The tall, young Brazilian waiter with a wide grin handed us a plate of cactus fruit and said “You have to be part of the street parade, it’s on this afternoon,” and so began our introduction to the “world’s biggest party”.
We had come to Rio de Janeiro for the Carnival, it was late February and the intense heat had a languorous effect on everyone. Slowly making our way to Leblon, an extension of the famous beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema, we found that the samba beat worked like a magnet; there were no barricades to separate the public from the parade and so we joined in the throng. Pressed tightly against hot, sweaty bodies we moved with the crowd in what became a wave of humanity, unable to move forwards or backwards we had no choice but to go where the mass took us. It was late afternoon and the sun was setting. The scent of freshly squeezed limes, coconuts and suntan oil mixed with perfume and perspiration was overpowering and I began to wonder what had possessed us, when suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of the procession.
Face to face with dozens of drag queens in Carmen Miranda costumes, platform heels, frothy tulle dresses, feathers and elaborate head-dresses, we became part of a street opera. Minnie Mouse, with a polka dot dress, white gloves and a huge bow in her hair, was inviting everyone to samba and others wearing silver glitter body paint, sunglasses and little else encouraged her along. The crowd loved it, yet this was only a taste of what was to come.
Rio de Janeiro’s carnival has been billed as “The Greatest Show on Earth” and around two million people dance to the rhythm of samba for almost a week. This takes place during the days preceding Ash Wednesday and we found the city in party mode. There are numerous street parades in local neighbourhoods, masked balls and both street and private celebrations. The Cariocas (local Rio residents) love to party and it is impossible to go anywhere in the city during this time and not hear the beat of the bossa nova or samba coming from bars, restaurants and private apartments.
Towards the end of the week the grand carnival procession takes place over two nights in the 60,000 seat Sambodrome – which is a 700 metre long parade strip flanked by concrete spectator stands and boxes. There is fierce competition amongst the fourteen samba schools who all vie for the title of Grand Champion. Over 70,000 people take part over the two nights in which seven samba schools perform each night. Our tickets were for the second night and arriving at our places in the centre stand, the bright lights and energy from the crowd initially took our breath away. When the parade began at 9pm, the multitude around us broke into song, chanting the school’s theme song along with the participants.
A samba school is not a teaching institution but rather a group of people from a ‘favela’ or poor neighbourhood who get together for samba nights and rehearse for a year, also providing year round jobs to the community making costumes and floats. There are social welfare programs as well as workshops, educational activities and professional courses. This helps to create better living conditions for youngsters in the community as well as for handicapped people of all ages.
We found ourselves in the midst of a group of supporters for Mangueira, which had won the title previously and was obviously one of the more popular schools. All around us people were waving flags in the school’s colours of pink and green. The moment the group stepped onto the parade ground there was a loud roar from the crowd who broke into their theme song. Soon we were standing up and dancing the samba with the rest of them, cheering, clapping and gasping in awe at the sheer size of the floats that dwarfed the human beings alongside.
Each school chooses a Samba Queen who is not only beautiful but an accomplished samba dancer as well. Wearing a jewelled costume consisting of a tiny bikini, lots of feathers, an intricate headress and impossibly high heels, she sambas her way down the parade ground, gyrating and twirling in front of the judges and leading the 300 drummers who are judged on their precision and enthusiasm.
The schools, with multi coloured costumed dancers, are allowed 80 minutes to dance, bounce and sway through the stadium. There are anything from 3,000 to 5,000 members and from six to eight floats making up each samba school and they portray the many aspects of Brazilian life in a lavish style of street theatre with dazzling costumes, massive floats and dramatic sets.
By 5am the next morning, with three more schools to parade and realising the show would go on until well past sunrise, we decided to call it a day. Flushed with the entire spectacle of the evening, my thoughts were that if there is one thing you should do before you die, it is to go to the Carnival in Rio.