By Shayna McHugh


“My body succeeded where my mind had failed; it figured out the step all on its own”

Samba, unfortunately, proved to be incomprehensible to me. I tried to learn and failed miserably. The same thing happened every time: while I watched the sambistas, trying to figure out how on earth they were moving their hips that fast, someone would invariably approach me and ask why I wasn’t dancing.Don’t come back from Brazil until you learn how to samba… my friends advised me.

Then I guess I’ll never return! I joked. I had always believed that there were two basic types of people in the world: those born with the ability to dance, and those born without it. In my eyes, all Brazilians fell in the former group where as I was stuck in the latter. At weddings, concerts, and clubs, being pulled onto the dance floor was the most embarrassing thing that could possibly happen to me. I marveled at the people who moved so naturally to the music, envying the fact that they always had such a great time dancing. I, on the other hand, had no idea what parts of my body to move and how to move them. Everything I did felt awkward. I was secretly hoping, however, that my upcoming semester in Brazil would somehow magically transform me into a good dancer. Maybe something in the air or water of South America would inject some Latin flavor into my gringa self.

“Because I don’t know how to samba,” I would explain. “No problem! I’ll teach you,” the Brazilian would reply. “It’s easy! You just go like this…” He would then begin to samba, his feet moving at what seemed to me to be light speed. “Wait,” I would implore. “Where do I step on the first beat? Do I shift my weight forward or back on the second?”

The would-be samba teachers tended to look slightly puzzled at these questions. “I don’t know,” they always responded. “Do it slower,” I would command. When they did the step in slow motion, I could more or less follow along. Ok, got it: switch feet on 1 and step forward on 2, I thought to myself. But when I tried to samba to the rhythm of the music at normal speed, my natural clumsiness prevailed. I could swear that the rapid beat didn’t allow enough time for my nervous system to carry the signals from my brain to my feet.

“Aargh,” I would groan in frustration. “You just need to relax,” my Brazilian friends repeatedly told me. I felt especially samba-impaired during the six weeks I spent in the state of Bahia. One Brazilian song describes Bahians as having “God in their hearts and the devil in their hips.” It’s true: they all danced samba, axé and forró like it was easiest thing in the world. I was depressed by the fact that six-year-old Bahian girls had more hip-shaking skills than I did. I eventually resigned myself to learning how to clap correctly to the music, since samba clapping follows a syncopated beat that was hard for my non-Brazilian ears and hands to grasp. To the disappointment of my North American friends, I returned from my semester in Brazil with a great deal of admiration for samba but a firm conviction that I was incapable of learning it.

My struggle with samba did not end there. After graduating from college, I returned to Brazil to do marine natural products research. Many of my new acquaintances were samba enthusiasts who got together every couple of weeks for a samba de roda (samba circle). I went to these gatherings but stayed out of the roda, limiting my participation to clapping and singing. Unfortunately, my friends were not content to let me stay on the sidelines. They sang one song that goes:

Sai, sai, sai, ô morena (Leave, leave, leave, oh morena*)
Saia da lagoa (Leave from the lagoon)
Sai, sai, sai, ô morena (Leave, leave, leave oh morena)
Saia da lagoa (Leave from the lagoon)
Ponha a mão na cabeça (Put one hand on your head)
Outra na cintura (The other on your hip)
Dá um bom remelexo (Give a good swaying)
Dá umbigada pra outra (Give an umbigada** to another)

* Morena refers to a dark-skinned or a dark-haired woman.
** Umbigada, derived from the word umbigo (navel), is a movement in which two dancers touch their bellies together. Similar to the way expectant mothers nourish their babies through the umbilical cord, this “meeting of the navels” represents transmission of the energy of the dance from one person to another.

During this chorus, one woman does a samba solo in the center, performing the movements described by the lyrics (Like the Brazilian version of the hokey-pokey, I mused). As the last line is sung, she exits the roda and gives an umbigada to another woman, who enters and dances throughout another repetition of the song, and so forth. You can guess what happened: someone gave an umbigada to me.

Knowing that there was no escape, I entered the roda with my best attempt at samba. I thought I was doing all right – that is, until the part about putting one hand on my head and the other on my hips. While focusing on getting my hands in the right places, I completely lost control of my feet. I tripped over myself trying get back on beat, but it was too late – I had lost the rhythm, and my steps were all wrong. When the last line of the chorus finally arrived, I fled the roda as fast as possible, bestowing an umbigada on the next victim. She glided into the roda with a smooth, elegant samba that made me feel like a bumbling klutz by comparison.

I went home that night with a renewed determination to learn how to samba, resolving to practice as much as it took for me to get the step right. The next time I got pulled into the roda, I promised myself, I wouldn’t look like such an awkward gringa. As I thought more about it, I began to wonder if I’d been trying to learn samba the wrong way. I had recently read an article that drew a contrast between two types of cultures. European and North American cultures tend to center on the mind, which they view as separate and distinct from the body. African and Asian cultures, on the other hand, tend to focus on the body and use it as a starting point from which to relate to the world. Was the source of my problems the fact that I had been trying to understand samba, an Afro-Brazilian art, by analyzing it in a North American manner?

During the next samba de roda, I experimented with a new approach. Instead of worrying about counting beats, I simply tried to feel the rhythm. Rather than fussing over which foot was supposed to step where, I let the music guide my movements. I watched the sambistas in the roda and tried to imitate them without thinking too much about it. As a result, an unbelievable thing happened: I started to get it!

My body succeeded where my mind had failed; it figured out the step all on its own. Two of my former attempted samba teachers noticed my efforts and congratulated me, delighted that the gringa had at last learned how to samba. No longer tentative and painfully self-conscious, I even jumped into the roda voluntarily – and I loved every minute of it!

There’s nothing magical about Brazil’s air or water that makes its native people good dancers. It’s the fact that Brazilians don’t make a distinction between people who can dance and people who can’t – everyone just dances!

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