The samba and tango capture the heartbeat of Brazil and Argentina. The dances developed in and have become synonymous with the two countries. Samba is the lifeblood of Rio de Janeiro’s annual Carnival festival, while the sensual tango has influenced ballroom dance around the globe.
The dance drew its roots from African immigrants living in the state of Bahia in northeastern Brazil. Congolese and Angolan religious ceremonies were accompanied by circle dances and a style of music called samba de roda—roda meaning wheel in Portuguese. The music had an upbeat, call-and-response rhythm that relied heavily on drums, and the dances featured rhythmic hip movements.
The popularity of this style soon spread down into Rio de Janeiro, and different neighborhoods called “blocos” would put their own spin on the dance. These variations of samba led to the formation of Brazil’s samba schools. While the schools are a place for teaching and refining the craft, they’re really more of a community that includes thousands of dancers, singers, and musicians.
These schools helped to develop samba as we know it today, and their biggest event of the year is Carnival—a week-long celebration in Rio leading up to Ash Wednesday. Twelve of the top samba schools perform 80-minute choreographed routines featuring incredible floats and costumes. Carnival is also celebrated in the blocos, keeping the original spirit of samba alive.
In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, a huge influx of European immigrants brought polkas, waltzes, and other dances into Argentina. The cities of Buenos Aires and Montevideo (in Uruguay) became a melting pot. The European dances mixed and merged with African candombe dances and the Habanera from Cuba and the early tango was born.
Initially, the tango was practiced in the working-class communities of the Río de la Plata region—the area around Buenos Aires and Montevideo. The dance soon spread amongst the upper classes of the cities, who brought the tango to Europe. It experienced an explosion of popularity there, especially in Paris. Rudolph Valentino’s tango scene in 1921’s The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse was the first to shine the Hollywood spotlight on tango.
Tango dance partners hold each other closely, with the male partner leading the movements. But the music is also a vital element—singers and lyricists like Carlos Gardel played an equally vital role in developing what we now know as tango. The dance form remains in the international limelight today, with tango and ballroom dance competitions, but its strongest presence is still felt in the clubs and theatres of Argentina.