, to my death, that the samba beat is genetic—either your body knows it at birth or it never will.

Fortunately, even for the non-Brazilians among us, the samba is fun, expressive, sexy, and an incredible workout. I may never learn samba, but I’ll happily die trying.

The samba school experience

“He is very fat, and he likes to smoke, but he is a very good dancer.” That’s what my local friend said as he walked us down the wet stone streets of Salvador to our first private samba lesson. And Thiago, our instructor, was indeed all of those things.

He was perched on a stool in his small, dim studio wearing all white. Rain poured down outside and in through the open windows but the summer heat hadn’t broken. It was stiflingly hot and Thiago was sweating while he chain-smoked.

He gave us a once over and cranked up the addictive, demonically fast samba beat he was already blaring. Without saying a word, he began stomping, shaking, and throwing around that large body of his, faster than I ever thought possible. His feet and hips were like that blurry cloud of smoke under the Roadrunner’s body. We stood there in shock.


I’ll disclose here that in a past life: I was ballerina and modern dancer. I don’t have two left feet, and consider myself a decent, or at least competent, dancer. If you ever want to feel incompetent, try a samba class.

Who invented this torturous, impossible beast of a movement? What kind of human being is able to move their hips at 3/4 time, or maybe even 6/8 time, and their feet at a 4/4 beat? It’s insane! Yet every Brazilian can somehow shake his or her beautiful body (seriously, they are all stacked), in perfect rhythm, without biting their lips in concentration, or furrowing their brows, or counting the beats in their heads the way I have to.

Thiago didn’t really have the patience my travel buddy and I needed. He danced circles around us, smoking and sweating, sweating and smoking, while the hot rain poured outside. When we’d ask to slow the music down, he’d very seriously answer, “Slow samba is not samba!” We laughed at ourselves, tripped over ourselves, and embraced our sudden dancing awkwardness. We finished that class, and each subsequent class, feeling clumsy yet joyful. We sweat out the stresses of the day.

Variations on a theme

Within Brazil, samba varies from city to city. The style, people, and atmosphere couldn’t have been more different, but that bedeviling beat remained the same. I got to embarrass myself in three cities.

In Salvador de Bahia, Brazil’s afro-Caribbean cultural center, the samba is fast and furious, more percussive, more prevalent, and more difficult. That’s where I masochistically chose to take my lessons.

In laidback Rio de Janeiro, you’ll find samba dancers outside of gritty tire stores with florescent lights and plastic tables. You’ll also find posh clubs, empty at 10 p.m. but packed full with the suit-and-tie crowd from midnight to 3 a.m. (on a Tuesday, mind you).

In Sao Paulo, the samba clubs are more serious, not unlike the capital city’s “work hard, play hard” image. At a club there, a Brazilian woman approached my group and asked where we were from.

“Estados Unidos, Inglaterra, Dinamarca,” we said.

She, answering in English, said, “Ah. I could tell you weren’t from here. Because you’re all wearing Havaianas.”

We were surprised, since the famous Brazilian flip-flops are pretty much a uniform in Rio. They have a special aisle devoted to them in the grocery stores.

“The sandals are no good here?” we asked.

“No! We wear the Havaianas for…going to the toilet!”


“Not samba!”


“And also, I could tell by your dancing.” Then she walked away.

Nobody ever accused backpackers of being stylish.

December 2 is National Samba Day in Brazil, so no matter what country you’re reading from, there’s no better excuse to check out a Brazilian club, bar, or restaurant in your area!

Photo credit: Vitorio Benedetti via Creative Commons, Travis Harwood

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    1 Comment

  • I have my own experience of dancing to the Samba tune, and I have to admit that in the process of trying to dance I lost a great deal of calories around my hip… But at the end of the day, Samba is real fun 🙂