Since television coverage of the excitable Brazilians in the World Cup football competition this summer, Samba has been threatening to eclipse the latest craze for Salsa. It started with the opening match between Scotland and Brazil which saw the Tartan Army bobbing up and down, Samba- style, despite the fact that they'd just lost 2-1. Now Samba classes are opening up all over Britain in places as far afield as Manchester and Suffolk. Clubs, like Bar Havana in west London, hold weekly Samba nights. DJs have started mixing Samba rhythms with techno.
The Latin-American dance has become so popular it's even reached the small town of Drogheda in Ireland. In the summer, the town hosted a week- long Samba shindig. Thousands of people could be seen sashaying down the high street.
The London School of Samba, Britain's first Samba school, opened in 1984, but recently they've seen a sharp increase in interest. Each week they hold classes for dancers and drummers. A registered charity, they hold gigs all year round to raise funds, but the main event is London's Notting Hill Carnival in August. Perfectly ordinary men and women - doctors, accountants, students and social workers - dance down the streets of west London wearing little more than G-strings and nipple covers. Bottom pinching is a problem, apparently, but mostly for the men.
At this week's class, Emma-Jane Crace, a charity fundraiser, is standing at the front. (The official teacher Maite Oliveira has slipped a disc, which is worrying but doesn't seem to have dampened anyone's enthusiasm.) "Imagine you're beautiful," Emma-Jane tells the women, which as warm-up routines go, is certainly preferable to legs stretches and sit-ups. She turns to the men: "You're gorgeous," she tells them.
The drums start up and suddenly everyone starts swaying their bottoms and hips from side to side to the beat. It's a nonchalant, narky, look- at-me sort of move. Think of Brazilian tarts standing on street corners; sultry nights on the back streets of Rio.
The band - or bateria, as they're known in Brazil - gets faster and louder (ear plugs have been issued at the start of each class since the day that one of the drummers measured the decibel levels and realised everyone was in danger of going deaf). In Brazil, the drummers traditionally bash anything they can get hold of from the kitchen - saucepan lids, tin trays. Here, there are seven different types of drum, from the huge Surdo, to shakers which look like two baked bean tins welded together.
Within minutes the room is pulsating, people are gliding about like the sultry dancer at the beginning of the cult Seventies drama series, Tales of The Unexpected. I try to dance - it seems churlish not to. Unfortunately, my style is more shuffle than shimmy. I have all the sensuality of Margot from The Good Life, hopping awkwardly from foot to foot at a suburban cheese and wine party.
For the crux of Samba is sex. It comes as no surprise to learn that the latest George Clooney film, Out of Sight, relies on a Samba soundtrack for the sex scenes between Clooney, the escaped bank robber, and Jennifer Lopez, the federal marshal who's supposed to catch him. One imagines that for Latin-blooded Brazilians, the rhythms come naturally. For uptight north Europeans it's a case of learning how to loosen up.
"You learn to let go," says Joan Eggleston, a 40-year-old NHS psychiatrist. She discovered Samba on a holiday in Brazil, and says it's the perfect antidote to stress. "My job is all to do with listening, but the beauty of Samba is that the drums are so loud no one can talk to you," she says later. "As soon as I hear the beat, it feels like a release."
Samba is a relatively new dance. It arrived in Brazil with the East African slaves and the basic technique is said to be inspired by the workers who, when they worked the fields, dug their heels and then their toes into the earth to plant seeds. The beat is simple enough to pick up - a great deal easier than the fiendish steps involved in Salsa.
The beauty of the dance is that it doesn't matter what size or shape you are - it's about voluptuous curves and macho posturing. Indeed, Samba does little for gender politics. This is a dance where the women imitate street hookers and the men are like proud peacocks. "It's escapism," says Joan the psychiatrist, who's planning to go to see the unlikely sounding Bloko Vomit, a punk Samba band, playing later in the week in Hackney, east London. "And what's wrong with that?"
These people are passionate about Samba. Jo Fell is a postal worker in Cambridge. Evey Sunday she drives 60 miles to get to the class where she plays the drums. She arrives back home after midnight, and gets up three hours later to start her early shift at the post office. "Every Sunday I think to myself - can I be bothered? But as soon as I get in the car, I know it's worth it. Afterwards, your muscles ache, you're exhausted, but you feel great." What do her colleagues in the sorting office think? "They don't understand it. I've taken in photographs from the carnival, but they just want to look at the girls in feathery costumes."
For Sarah Haspel, a 29-year-old hospital administrator, Samba is her hidden life: "There's something a bit outrageous about having a stressful job and then walking down the street, in broad daylight, wearing a G-string. I like the idea that no one would guess what I was up to."
After the class the dancers take advantage of their racing endorphins, and often go on to Bar Havana for their Sunday samba night. This has the useful effect of making a looming Monday morning in the office seem a long way off.
And there's another perk too, says Sarah: "Unlike Salsa, you can dance Samba on your own. There's no need for a partner." The irony is that, once you get half way good at it, when your bottom and hips and thighs are jiggling from side to side with all the mellifluous abandonment of a doe-eyed Brazilian beauty, you'll probably find that you're not on your own any more. Sad, single, stressed-out professionals should take note.
The London School of Samba meets on Sundays at the Waterloo Action Centre, 14 Bayliss Road, London, SE1. Classes cost pounds 4 (pounds 3 unwaged)Reuse content