By Vânia Maciel, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – When it comes to going out and about in Rio, to blend in with the locals and enjoy the full Carioca experience a foreigner will be faced with the daunting prospect of having to dance Samba. What may at first look easy and natural, however, is definitely no easy feat.
“Quem não gosta de samba bom sujeito não é, é ruim da cabeça ou doente do pé” (Who doesn’t like Samba must be wrong somewhere, with an ill foot or sick in the head), go the lyrics of Dorival Caymmi’s Samba da Minha Terra eternalized in João Gilberto’s voice and asserting that Samba is truly a way of life. But swirling hips and typhoon feet can indeed look intimidating, nay impossible to a newcomer, and so the idea of taking lessons suddenly appears essential.
Cariocas say that Samba is in the blood, never learned, just danced and somehow part of a genetic heritage. Or is it? As evidenced by full classes all over the city, that may not be the full story.
Samba music is a very rich rhythm spectrum subdivided into several categories, but when it comes to dancing, there are mostly only two types in Rio; Samba no Pé and Gafieira, with both having different steps for male and female counterparts. The former is the dance solo you will see in Samba school parades, the latter is danced in pairs and not to be confused with International Ballroom Samba which maintains little of its original roots. Both require a lesson or two at the very least, even for Brazilians.
Samba no Pé, is initially the hardest, and the hip movement can feel either too alien or overtly sexual for many foreigners, but once this barrier is overcome the rest may follow easily. The opposite can be said about learning Gafieira, where not much hip movement is required and it is perhaps less daunting.
Elegant, vivacious, light and more in line with the Carioca spirit, Gafieira was born and bred in Rio de Janeiro when the big malandros (cheats and ladies men) ruled Lapa, and as such, the male is the main star, working hardest at the steps.
For traditional Gafieira classes there are several places to choose from, most with mixed groups and featuring people of all ages. Carlinhos de Jesus one of the big names in Brazilian ballroom and Samba dance has been in business for over twenty years and his Casa de Dança (dance house) with branches in Botafogo and Recreio offers Gafieira dance classes for R$196 for ten lessons.
Another star in Rio’s dance firmament is Jimmy de Oliveira, who brought Gafieira a step further with ground breaking new steps. Traditional and modern steps are taught by him in biweekly lessons in Catete at R$95 a month, an extremely reasonable price for time with such a master.
At the genre’s very heart is Gafieira Estudantina, in Praça Tiradentes in Centro, one of the most traditional venues in Rio, where you can appreciate old and new dancers, with classes resuming at the beginning of 2011. The Centro Cultural Carioca, also near Praça Tiradentes, doubles as Samba venue and dance academy, with classes in both Samba no Pé (starting in October) and Gafieira, all from R$60 monthly with the first class thrown in for free.
Other spaces to check out are the Tex Studio in Leblon, with Gafieira classes at R$90 per month (joining fee applies), and Luciana Santos in Castelo, Centro, who charges R$60 a month with a trial class free of charge.
Many gyms also offer classes included in their fitness package, A!BodyTech Copacabana has Samba among other Brazilian dances from R$295 monthly. Cia Athletica in Barra, offers general Brazilian ballroom dance from R$386 monthly. And for an average of R$150 a month ByFit, with branches in Tijuca, Barra and Niterói has Brazilian rhythms classes. As Carnival approaches, so the number of options, and clients, increases.
Some sweat and burnt calories later, and anyone can be sure to gain the confidence to strut their stuff, mingle in Carioca’s nightlife scene and maybe even dare to try a Samba school parade right at the Sapucaí. And if all does not bear any fruit, it will always, at the very least, be a lot of fun.