It was 9pm on a Monday night and suddenly I heard the sounds of gunfire. My instincts immediately took over and without even thinking twice, I started to sprint.

Here I was – a tall, 21-year-old, non-Portuguese speaking gringa – trying to navigate one of Rio’s roughest streets, after dark, on my own.

How had I ended up all alone in the outer suburbs of Rio?

Well, I had accidentally exited at the wrong metro station on my way to the opening party of the Samba Congress I had fought so hard to attend.

My Brazilian boyfriend, in our recent argument that had caused us to finally break up, had told me that this area was extremely unsafe, and that the streets were deserted in the evenings due to the gun violence from drug trafficking in the nearby slums.

Of course I didn’t pay any attention as I thought all he wanted was to dissuade me from going to my very first dance event in the city of Samba.

I only started to sense something was wrong when I looked around and realised that there was no one else around me on the street. Not a single soul. No noise, no movement, nothing. With my heart rate rising, I started walking quickly in the direction I had scribbled on my notepad (these were the days of no smart phones, internet or Google Maps!)

As I picked up my pace, I searched for recognizable landmarks – anything that would ensure me a safe harbour. There was nothing. Shop fronts were boarded shut, traffic lights flashed orange (this is common in Rio after dark so you don’t put yourself at risk of car hijacking) and the only other creatures on the street were stray cats and dogs.

I heard more bursts of noise and could hardly contain my fear.

What do I do? Where do I go? I don’t want to die on a lonely street in Rio. What was I thinking? I was so set on attending this party that I had completely disregarded my own safety. What would my parents think if they found out I’d been shot by Brazilian drug lords? Would they even know or would the perpetrators hold me to ransom because they thought I had money from overseas?

My head swirled with all the possible scenarios of my impending death and my knees started to buckle beneath me.

Suddenly, the sky turned a bright red and luminescent white, and the sounds got louder and louder, almost bursting my ear drums.

Just as I was about to give in to my panic and curl up in a heap in the dirty gutter, I gathered up enough courage to round the corner and was met with the most magnificent fireworks lighting up the night sky.

I almost fainted with the relief, and turned around to see an enormous crowd sweeping towards me, waving mini red and white flags and chanting what sounded like a anthem. What on earth is going on?

SALGUEIRO! SALGUEIRO! SALGUEIRO!

What the hell is Salgueiro???

As the crowd grew closer, I could make out the shapes of instruments in an emblem on everyone’s T-shirts. Was this a Rio soccer team? Or perhaps a local street band?

The crowd swept past me and I suddenly caught a glimpse of red high heels, flashing sequinned dresses and lots of hair!

OMG! The passistas! It’s a Samba school! Salgueiro is a Samba school!

My heart almost burst with excitement as I realised that what I thought was the sound of gunfire was actually fireworks to signal the start of the samba school’s weekly street rehearsal….and I was smack bang in the middle of it!

Even though I didn’t know how to Samba (and was still lost and trying to find the Samba congress venue!), I just remember moving my hips, shuffling my feet and attempting to copy the footwork of the passistas (I’m sure I looked absolutely ridiculous) but I had the most amazing feeling that night – like I had finally found my ‘tribe’!

The energy of the crowd, the pulsating rhythm of the drums, the glamour and beauty of the dancers – I just knew that I wanted to be a part of it all, no matter what it took. I had honestly never felt so alive!

Luckily for me, there was a lovely older gentleman in the crowd who spoke a little English and offered to escort me to the congress venue, which wasn’t too far away. I asked him about Salgueiro, and he said he’d been going to the rehearsals every week since his childhood – for over 50 years! I couldn’t believe that someone could be so in love with a hobby. He corrected me and said,

“No querida, Samba is not a hobby but rather a religion.

The best moments of my life have involved Samba – I met my wife here in the community, our children have grown up dancing at the quadra, my friends come here every week to share a beer, discuss our lives and listen to the bateria play. Carnival is the highlight of our year – we join together as a community to make costumes, rehearse dance steps and show the rest of Rio our passion for Samba. Samba has helped me through my darkest days too. When I’m feeling down, all I have to do is listen to Samba or come to Salgueiro to lift my spirits!”

As we walked and chatted, I asked him if I could possibly take a look inside the quadra (headquarters).

Of course! Everyone is welcome! Come on in!

Entering the headquarters of one of Rio’s largest (and most prosperous) Samba schools was like walking into a Samba Wonderland.

Everywhere you looked, people of all ages, from little children to elderly grandparents, were dancing and singing their hearts out. The school’s bateria (drum squad), known as Furiosa (Furious!) was elevated on a platform above the dance floor. This was one serious undertaking!

As the street rehearsal ended, thousands of people streamed into the quadra and the energy skyrocketed as everyone joined in chanting the school’s enredo (theme song). Unexpectedly, tears started to fall as I was swept up in the emotion of it all.

My new friend looked at me knowingly.

“You know, there’s an old Brazilian saying that says, ‘Quem nao gosta de samba, bom sujeito nao e, e ruim da cabeca, ou doente do pe.’

It literally translates to: ‘He who doesn’t like Samba isn’t of very good character – he’s either got something wrong with his head, or a disease in his feet!’”

I was starting to think that maybe this old guy was onto something. I didn’t know back then the effect that Samba would have on my life, but I definitely knew that night that my heart had started to beat to the rhythm of the drums.