Samba Dance, Samba Fashion: Cultural and Artistic Expression

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Exploring different cultures, dances, and forms of resistance is dynamic, interesting and present new ways of exploring the fashion world. Exploring an art form through adornment and movement and how and why fashion complements forms of dance is useful in understanding cultures from an anthropological perspective. In this essay, I will explore samba dance and samba attire, arguably the most important and defining movement and artistic expression of the nation of Brazil. By briefly exploring the history and meaning of the movement, the culture, and artistic expression, all while emphasizing how the fashion compliments the meaning, culture, and movement of the dance itself, I plan to present a new way of understanding and looking at samba attire.

First of all, the history of samba must at least be briefly addressed in order to understand the attire and the ways in which the fashion of samba dance has evolved today. Samba dance has been a symbol of Afro-Brazilian identity since the 1930s (Chasteen 1996). The roots of samba have implications for the social meanings of race and ethnicity in Brazil. Brazil is a country that is as ethnically diverse and culturally rich just the same as it is a country plagued by vast class differences directly tied to race. Afro-Brazilians, or people of African descent living in Brazil, and people of mixed race with both African and European (likely Portuguese) descent, otherwise known as mulattos, face discrimination and are often poor. Rio De Janeiro’s pre-Lenten carnival highlights Afro-Brazilian dance and culture with the focal point is the samba and the sambadrome, a gigantic parade that characterizes carnivals. The festivals themselves are known to be expressions of cultural resistance to hegemonic forces in Rio and all over Brazil. Whether or not samba dance confirms social hierarchies regardless of its attempt at the festival to temporarily alter these hierarchies continues to be a cause of scholarly debate (Chasteen 1996).

The music of samba also has implications for the dance itself, and therefore, the fashion that compliments the movement. Samba as characterized by 2/4 time, the presence of strings and fast percussion, and polyrhythmic dance that used to solely be enjoyed by poor Brazilians alone (Chasteen 1996). Body movements rather than particular steps also characterize samba dance more commonly. Samba is also characterized both by African polyrhythmic influences and Portuguese movements, creating a mix of cultural influences in one particular dance accompanied by clapping and audience involvement. The presence of mixed cultures characterizes Brazil in particular Brazilian ways, and the ways in which samba bridges cultural gaps by movement and spectacle are interesting indeed. The colors, the minimal clothing, and the spectacular images of the dancers are commodities of samba and the ultimate event, the sambadrome.

Additionally, Brazilian Carnival is not only a celebration of Afro-Brazilian identity and Brazilian identity in general. Carnival is a form of play, and the samba dance is meant also for pure enjoyment. The spectacle of the samba fashion reiterates the theme of fun. Therefore, samba is a form of both work and play, and the imagery of the body in forms of play is important in emphasizing the fashion of dance and the movement (Iuhas 2012).

Work stops in Rio for carnival, a cultural tradition that is over 150 years old, and the whole of Brazil is swept over by dancing, singing and the rhythm of the samba (Iuhas 2012). The samba dancers of Rio, known as ‘passistas’ who belong to different schools of samba, wear extravagant costumes and ride in chariots. The dancer’s body becomes a symbolic expression, or an ‘accessory of man’ (Iuhas 669). Samba schools are groups of Brazilians trained to dance the sambadrome at nation-wide carnivals, which further emphasizes the spectacle and the commodity that has become of samba not only as an Afro-Brazilian creative expression but an expression of celebrated Brazilian culture.

Addressing the functionality of samba attire is easier said than done. The samba dancers are exposed, which replaces the typical every-day hidden body, and it becomes not only a competition of extravagance but also a competition of exposure. Tourists watch as the naked or almost naked women flood the streets of Rio, while samba schools put out as many dancers as possible. Some are completely naked and only wearing brightly colored body paint, while some display exposed breasts or bottoms (Iuhas, 2012, 669).

What has already been alluded to and cannot be ignored further is the sexuality of the clothing associated with samba dance. Brazilians emphasize the body as a symbolic and literal capitalizing entity. Brazil is known for its sexuality throughout the entire world (Goldenberg 2010). Scholars have noted that the ideal Brazilian beauty has been replaced. What once was considered beautiful and desirable were women who were characterized as being short, having tan skin, having black hair, having large buttocks and slim waistlines, and small breasts (Goldenberg 2010). However, this ideology has been replaced by European influences of beauty, which is exemplified time and again by Brazilian beauties in the media typically meeting European ideological beauty standards (Aryan skin, blond hair, and a less curvaceous body) (Goldenberg 2010). Samba dancers and samba attire resist these Eurocentric ideologies. Dancers continue to be curvaceous, strong, and often have darker skin. Also, at the same time dancers are hypersexualized in the sambadrome line but remain untouchable, which creates a dichotomy between hypersexuality and the body as a celebratory entity rather than a sex symbol at the same time. Samba dancers and their flashy ornamentation represent more form than function.

Samba dancers are adorned and exposed extravagantly, which can be exemplified by the photographs that depict the traditional samba dress below. Brazilian culture and the movements in the hyper-sexualized dance emphasize quick movements of every curve, which reiterates the hyper-sexualization of the Brazilian and Afro-Brazilian female body. In fact, Brazilian women, and therefore, samba dancers, are known to be “…at ease exhibiting their bodies and frequently render clothes into nothing else than a means of enhancing it; clothes are, ultimately, no more than an ornament”. This is the same for samba fashion. It is ornamentation and serves no real functionality for the movement of the dancer other than enhancing the spectacle of the movement.

What does this flashy ornamentation celebrating and emphasizing the almost naked female form entail? Headdresses made of feathers that move swiftly with the dancer, feathers hanging from adorned bikini and underwear-like bottoms, beaded strings hanging from bras, and hip ornaments consisting of more feathers, are all elements of ornamentation only placed on the female dancers. Other dance fashions have clearly functional purposes. For example, dresses that need to be grabbed to emphasize flow and certain dance steps, or leotards in ballet that enable. Flexibility. Samba dancers adorn themselves in ornaments that emphasize the body, and subsequently the dance that is meant to emphasize the Afro-Brazilian body and bodily expression, due to the fact that the dance is about the celebration of the body as well as forms of resistance to hegemonic influence.

While the samba might, in fact, be the most important musical phenomenon of Brazil, it is important to discuss the variety of the form as well as the implications for manners, morals and artistic expression in societies that are continuously impacted by clothing and adornment of the body. We must remember that the samba takes a few different forms: in presentation at carnivals, in which samba school members prepare for year-round, and in everyday life and cultural expression. The pagode form in the late 1990s exemplified a new form of samba, building on its Afro-Brazilian tradition (Galinsky). The samba is ‘nourished largely by the black and mulatto working class in Rio de Janeiro...(and has) long experienced a co-option of music by Brazil’s dominant classes’ (Galinsky, 1996, 120). In modern times, the adoption of the form across the classes has facilitated the lapsing of more traditional elements, affecting Brazilian art forms including dress and adornment. However, the samba itself represents a ‘legacy of resistance’ simultaneously appeasing modern times in more subtle forms, for example, the incorporation of body paint in the sambadrome as opposed to simply minimal clothing and elaborate headdresses. Nudity, now more than ever, is seen as a Brazilian cultural component. The pagode is an informal, communal gathering of musicians in Rio’s working-class that formed as a partial response to the escalation of commoditizing samba and samba schools. Outside of the sambadrome, pagode samba dance does include ornaments and adornment of almost nude female forms, without the hype associated with the spectacle and the headdress. The genre is characterized by funk elements and continues to be revered as a form of black Brazilian expression. The pagode defies the elite commercialization of traditional samba events,

The samba was Rio’s poor black populations’ entrance into the Carnival originally, and Afro-Brazilians were known as the creators and teachers of the samba (Raphael 1990). Today, samba dancers dress in vibrant colors and adorn themselves with ornamentation that moves with the exposed body, but generally adds to the spectacle of the body and the movement and isn’t directly correlated with dance steps. Dancers participate in all-night parades featuring endless streams of luxuriously adorned dancers and singers, both rich and poor, moving simultaneously to the rhythm of the samba. Afro-Brazilians utilized the samba as entrance into popular culture, and the fashion in addition to the music and the movement played large roles in allowing this entrance to happen.

Works Cited

Chasteen, John Charles. "The Prehistory of Samba: Carnival Dancing in Rio De Janeiro, 1840–1917." Journal of Latin American Studies 28.01 (1996): 29-47. Print.

Galinsky, Philip. "Co-option, Cultural Resistance, and Afro-Brazilian Identity: A History of the"Pagode" Samba Movement in Rio De Janeiro." Latin American Music Review 17.2(1996): 120-49. Print.

Goldenberg, Mirian. "The Body as Capital: Understanding Brazilian Culture." Vibrant 7.1(2010): 220-38. Print.

Iuhas, Florica. "Body and Dress in the Civilisation of Spectacles." European Integration –Realities and Perspectives. Proc. of The 7th Edition of the International Conference,Romania, Bucharest. 7th ed. N.p.: Ecological University of Bucharest, 2012. 666-71.Print.

Raphael, Alison. "From Popular Culture to Microenterprise: The History of Brazilian SambaSchools." Latin American Music Review 11.1 (1990): 73-83. Print.