At Dance Center Chicago
, slow ballroom music fills the air as couples gracefully twirl each other. An instructor catches my confused gaze. "Edilson's class is in Studio Three, that way," she says, pointing to the corner. As I walk toward the studio, low, heavy bass begins to cut through the droning music. I'm early for Beginning Samba, so I slowly open the door and peak my head in on Edilson Lima's Advanced Samba class. It's a complete contrast from the waltzes going on in the main studio and from the ballroom-style samba that has been gaining popularity from "Dancing with the Stars;" bodies move quickly and sweat drips from more than a few participants.
My infatuation with Brazilian culture gained momentum after checking out Brazilian Night at SushiSamba Rio. Every Wednesday, starting at 10 p.m., the Japanese-Peruvian-Brazilian fusion restaurant throws a massive show, complete with a DJ, Brazilian-Latin jazz band, acrobats, capoeristas, breakdancers, a projection screen showing footage from Carnaval, and samba dancers in full costume. Lima emcees the show, but when he's not at SushiSamba, you can find him dancing with Chicago Samba or at Dance Center Chicago, where he rents out studio space for his Wednesday night classes.
The skinny: Samba describes both the music and the dance, which is considered the national sounds and movement of Brazil. While samba may be synonymous with Carnaval in Rio, the dance can be traced back to Brazil's African roots—more specifically, to the country's predominately black region of Bahia. There are many different forms of samba, but the most common and easily recognized is samba no pé, which is typically danced during Carnaval.
Unlike the mellow bossa nova, another popular musical genre in Brazil, samba is alive and vivid. The drums are infectious, almost tribal, and during a super-speedy samba, the dance may look like nothing more than a quick hip shake. Twisting from the hips and stepping out on the balls of the feet makes up most of the dance. The move is basic and easy to get, but throw in the fast music, the accompanying arm movements and freestyle moves (Lima is big on winking in the mirror, teasing and smiling while you dance), and it's easy to see why lessons are needed.
The getup: Generally, experienced samba dancers wear bedazzled, revealing two-pieces with large, feathered headpieces. Sometimes, they wear less. But, for Lima's class, showing up in comfortable clothes will do the trick. Ladies may want to try wearing heels, as is customary in Brazil.
The payoff: After going over the basic moves, Lima puts on music. I'm already sweating by the end of the first song. You definitely whittle your waist down and work your hips in this class, and will also get a mild cardio workout.
Wear and tear: As with most dance styles, attention to form is crucial. Proper twirling of the hips, bending at the knees and staying light on the feet not only make the dance look more graceful, but will also ensure that you're not damaging your body.
The commitment: Lima's classes meet once a week for four consecutive weeks ($60). At the end of the course, you'll be able to hold your own during a samba song at your favorite Latin night. Sessions at Old Town School of Folk Music cost about $160, meet once a week for eight weeks, and at the end of the session you'll have an understanding of samba's history and the various types of styles. So, the commitment level depends on what you're looking for: A few fancy moves or a thorough understanding of the dance?
Difficulty level: Once the basic samba step becomes fluent and graceful, you'll only have to worry about the speed of the various samba rhythms, which can get extremely fast. You also have to remember to smile, which isn't so hard once you let yourself go.
The verdict: The dance—and the music—is infectious, sexy, fun and bold. Salsa dancers, Latin and Afro-Caribbean music fans will definitely enjoy samba. It's easy to see why Brazilians learn the dance as soon as they can walk, and how they can perform the dance for days on end during Carnaval.
Visit oldtownschool.org or edilsonlima.com for more information on class sessions.