Over the past decade, forró events have been springing up in major Western cities (e.g. London, Moscow, New York, Barcelona, Paris…) as well as some smaller ones. This is an odd journey for a simple dance from the Brazilian northeast, as usually the world’s folk dances barely leave their town or region, let alone cross the planet.1When I was researching traditional Catalan dances for drunks, I worked from an 80-year-old tome detailing over a hundred different dances from the small towns of Catalonia alone. Most are now forgotten, even in their town of origin.

In particular, forró has made inroads in Europe, where events are attended both by Brazilian expats looking to matar a saudade (get a nostalgia fix) and, even more fervently, by locals who have become confirmed forrozeiros, hip to the sensual and festive beat.

What is Forró?

When described to the uninitiated, forró (the correct pronunciation, a bit uncomfortable for non-lusophones, is foh-HO) invites comparisons as far flung as salsa, lambada, zouk, reggaetón, foxtrot and even polka — and while the dance may appear to be some mix of these, they have nothing to do with the dance’s true origins. In its “original” version in the Northeast, forró was and mostly remains a music of the working class, whose most basic danced incarnation is a two-step side-to-side shuffle.

“…the melodies are much sillier than you would expect for such a sensual dance infused with lyrical melodrama—in the end, this is party music, music for dancing, drinking and flirting.”The classic forró band is a trio: an accordionist/vocalist, a triangle player and a guy with a bass drum strapped at his belly. The lyrics often decry a beautiful woman who is not returning the singer’s affections, and the melodies are much sillier than you would expect for such a sensual dance infused with lyrical melodrama—in the end, this is party music, music for dancing, drinking and flirting.

Forró Comes Into its Own

In the last two decades, as forró music and dance gained popularity first in São Paulo and Rio and then in the world beyond Brazil, it has morphed into something more complex, taking on the twists and turns seen elsewhere in salsa and samba de gafieira, while still maintaining its sensual fire (forró couples typically move together as one, coladinhos — fused cheek-to-cheek, belly-to-belly and thigh-to-thigh. The newer, snazzier version of the dance is known as university forró and to many Northeasterners it is nothing short of an abomination.

Marinho Braz, a forró instructor from Rio and one of the principal developers of university forró, refutes this, noting that any dance is always a mix of the styles that came before it. In an interview, he argues that the last fifteen years of changes have made “forró more forró-ish than the original forró” — that is, the changes have brought forró into its own as a genre. Braz says his personal goal has been to transform this simple country dance into something as complex and beautiful as samba de gafiera (if this is unfamiliar, think of the elegance and presentational flair of tango, but on a Brazilian beat).

Recently Braz has been on a mission to develop and promote “forró casino”, which is danced by couples in a round and will look familiar to those who’ve danced salsa in a rueda. Braz expects forró continue to grow in popularity as it becomes more complex. “In ten years forró is going to be where salsa is now” in terms of worldwide popularity, Braz says.

The growing interest is not only pushing venues to sponsor forró nights, it’s leading Brazilian expat musicians in big international cities to specialize in the music in order to meet the demand. One of the most interesting of these ex-Brazil forró groups is the Paris-based Orquestra do Fubá. The band has put out three albums of original compositions that reinvent forró as a delirious pastiche, folding a bit of funk and jazz into something new, high-octane and definitely danceable. But this would never have come about had there not already been such a demand from dancers. The band’s vocalist and cavaquinho player, Fernando Cavaco, told TP he came to Paris to study the anthropology of music, and while he played informally with friends, it was the demand from dancers that pushed them to organize as a a group. His group, like a handful of others, can now tour Europe, playing for the local forrozeiros wherever they go.

In this, Cavaco also sees a lot of opportunity for the popularity of forró to continue to grow. “It does have its ebbs and flows,” Cavaco says, referring to volatility forró has already experienced as a recurring fad in Brazil. “But it will always, always exist.”

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A small forró gathering on a bridge overlooking the Seine in Paris. Both photos on this page copyright Chen Kun; click on this one to visit him on Facebook.

A Relaxed Vibe

Part of the reason forró has caught on so strongly outside of Brazil is that the basic steps are so easy to master. “It’s easier to learn than salsa,” says Zeu Azevedo, a forró composer, singer and accordionist. He plays a Sunday gig at Guanabara in London, where dancers can do a simple jump-start class at the beginning of the night. Azevedo says that by the end of the evening, everyone, even the newbies, are dancing. “Even children can dance forró,” agrees Cavaco.

And since the classic, “true” forró is so simple, there isn’t the pressure that salseros and tangueros sometimes feel to sport a vocabulary of presentational, showoff moves. Though university forró has developed its own set of crazy turns and acrobatics, good forró dancing is more about an internal moment between dancers, not the outer appearance. The goal, according to Paris-based forró dance instructor and event organiser Marion Lima, is a dance style that is “warm, affectionate, open to everyone, and gostoso” — a word used with great enthusiasm in Portuguese for both the delicious, and the deliciously sensual.

Forró thus invites a decidedly laid-back following. “What I love most is its unpretentiousness,” Lima says. “It’s not a ballroom dance, but a street dance. Everyone can dance forró, at any age, and in their own way.”

This is why some of the world’s best forró dancing can be in an impromptu party on the beach in Rio, a street party in the Northeast, or even a fête on a bridge over the Seine (Parisians have been setting up such events since 2009). That the little beat of forró can animate a crowd of Parisians at sundown on a bridge overlooking the city of light is a great testament to this dance’s voyage from the dusty hinterland of the northeast of Brazil. But whether danced in the sands of the northeast, a brash London nightclub, or with the Eiffel tower twinkling as a backdrop, the dance’s true calling has remained the same: to be simply gostoso.

Where to Dance

Our comprehensive and updated listings for forró around the world has been moved to its own post.

Notes   [ + ]

1. When I was researching traditional Catalan dances for drunks, I worked from an 80-year-old tome detailing over a hundred different dances from the small towns of Catalonia alone. Most are now forgotten, even in their town of origin.