quarta-feira, 12 de junho de 2013

International Ballroom Samba VS Brazilian Samba: Why are brazilians so intolerant towards foreign expressions of Samba.

There has been a longstanding controversy over the relationship between International Ballroom Samba and Traditional Brazilian Samba – I’m not only talking about carnival samba, but Brazilian Ballroom Samba as well. The dispute is mainly due to the lack of visible identity between the two, which is why most Brazilians do not recognize their culture represented in the International Ballroom Dance community. But it remains a mystery why Brazilians are so protective of their culture and do not tolerate any different manifestations of their music and dance experience. Are we Brazilians ignorant of the inevitable mixed nature of all art expressions? Our culture is a product of miscegenation. Even samba, as a music and lifestyle, is a great mixture of African, native south-American and European elements. So, what is the problem if Europeans want to make their own version of samba? This post was written to try to explain why is it so hard, even for the most cosmopolitan Brazilian, to accept International Ballroom Samba as something more than an artificial sport, with nothing related to samba, even in its less authentic and mixed forms.

1. Pierre Zurcher and the european apropriation of south-american partner dances

A good introduction is to mention a interest piece of history of Latin Ballroom: the tales of Pierre and Lavelle during the 40`s and 50`s. Doris Lavelle and Pierre Zurcher are the couple who naively or arrogantly tried to package the Brazilian and Cuban culture after a few trips and takes them to Europe. The result could not be less than grotesque, and the fact that its rules and definitions still has great influence on teachers script and judgments of championships is one remembrance of colonialist thought that should make us alert and suspicious. Juliet Macaims spoke about this issue with great eloquence: 

"A dance practice is much more than a list of footsteps and rhythm charts. The culture and values of its practitioners are embedded in the postures, gestures and dynamics of the dance. Recontextualized in European ballroom among waltzes and foxtrots, Latin dances were adapted by European bodies to adhere to their own culture's ideals and values. Postures were straightened, rhythms were simplified, an steps were named and categorized" (p. 114)

This could be enough reason to justify any brazilian raging "this is not samba" in internet videos. If someone is interested in learning more, please read Juliet Macaims book: "Glamour addiction: inside american ballroom industry". In this blog, however, i will introduce the reader to other reasons as to why brazillians do not recognize samba in international ballroom sport. My aim is to introduce the public to a sketch of the rich brazillian culture, and to show how far they are from even try to represent it in international ballroom. 

2. African or European origin?

First of all, lets clear some very common misunderstandings. It is a typical Eurocentric reductionist account of Latin-american cultures to think that they come all from Africa. Thought, Africa is just one of the many influences of Samba, along with native-indigenous and European-diaspora cultures. There is many great aspects of African influence to be studied in Samba, but the important thing is that there is no Samba at all in Africa, and that Samba is a form of art and broad culture that was born completely in the Brazilian artistic environment.  The same way as blues and rock n roll are north-american styles of music, and not African - despite the great African influence on it - Samba has never existed before it was originated in Bahia-Brazil. Even the Angolan culture that borrow the inspiration for its name has a different name: Semba.

Anyway, to say that do not answer the question: where does the south-american and north-american partner dances came from? Which origin is more influential in its blood? Another very common misunderstanding of proud Europeans is to think all partner dances have origins in European ballroom past. For sure, it does exist some fundamental elements that Europeans invented: the close embrace is maybe one of the most genius inventions in partner dances. But if we look closely to the body personality, the structure of steps, posture, hips, present in American dances, we can fast see that Africa is more present there than Europe. And i am not only talking about the body isolation movements. Africa is more present than Europe even in the partner work structure of the dance. I ask the readers to see this video from Angolan partner dances with me:
The Argentine Tango "sacadas" or legs tossings are an adaptation of Angolan structures of partner dances that were present in their popular dances for decades, having a heavy presence in todays Kizomba. The posture, the way the leader throws his weight over the follower, the hip movements, the way the leader skates with his feet, is the basis of original Maxixe and brazilian samba. The footwork and aerials are the basis of North American swing dances, specially Lindy Hop. We cannot miss also several elements present in son cubano, as the way the leader is supported by the lady while he trows himself into the floor. Europeans tried to adapt this same structures way after. But, for sure, Africa is the main set of independent (from Europe) and original influences of American partner dances. 

3. Brazilian samba meaning and history

So, now that we have this clear, we can say that samba is a name with many meanings. It is a style of music whose inspiration came from many different places in Brazil, which is already large enough to have very distinct cultural centers. It refers to a specific type of African-Brazilian tradition. Fundamentally, samba is open to new interpretations, new perspectives, it's a living thing, and it’s not something you can enclose in a dictionary definition. There is "samba de coco" in Pernambuco state, something very different than traditional Rio de Janeiro Samba.  There are also legitimate experiments, like mixing hip-hop with Samba. Samba was born in Brazil, but nothing prevents it from traveling to new countries, to new cultural landscapes. But, for some reason, that has never really happened. Maybe it is our fault, maybe it is a tradition without cosmopolitan vocation. At this point, I don’t know how to explain that. What is true is that while Europeans and North Americans have their faithful versions of Salsa and Tango, they have never come close to a reliable version of Samba. Let's figure out why. 

4. Reasons as to why Brazilians do not recognize International Samba

The first reason is the origin of the two dances. Theoretically, the structural origin of both International Ballroom Samba and Brazilian Samba Dance is Maxixe, a style that evolved in the 19th century through the combination of African dance rhythms and body isolation movements with European partner dances like the polka. The following video contains a replica of Maxixe dance: 

"A French book published by Paul Boucher in 1928 included Maxixe instructions". This book has the same age as the first samba school, a period when samba dance was a little child, dependent on his Maxixe mother. So, europeans have a book to learn how to samba derived entirely from Maxixe, and since they never had the oportunity to see real samba in the last 80 years of samba culture, what they have today is a different animal, with little evolutionary link with the brazilian samba. The history of this dance and its popularity back in the days is amazing. Here there is a very good documentary about it: 

Maxixe is an old type of music that was a part of the development of Brazilian cultural identity, but that has since almost completely disappeared, and  it is known today as a kind of "Choro" ( Most Brazilians have never heard of Maxixe, while samba is part of their everyday routine. Maxixe was part of a cultural transition, while Samba is a mature form of art. And most importantly, Samba looks really different than Maxixe. For this reason, International Ballroom Samba was developed from Maxixe, not from Samba. It is a European version of an extinct dance and culture. That is the beginning of the explanation for the astonishment of Brazilians when they see Europeans dancing “Samba”. 

The second reason, and the most important to me, is the nature of the music. I don’t think it’s hard to accept that dancing cannot be done without music. Individuals use their bodies to enter into the music's spirit. So, it is not too much to ask that, if Europeans and North Americans want to make a version of samba dance, they would have to dance to Samba music. Since they almost never get the music right, it is very secure to say that it doesn't look like they are dancing to samba. But even when they get the music right, the dancers have a lot of trouble trying to feel the spirit of the music. Samba songs tell the story of real people, stories of real life. Sometimes the lyrics are sad, and it is just ridiculous to see international dancers with a big fake smile on their faces, the kind of fun stereotype they once saw on the cover of a Caribbean magazine. Sometimes they are happy, but the type of happiness of samba is mixed with the suffering of the poor people that gave rise to this music, the African descendants, so, it's never the kind of happiness you would find on a clown's face. Most songs tell the story of the Brazilian night hustler and the charming young black girl. The steps, the speed, the way to move and the figures should translate that. But that's not the case in the international style. At Int. Samba presentations, couples dance all kinds of Latin rhythms: salsa, son Cubano, rumba, etc. It is quite hard to miss the structural differences between these rhythms and Samba. And that is not all. When International Samba competitors dance to Brazilian music, a lot of times they dance to Forro and Axe and not to  Samba. It seems like all of South America is just a stereotype for Europeans and North Americans. 

But I don’t want go on this path. I don’t really feel disrespected. What is relevant here is something else: Samba music is characterized by a very singular approach to the off beats. The nature of the syncope in samba's beat is something you cannot find in any other music in the world. That's what makes the "specific samba swing. By this I mean not speed, energy or tightness, but the fact that half of the notes in a bar always fall slightly off the beat, in a very consistant pattern". Moreover, there is a link with the african religious and the way they use to dance to worship their gods. It is still possible to see, today, similarities between the ceremonies of the Umbanda and Candomble and the way to dance samba:

That’s the second reason why Brazilians hesitate to recognize International B. Samba as Samba. First of all, they – Int. B. Dancers – are not dancing to Samba music, so it is impossible to read the offbeat approach of samba in their dance. Second, in the rare circumstances that they dance to real samba music, their bodies do not reflect a corporal interpretation of the off beats. They do not shake their body like the off beats demand, with "ginga". They simply do not dialogue with Samba music. It’s not news that Int. Ballroom Samba looks a lot like all the other European versions of Latin dances. And they are all too European: the dance scholars from Europe overvalue their classical influences. Everyone has the right to value what they think is more beautiful. But what’s the point of having a new version of a common European dance with a Brazilian name? 

The third reason is the difference in personality and samba spirit. Brazilian samba retains regional elements directly connected with the cultural experience of Brazil, which has matured independently from the African and European premises contained in its roots. There are more than one hundred years of samba culture in Brazil, and it is still strong today, with new readings of samba appearing every decade. It is linked with the history of the poor from the slums, where a lot of great composers have come from. On the other hand, the International Ballroom Samba, despite its undisputed technical appeal, does not contain any elements homogeneous with the personality of Brazilian samba. It is a style of dance adapted for large presentations that does not have any visible connection with the mythologies, stories, personality nor the substance of Brazilian music. For these reasons it is a professional dance sport, without a strong cultural foundation. Technically speaking, there are few common elements between them. These elements are summarized in generic elements that only an expert could identify. To the common viewer, they are diametrically different dances. The International Ballroom seems to have a stronger visible kinship with other European interpretations of Latin dances such as salsa, rumba and flamenco. The way they move their arms and the posture of the chest looks like something European in its roots: maybe a Georgian dancer. 

As a form of complex culture, samba is linked to Brazilian Carnival, where it is danced as “samba no pé” (feet samba), known for its rich rhythmic approach.  But few Europeans know that we also have our own Ballroom dance. I already saw some foreign dance scholars getting really angry with this news, and trying to deny it. But it is true: and it is not something some scientists just artificially invented reading books. In addition to its origins in Maxixe, Bolero and Argentine Tango, Brazilian Samba Ballroom Dance has more than fifty years of independent development. It has become a source of mature techniques and unique structures, called “samba de gafieira”.   Since the 30`s the “gafieiras” – places where  common people went in Rio de Janeiro to dance Samba – were nests of creative and energetic ballroom dancers, that helped to transform the first European, Argentinian and Cuban influences of dancing into an independent Brazilian Ballroom style, with steps and moves that only exist in it: "puladinho", "facao", "escovinha", etc. We still have a strong European base, but the energy of the dancing, the variety of new movements, the spirit and personality of the corporal movement, the ginga, together make Samba de Gafieira a new and singular art manifestation. And throughout the years it has become more and more different from European dances. Jimmy de Oliveira is one of the most creative dancers of samba in Brazil today, and thanks to him, Samba de Gafieira is getting more and more independent and mature. If someone wants to see it on YouTube, just search for "Jimmy de Oliveira" or "Leo Fortes e Robertinha". It is impossible to not notice the great singular feature of their dance, making samba de gafieira something you cannot see in any other part of the globe. Someone with a purely technical approach could see a lot of foreign elements there. This is obvious, nothing comes from nothing. But the way dancers use it, the energy, and the body expression leaves no mistake: this is a unique form of dance. There is no other way to prove it, but challenging for people to see it on YouTube: 
Samba de Gafieira's corporal personality is inspired on the “Malandro”, a street mythology, namely the mythical figure of the charming Brazilian night hustler, who conquers girls, doesn't like to work, and is always partying. The Malandro is the dancer of traditional gafieira samba of Rio de Janeiro, a kind of bohemian that lives in the Lapa neighborhood in Rio - a stronghold of samba. Many steps and figures of Samba de Gafieira are derived from imitations of the drunken way to walk and behave. At Video bellow, the dancer performs the malandro personality: 

Since International Ballroom Samba does not have any connection with these mythologies, and does not even know what the lyrics of samba music want to communicate, they at least should have their own samba experience to add. But they don’t. Int. B. Samba is not founded in a cultural experience. It’s a laboratory dance. International Samba, in fact, has a European personality, it looks like an ordinary European dance adapted with few steps, a few Latin stereotypes, and a new exotic name. It’s like if someone came to Brazil and brought back a monkey pet to show at a circus. The hypothesis is that European dancers are far too proud to accept to learn something with foreign professors, and they were never interested in experiencing samba – someone knows a samba composer from Europe? The second hypothesis is that they have to violate other styles of dance to make them more attractive to European and North Americans. This option is disrespectful to all the Europeans and North Americans who would love to learn the real thing, if they could. The third option is that orthodox Europeans live to preserve their classical ideals. When the African and South American dances grew in popularity, they did not learn them, but just reproduced their own dance styles with a few variations.  I'm not protesting here. I know cultures do attempt to colonize other cultures, and Europeans are interested in preserving their own. And with their great scientific, philosophical and scholarly tradition, they are pretty successful. Even today, there are dance schools in Brazil that give more value to ballet and the classical approach of dance, and in general, European style is still the mainstream. It's just a shame that, Europeans trying to learn about Brazil and Samba can hardly find a place to do so in Europe, and will end up fooled. 

Now, as demonstrated above, we have three different reasons as to why Brazilians are so intolerant of samba manifestations in Europe and North America. First, someone sold Maxixe as if it were Samba to Europeans. Second, International Samba does not have any connections with the corporal interpretations of the singular syncope style of the samba beat – and frequently they don’t even know the difference between salsa and samba. Third, there's a lack of samba personality in Int. Ballroom Samba. There aren't any visible culture foundations that would identify it as a variation or a version of samba. Actually, it just looks like another ordinary European  dance.

Are these enough reasons to justify Brazilian hate toward Europeans trying to dance samba? Maybe not. But there are questions free of hate to answer here. First, what do Europeans gain by reducing samba to a mixture of ballet, flamenco, Georgian dance and polka, with tropical fruits on the dancer's head? Is the point having a sport, a semantic and artificial type of dance, fitted only for competitions? There is a whole market for it, right? Money. Maybe i am missing the artistic value of the dance? Why an art have to have any cultural foundation, anyway? But I do recognize its artistic value, I found it beautiful, actually. The problem was never there. Europe already expressed its great artistic dance skills in their own style of dancing, and the misrepresentation of samba does not add anything to the great European cultural treasure. Finally, that’s not only an artistic issue. But from political and moral points of view, this terminology is not innocent. It’s a fact that a lot of professors try to sell Int. Balroom Samba to naïve European and North American people that are passionate about Brazilian culture. These people are being fooled. They are in store for an unpleasant surprise when they finally visit Rio de Janeiro. 

There are speculations about the reasons for this terminological confusion, since the identity of names has baffled Brazilians. I found this exlanation: "In 1922 Donga, Pixinguinha and the other members of the band Oita Batutas took the band's unique music to Paris and toured with the Maxixe dancer, Duque. There they blended Jazz influences with their own unique sound. After their return from Paris in 1923, composers including Donga, Pixinguinha, Sinhô (José Barbosa da Silva), and Heitor dos Prazeres experimented with different instruments and sounds and established the genre called Samba-Carioca. In 1933, Samba-Carioca was introduced to the world, when Fred Astaire danced it in the movie, Flying Down to Rio." ("

 It is assumed that the need to win the European market has influenced greedy samba producers from Brazil to create a version more suited to European criteria of competition, selling an artificial version of their own culture. Others suppose that it was samba's popularity that propelled Europeans to create their own version, which had developed alone and increasingly separated from its name. For whatever reason, and whatever interests are behind it, brazilian culture and samba are not being represented faithfully out of Brazil. Maybe this ignorance towards our country is our own fault. Our country is not a great cultural polo, or we don’t know how to export our culture. There are break dancers in China, Corea, Japan. There are  salsa players in Colombia and Europe. Why samba is still only a Brazilian thing?

The fights for the control of the dance

Whatever the reasons are behind the export of Maxixe to Europe, and whatever the reason for its name changing for samba (mid 40s), it is true that Europeans include "samba" in their system of competition and teaching for a long time, and it is reasonable to expect that they will not get it out of there now, either by our pressure or not. Since they are trapped because their dance is so radically different from the actual culture, a typical reaction of international samba dancers is to claim that they are the true samba dancers, and that Brazilians can not dance. This statement, in addition to the sin of offending the culture that they copy, has a lot to answer. The more pressing question is: if they are the real dancers, why not just name their dance with a European name, and be free, that way, from any connection with such a strange culture? Anyway, this attitude stems from the idea that a dance need not have any connection to the original culture. Seems like they think thar they could prepare the steps in a pure scientifically context. For this reason, the technical proud of ballroom dancers hide their creative stagnation and inability to create and develop their own styles.

Our opinion is that a dance is developed by constant exposure to the swing of a musical style. It is the frequency of exposure of the body to this song, and the collective sentiment of people copying each other at parties, that creates body patterns and specific steps. Obviously, these steps can be interpretations of movements from other countries, or ancient traditions. All available material enters the cultural pot and acquires its own personality. The dance halls, in Rio de Janeiro, were private workshops full of joys and sensations. The samba schools - mangueira, salgueiro, etc - are very strong cultural entities, and are linked to the soul of Rio from the cradle

The Brazilian way of dancing may not have the same softness in the gestures you see in Bolshoi ballets, but their energy, creativity, rich outpouring of invocations, is unmatched. And here it is not dispute titles, but to be true to his own personality. Samba is about men and women, so it has elements of all mankind. But its regional soil can not be ignored, as a man who wants to reach maturity can not ignore its root. It shouldnt be limited by the ideal of "cleansing" imposed by foreign traditions. I think that a dance is transparent only to the extent that is faithfull to the perspective that it gives to the reading of the music, or the sound of the world. The fluency is just a side effect of this loyalty, that makes us admire a dinosaur step given by a dinosaur, and a heron step, given by a heron. Cleaniness is the transparency of movement to its ​​moral origin, its loyality to its unique foundation: samba is clean when it have the face of samba.

List of references:

Those videos shows the origins of samba in connection with brazil history:

 The brazilian Ministry of Culture declared Samba (rhythm developed in Rio de Janeiro, AKA “Samba carioca”) as Brazil’s immaterial cultural patrimony. It was registered at the Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional (Iphan):
2. UNESCO declared “Samba de Roda” (the samba developed in the brazilian state of Bahia) the world’s immaterial cultural partimony:

brasil brasileiro show the guardian review:

You can see in youtube the body reading of capoeira, as a matrix for samba movements. Just type: capoeira-samba. Capoeira players dancing samba are a reflect of the roots of the body expression of samba: the Ginga. 

You can learn about the “Malandro” mythology in Wikipedia typing "malandragem".

As for the music, listen to “Cartola”, “Nelson Cavaquinho”, for some old and beautiful tracks. Listen to João Nogueira for a more modern samba approach. Listen to Jorge Ben Jor for a more swing expression. Listen to Vinicius de Morais and Tom Jobim for a Bossa Nova and Jazz approach of samba.

If you wanna see samba de gafieira in its best form, search for “Leo Fortes e Robertinha Baila Floripa 2013 – samba tradicional”.  Second good option: look for “Jimmy de Oliveira- samba de gafieira tradicional”. There is a link here:

 To know about samba de gafieira, there is a Book called “Samba de Gafieira – a história da dança de salao no brasil” (Samba de Gafieira – the history of Ballroom dance in Brasil)

 Finally, to learn about samba's personality, spirit, life style, and history, there is few ways to do so. You have to live with Brazilians, and come to Brazil. Some references here are Brazil itself: visit Lapa, Rio de Janeiro. Visit Salvador, Bahia. The majority of the great chronicles of Brazil in the last century are all linked to samba. Samba is one of the more strong cultural identities of Brazilians. Second option is  to watch this french documentary from 1969, called Sarava:

2 comentários:

  1. Very interesting article.

    There is one point though that I think is very important, and which you have not mentioned very clearly and which probably explains the anger Brazilians feel.

    In popular culture outside of Brazil, the notion of "samba" is intimately connected and has almost become synonymous with the country Brazil itself (together with football maybe).

    It is Brazil's most important cultural trademark. And calling a dance "samba" which is so unrelated to real samba, amounts to not only to hijacking the name of one of Brazil's dances but to hijacking Brazil's MOST IMPORTANT CULTURAL TRADEMARK.

    I do not think Americans would be happy if for example samba rock was sold internationally outside of the U.S. as "rock'n'roll" and bossa nova as"jazz".

    Moreover European and American influence in the world's popular culture is huge, so this misrepresentation in Europe and the U.S. has important consequences in the world as a whole.

    And now the most important point: What happens when you remove and disassociate the original real Brazilian samba dancing, music and rhythm from the word "samba", as is done in international ballroom samba? When you minimise the importance of the real Brazilian music and dance? What image of "samba" will be left, which wil be seen as uniquely Brazilian by foreigners? The answer is very simple: Almost-naked women during carnival! This is the definition for uniquely Brazilian samba, which remains in the public consciousness.

    Does Brazil's most important cultural trademark want to be, not only associated to BUT DEFINED AS almost-naked women during carnival? Most Brazilians do not want this and that is were the anger comes from.

    This is although exactly what happens: Watch an extract from "Strictly come dancing":
    (It is almost a message: We dance samba here in Europe as well, but the real Brazilian way to do it, is with almost-naked women.)

    1. Great input. I think you are right. But its good to notice also that we Brazzilians are not against the creation of versions of samba dance. There is nothing wrong with that. The problem is that a version assumes some degree of fidelity or similarity, and international style has almost none. If musicians and dancers from Japan or Sweeden start to listen, study and feel the spirit of samba and later making their own interpretation, changing it to a new style, brazilians would be happy to call it samba, or japanese-samba, sweedish-samba, etc. Change is wellcome in all art expressions. Unfortunately, thats not what happened in international-style samba. These dancer do not come from any samba tradition. Most of them do not care if its playing samba or calypso. It is plain and simple a mistake and semantic misunderstanding.