A rather campy accordion melody gallops across the dance floor.
This is chased by a thumping bass drum and a tinkling triangle.
And in spite of the sweltering night heat, couples are glued together—foreheads, tummies and thighs—wiggling and quivering in expressions of passion, faux-passion or just a silly release of tension.
Obviously, this is not salsa: welcome to forró. Forró is a style of music from the hinterlands of the Brazilian Northeast, and the word is also used for the dance style that goes with it.
Forró has experienced a recent boom in Europe and North America. As people discover the dance style, they also tend to grow fascinated with Brazil itself and want to know more about the culture and language.
How Can Learning Forró Help Your Portuguese?
Quite possibly, if you’re reading this article, you’re one of these forró fanatics looking to better your Portuguese. As someone whose first forays into the Portuguese language long ago were both caused by and devoted to Brazilian song lyrics, I understand.
Just as forró can become a delightful addiction, Portuguese also ropes you in. Fortunately, these two obsessions can feed off each other. Learning forró will improve your Portuguese. And the more Portuguese you speak, the more fun you’ll have chatting up the Brazilians you’ll meet dancing and understanding those lovelorn lyrics.
In this article we’ll focus on the key vocabulary that I think any forrozeiro (that is, forró aficionado) ought to know. We’ll start with some basics of forró culture and the important sub-genres. Then we’ll look at words and phrases for the dance floor and finally take apart some of the key lyrics.
This article is thus appropriate for anyone, from absolute beginners to more advanced learners who need to better understand forró-specific slang, expressions and lyrics.
This article focuses on Brazilian (rather than European) Portuguese. Plenty of people dance forró quite well in Portugal too, but forró is Brazilian at heart, as are the vocabulary and lyrics that discuss it.
Forró for Foreigners: How to Learn Portuguese While Dancing Forró
The Basics of Forró Dancing and Its Styles
To start with, you need to know how to properly pronounce the word forró. The two syllables are awkward for English speakers, since the double “r” is pronounced as an “h” sound and the stress falls heavily on the last syllable. There are good Brazilian pronunciations here.
That accomplished, you should get to know a few of the different dance styles of forró. Defining musical styles can be incredibly controversial, but I’ll try to give a general idea that hopefully won’t make me enemies. (I’m not going to go into all of the sub-genres; you’ve got Wikipedia or this article from Globo for that.)
Here are the key styles of forró to know:
xote — slow and sweet; often danced glued together with no separation or salsa-like twirls
baião or pé de serra — faster, the “original” forró from the Brazilian Northeast, also often danced in a tight embrace without turns
arrasta-pé — this is typically fast and has quite a different rhythm; one dances it directly marking the beats alternately on each foot, as in merengue
forró roots — this forró is principally associated with Itaúnas, home to an enormous forró festival
forró universitario — this “university-style” forró involves turns borrowed from samba de gafieira, zouk, salsa and other dances; it’s what one generally learns in forró classes both in Brazil and abroad
Forró superstar Dominguinhos offers his own succinct definitions of the different musical styles, with demonstrations, in this video:
So those are the styles, now how is all of this actually played? There are a variety of configurations of forró groups in the real world, but the most classic forró trio is composed of just three instruments:
zabumba — a large drum worn at waist height with a strap going over the shoulder; the player hits the top of it with a mallet to produce low thumps and on the bottom with a thin stick for light thwacks
triângulo — triangle, the other key forró percussion instrument; its rhythm is an easy telltale marker for dancers when learning when to step
sanfona — accordion, providing the melody
One of the musicians also sings, often plaintively and about some dear woman that doesn’t love him enough.
Essential Vocabulary for the Forró Dance Floor
Since dancing forró involves getting close, the first advice any forrozeiro gets is always about hygiene. Brazilians are famous for showering a lot, and they’re particularly likely (required, really!) to do this before going out for a night of forró. Many even take an extra shirt to change halfway through the night.
bem perfumado / perfumada — literally “well-perfumed,” but this is said of anyone who smells nice or doesn’t stink
tomar banho — to take a shower, to bathe
arrumadinho / arrumadinha — smartly dressed; this is the diminutive of arrumado (tidy, neat, organized)
Smelling good, looking nice and ready to dance? Now you need to snag a partner. Forró scenes are often flagrantly heteronormative, with men expected to ask women to dance, and women lined up along the side of the dance floor waiting to be invited.
But the men and women who get more out of the night are those who are willing to buck these traditions—women who make the decision to ask a man to dance are able to snag the best dancers.
Whatever your gender, the simplest (and best?) way to invite someone is to just hold out your hand in invitation, accompanied by a big smile. But if you want to use your Portuguese, here’s what you could say, going from the most formal to the least formal.
O senhor / a senhora / a senhorita gostaria de dançar? — Would you care for a dance, sir / ma’am? (Note that this extreme level of formality isn’t likely to be used.)
Quer dançar comigo? — Do you want to dance with me?
Vamos dançar! — We’re going to dance! (If said with a hand outstretched and one’s feet and hips already moving, this invitation is hard to resist.)
Bora forrozear? — We’re gonna dance forró? (Bora is short for vamos embora, or let’s go.)
Vamos pra ralar bucho? — Let’s rub our tummies together?
Bora pra ralar coxa? — Let’s rub our thighs together?
The last two phrases sound a bit safado (naughty, mischievous) and shouldn’t be used unless you’re already on flirting terms with someone.
To respond to an invitation, you can just leap into the arms of the person inviting you or use one of the following phrases to accept / decline.
Com prazer. — With pleasure.
Agora não posso. — Right now I can’t.
A próxima sim, dançamos. — The next one, we dance.
Me largue! — Get away from me!
Tenho namorado / namorada. — I have a boyfriend / girlfriend.
This last phrase is more likely to be heard from women who refuse a dance invitation in the Northeast, where the culture dictates that it’s inappropriate to dance forró with anyone else if you’re in a romantic relationship.
This idea is less likely to be held among serious forró dancers, and not as common in the south or outside of Brazil. Nevertheless, it’s important to be aware that this forró-exclusivity concept exists among many nordestinos (people from the Northeast). The same phrase is also used to rebuff romantic overtures, as monogamy is common.
When you want to compliment someone on their dancing, you can use the following phrases, from more formal to least formal.
Você dança bem! — You dance well!
Você dança bonito! — You dance beautifully!
Você dança gostoso! — You dance deliciously / seductively / amazingly.
If you’re a foreigner dancing forró in Brazil with even an low-intermediate level of competence, you’re likely to hear these phrases said to you with a tone of surprise.
A fellow gringo and I were even once singled out from the stage by a singer at a club in Rio that shouted the following taunt between songs:
Têm dois gringos aí que dançam melhor que qualquer um de vocês!
There are two gringos over there who dance better than any of you!
The entire club booed us.
Getting back to the word gostoso, note that it can also be used to describe the lovely person you’re dancing with.
Ele è gostoso. / Ela è gostosa. — He / she is incredibly hot (in the wanting-to-get-into-their-pants sort of way).
gatinho / gatinha — Hunky guy / hot or cute girl (lit. kitty cat)
Olha que novinho / novinha! — Look at that hottie.
Forró is just dancing, it’s definitely not for flirting, blah, blah, blah, but still… it’s not completely unheard of for forró dancers to somehow end up in um beijo (a kiss).
Key Forró Lyrics Every Forrozeiro/a Should Know
There are some words and phrases that come up so often in forró songs, and that are so intrinsically forró, that every forrozeiro should know what they mean, even non-Portuguese speakers. And if you’re looking to really master the language, taking apart the lyrics that you love is a great way to do that.
One of the best songs to understand is “Nosso Xote” (“Our Xote”), by the fabulous Bicho de Pé from São Paulo. Aside from being an incredibly sweet, romantic melody to sway to, it contains a perfect concentration of useful Portuguese vocabulary for the forrozeiro.
Let’s look at some of the most important / tricky words from the song, and how and when we can make use of them (you can access all the lyrics in Portuguese here).
moreno — This is used in the song as a cute form of address, like “darling.” The word could mean a man with dark hair or dark skin, but the amount of darkness required to be considered moreno is really not that much. Essentially, anyone who’s darker than a blond, sunburned-in-15-minutes-gringo type would qualify.
convidou — invited, from the verb convidar (to invite)
beijou meu cabelo — he kissed my hair (from the verb beijar, to kiss)
cangote — We don’t have a word for this lovely body part in English; it’s the side of the neck from just below the ear down to the collarbone. One often kisses or smells it, according to forró lyrics. Also, according to some forró theory I’ve heard, women intentionally expose it or pass a hand over it to release their intoxicating pheromones and leave their partners sem jeito (see below).
se arrepiar — to shiver, quiver (in this case, with excitement)
fiquei sem jeito — I was left nonplussed, embarrassed, startled, so intrigued that I didn’t know what to do
eu forrozei — I danced forró (the infinitive form of the verb is forrozear, to dance forró)
me encantei por seu olhar — I was delighted by his gaze
meu dengo vem me chamegar — my darling, come snuggle up with me (You’ll see the verb also spelled xamegar sometimes. The noun form is chamego and it’s often used in forró to mean intimacy, cuddling, snuggling or a close embrace.)
balancear — to sway, to swing your body; the word can also refer to sideways steps in samba de gafieira
faz meu coração bater ligeiro — it makes my heart quickly beat (The word ligero literally is an adjective meaning “light” in the sense of not weighing a lot. However, in parts of Brazil, such as the North and Northeast, the word has bled over to mean “quickly,” presumably because light things are also frequently quick things.)
assim eu vou me apaixonar — this is how I will fall in love
If you learn the lyrics of this song, you’ll not only be able to sing along in the arms of your sweetheart, you’ll be able to mix and match the words to describe your own forró experiences. For example, let’s just suppose I wanted to brag about dancing with one of the world’s biggest forró stars:
Convidei Janayna pra dançar um xote em Paris. Me arrepiei e o meu coração bateu ligeiro ao sentir os seus dedos no meu cangote. Forrozear com essa estrela me deixou sem jeito.
I invited Janayna to dance a xote in Paris. I trembled and my heart beat quickly when I felt her fingers on the side of my neck. Dancing forró with this star left me dazed.
Forró is often criticized for its lyrical and musical simplicity. However, when you’re learning a language, it’s definitely useful to have slow songs like these with simple, repetitive vocabulary and uncomplicated themes.
Other Forró Recommendations
In that spirit, there are many other great songs from Bicho de Pé worth looking at, as well as Dominguinhos (the artist above from the video of forró styles).
I also recommend checking out the song “Eu So Quero um Xodó” (“I Just Want a Sweetheart”), especially the version by Gilberto Gil, and anything by Luiz Gonzaga and Alceu Valença’s “Tropicana” (“Tropical Woman”).
If you’re ready to move on to more complexity (musically, lyrically and thematically), check out Orquestra do Fubá. One interesting song to tackle is “Boca de Caixa” (depending on interpretations, it could be translated as “head of the line”), which still talks, well, about trying to get your sweetheart to come over, but in the context of a more realistic and touching whirlwind of life.
I hope this has been enough to push you to improve both your forró and your Portuguese. There are other excellent articles in English on forró and its history, but eventually you’ll want to take trips to Brazil, as I often have, for live forró classes in São Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Salvador, Rio and more.
These are links to four of my personal favorite forró schools or teachers in Brazil, but there are many more all over the world, and there just might be a forró group already meeting where you live. Europe has an active festival scene and many dance groups, and North America is starting to catch up.
And even if you never want to dance (what’s wrong with you?), you can improve your Portuguese by just listening to great forró songs on Google Music or other services. Lyrics in Portuguese can generally be found by googling the name of the song plus letra (lyrics).
If you enjoy learning with this music and want to branch out to other authentic Portuguese learning resources, FluentU is here to help.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. It’s an entertaining method to immerse yourself in Portuguese the way native speakers really use it, while actively building your vocabulary.
But really, you’re clever enough to move your body a bit while enjoying Portuguese, right? Forró is a simple dance to learn, so get out there and enjoy it.
Hope to see some of you, soon, on a dance floor somewhere.
Dança gostoso! (Dance amazingly!)
Mose Hayward blogs regularly about the world’s best forró places, forró flirting, forró fashion and more.
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