With its combinations of indigenous, African and European influences, the South-eastern region of Brazil has a diverse culture, reflected in its dances and most popular rhythms. The most famous are:
The most well-known of all the Brazilian dances, the samba is a musical tradition which stemmed from the country’s African slaves. It first appeared in Bahia, but went on to gain popularity all over the country, particularly in Rio de Janeiro, which has become known as the Land of Samba. It was in the Wonderful City that the samba caught the Brazilian imagination, whilst taking on influences from other musical styles, such as the maxixe, polka, and xote. Immensely popular these days, it is the official dance of the world’s biggest carnival, which takes place annually in Rio.
A spin-off, Samba de Roda, originated in Bahia, but caught on in the Southeast. The dancers organise themselves into a circle, whilst chanting and clapping. Instruments used include the Berimbau, congas, rattles and tambourines.
Highly popular in São Paulo and Rio, pagode is a variant of samba, which first came about in the 80s. Exemplified by its simplicity, recurring themes of lament and romance, and its slower beat than the samba, the genre is one of the country’s most popular.
A product of Rio’s streets, the carioca funk style has made itself popular all over the country in recent decades, with some of its stars gaining international fame. It originally took its inspiration from the Miami Bass beats of the 80s, and nowadays is associated with its notoriously overt, over-sexualised dancing and lyrics.
Another samba derivation – but with a dash of north-American jazz -, the Boss Nova was all about Rio’s bohemian scene, and saw its heyday in the 50s. Some of Brazil’s greatest artists were proponents of the Bossa, which puts an emphasis on smooth guitar playing, and goes along at the pace of a slow samba. Perhaps the most famous example is the Tom Jobim classic “Girl from Ipanema”.
Once a big hit in the state of Rio de Janeiro, these days the beat is less well-known. The xiba is danced with special clogs, with the male and female dancers forming a circle. The women sing out short phrases and the men beat their clogs and make a lot of noise.
Dança do Tamanduá (Dance of the Anteater)
In this traditional dance from the state of Espírito Santo, men and women form a circle with one person in the centre, and everyone follows that person’s lead. The music is improvised and starts off with a singer.
This traditional dance from the state of Minas Gerais is performed by men and women, not necessarily in pairs. One person goes into the centre of a ring formed by the other participants, and that person acts as the choreographer. The performers intone chants and play tambourines made from tree trunks.
Another dance from the state of Minas Gerais, performed by men, who use wooden sticks and alternate between forming circles and lines, whilst beating their sticks on the ground. These beats have specific names, such as ‘in four’, ‘up high’, ‘down low’, among others.
An African inheritance stemming from São Paulo, characterised by a circle made up of male and female dancers. A soloist sings a song while others clap their hands and move to the rhythms of tambourines and rattles.
The rhythms and dances of the Northeast are so rich in variety that they demand a much larger section to describe them. Here you can find out more about some of the most popular and famous cultural traits of North-eastern Brazil, many of which have historic roots, steeped in symbolism:
Originating in the North-eastern sertão (a vast, semi-arid region in North-eastern Brazil), the baiao is now known all over Brazil, thanks to the accordion playing Luiz Gonzaga, from Pernambuco, who recorded his first big hit in 1946 and opened the doors for similar artists to gain fame and fortune. With its binary rhythm and striking melodies, played on the accordion, agogo and triangle, the genre still has a strong influence on today’s musicians. The dance goes in pairs, who take steps called balanceios, heel steps, crouches and spins. The women wear printed cotton dresses adorned with frills, lots of cleavage and colourful sandals. The men wear light denim trousers, simple shirts and rawhide sandals.
Capoeira is a cultural expression, which makes a ritual of martial arts, playfulness and dance. It arrived in Brazil in the 16th century with the Angolan slaves, who were mainly brought over to the states of Bahia and Pernambuco. Noteworthy for the level of interaction of the participants, who form a circle around performing pairs, with rapid interchanges and highly difficult acrobatic kicks, flips and spins, capoeira is played to the sound of berimbaus, chants and hand claps and has become popular all over the country.
The main attraction of the Pernambuco carnival, frevo is a collective dance known for its syncopated, aggressive, wild march, which keeps going until the dancers ‘boil’ – ‘ferver’, in Portuguese, and the locals have an idiosyncratic way of pronouncing the word, which explains the slightly different spelling. The dance is symbolized by an umbrella, which is used to prevent the dancers from losing their balance. Interestingly, the dance is all about individuality, there are no set steps, everyone dances their own way. You rarely see two people dancing the same way, which makes the spectacle even more interesting.
The maracatu came to Brazil from Africa, originating at the Congolese coronation ceremonies, as a demonstration of strength and power. The rhythm goes along to the beat of percussion, and it starts with a baque virado, a ‘twisted hit’. The dance has an important historical meaning, as it was once a symbol of the slaves’ resistance. Nowadays, the maracatu is a common sight at the Pernambuco carnival.
Portuguese in origin and popular in the state of Piauí, the reisado is so-called due to its being celebrated on the eve of the Day of Kings (Dia de Reis). Between 24 December and 6 January, a group of musicians, singers and dancers go from door to door announcing the arrival of the messiah, giving praise to those who open their doors. The dance first appeared in Brazil in the state of Sergipe, during the period of Portuguese colonization, and these days it can be danced at any time of year, with the themes revolving around love, war, and religion, among others. A reisado performance usually features a certain group of characters, such as a king, a master, a foreman and youngsters, who perform to the sound of accordions, a ganzá rattle, a zabumba bass drum, a triangle and a tambourine.
Also known as the catira, the cateretê is an indigenous dance, heavily used by Padre Anchieta, who translated catholic texts into Tupi, whilst native Americans would dance and sing religious songs. There are no traditional outfits, performers just use their everyday clothes. Different regions have different versions of the dance, but generally there are two rows, with men on one side and women on the other, who tap their feet to the beat of hand claps and guitar, whilst the guitarists sing melodies.
Popular in many states, the congada comes from Catholicism, mixed with African tales of the king of Angola, Gola Bândi. The presentation tells a story of slaves with magic powers, foremen, ladies-in-waiting and warriors, who escort the king and queen to church, where they are coronated. During the procession, the dancers perform war-like movements, to the sound of guitars, congas and reco-reco scrapers.
A traditional African dance from the state of Alagoas, the coco is now popular all over the Northeast, where it has many names and incarnations. It is usually sung and accompanied by the tapping of feet or the stamping of horses’ hooves. The coordinator intones traditional songs, which are repeated by the singers.
A popular dance from the sertão, the xaxado received its name thanks to the sound made by the sandals used by the cangaceiros (resistance fighters), who celebrated the victories of the Lampião group, whose leader was known as the King of Cangaço. Originally a male-only dance, with satirical lyrics sung to the fast beating of a rifle on the ground, Luís Gonzaga popularized the genre, getting it played on radio, TV and at theatres.
Traditional in Bahia, the maculelê originated at the time of the colonizers, and was a way of celebrating a good harvest. It is performed by men, who dance and sing to the orders of a leader, called the macota, who commands the choir to the sounds of sticks, congas, tambourines and guitars.
Another rhythm which became popular all over Brazil in the 40s, thanks to Luiz Gonzaga, the forro inspires several tales as to the origins of its name: some say it refers to the African term forrobodó, which means party, mess; others say it has to do with the legendary “For All” parties, thrown by the English engineers for the North-eastern railroad workers, who built the Great Western Railway at the beginning of the 1900s. Whatever the origins of its name, what really matters is whether or not you can dance. Its ‘two steps here – two steps back’ to the sound of the big zabumba drum, the triangle and the accordion has become so popular that, nowadays, its name is synonymous with the kind of party where anyone can dance whatever rhythm or style they like.
Noted for its European immigrants, from Germany, Italy and Portugal in the states of Paraná and Santa Catarina, who mixed with immigrants from other states, as well as taking on influences from Uruguay and Argentina in the Gaucho regions, the South of Brazil has a host of traditional dances, with the highlights being:
Common in the State of Rio Grande do Sul, it originated in Havana, Cuba. The name changes depending on the rhythm – if it is slow then the name is Vaneirinha; fast, Vaneirão and moderate, Vaneira. The steps are based on a two-step, with four movements in each direction.
A traditional Portuguese dance, brought to Rio Grande do Sul during the 19th century. At first, it resembled a waltz. With time, pairs started to dance in other directions, separately. Sometimes, couples dance together in a more well-known ‘two here-two there’. In some of the movements, the man, known as a peão and the woman, called a prenda, slightly bend their knees.
Popular in Argentina and Uruguay, in Rio Grande do Sul, the dance is accompanied by a guitar and other instruments. The milonga from this region looks like a Tango, but is slower and more romantic. There are three ways to perform the dance: havaneirada (to the same steps as a vaneira), tangueada (a march-like rhythm) and rio-grandense (a two/one-step).
Only performed by men, a lance is placed down on the ground, and three performers stand around it. They stamp their feet and, after a certain routine has been performed to the sound of a traditional accordion, the next dancer takes his turn, with each performer gradually making things more difficult. The winner is the performer deemed to have executed the most difficult routine.
Dança do Pezinho
Portuguese in origin, but popular in Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina. As well as dancing, performers must sing to the rhythm of the accompanying music.
Boi de Mamão
Also known as the bumba-meu-boi, the boi-bumbá, boi-de-cara-preta, among others. In Santa Catarina, the dance is performed in a more playful and light hearted way than in the North and Northeast.
Dança do Vilão
Part of Santa Catarina’s folklore. The dance has diverse features, including bench markers, beaters and musicians – quite like the dance from the state of Goiás. With their sticks, the participants mark the rhythm and move around one another. The movement of the sticks is all part of the show.
Also known as the Arcos Floridos (Florid Arches) or the Jardineira, since the performers carry a bouquet of flowers. At the beginning of the dance the pairs make a line, and proceed to pass their bouquets above and below the other pairs. Next, groups of four pairs perform a different set of steps, by forming a circle and crossing their arches, making up the balainhas.
Brought by the Germans settlers to the region, the dance starts with a 3-metre mast placed in the ground, attached to an array of coloured ribbons. There needs to be an even number of performers, with each one holding onto a ribbon they can carry around the mast. The dance sees the ribbons make patterns as the performers move around the mast. Instruments such as a small guitar, tambourines, accordions and normal guitars are used during the performance.
Common along the coast of the state of Paraná, the fandango has Iberian origins, having been brought over by the Portuguese. Upon arrival in Brazil, the dance was influenced by local indigenous traditions, and is also popular in the states of Santa Catarina, Rio Grande do Sul and São Paulo. Instruments such as guitars, tambourines and a fiddle are played, and the lyrics are improvised. The performers form a ring and dance a waltz to the beat of hand clapping and foot taps.
German and Italian Dances
The south’s German and Italian influences can easily be seen in the dances performed at the traditional festivals held all over the region, such as the Oktoberfest, in Blumenau, Santa Catarina, and the Grape Festival, in Bento Gonçalves, Rio Grande do Sul.