As I strolled along the old Portuguese cobblestoned sidewalks of Rio’s most famous beach, I couldn’t get the iconic song by singer Barry Manilow out of my head.

“At the Copa, Copacabana…the hottest spot north of Havana…”

I hummed softly to myself as I took in the surrounding beauty of this magical city.

It was a glorious afternoon with the sun about to set, and I had to pinch myself that I was actually living here and finally pursuing my dream of being a dancer!

I headed down to the ocean for a quick afternoon dip in the shimmering waters.

World famous Copacabana Beach

So this is what it feels like to be blissfully happy?!

In recent months, my dance confidence had grown and my relationship woes had finally settled down. All of the previous dramas with other women and my own insecurities had subsided, and as my language skills improved, my Carioca boyfriend and I began to understand each other a little more and enjoy each other’s company without the stresses of miscommunication and cultural differences.

As I made my way along the beachfront and back to my little studio apartment in the heart of Copacabana, I smiled as I reflected on the evening before, where we had spent the night in the Zona Norte (Rio’s suburban north zone) watching my all-time favourite Pagode band, Revelacao, play to a packed audience.

I had danced until my feet ached and had sung my heart out (to the few songs I had memorized!), and had gone to sleep with such a feeling of contentment and also excitement for the day ahead.

Typical Pagode Night in Rio

Today was my day off and I’d made the most of it by organizing a private lesson with a top passista from Mangueira.

Estacao Primeira de Mangueira is one of Rio’s oldest and most prestigious Samba schools, situated at the base of one of the city’s most notorious slums (with over 20,000 residents).

To get there, I had to catch the metro, a bus and then a train, and follow what little I had understood of the directions the passista had given me over the noisy payphone.

Once you exit the train, walk all the way down the street until you reach the viaduct, go past the Samba school, then turn right at Dona Maria’s botequim, left at the lavandaria and then walk up the hill until you get to the top where you’ll see Senhor Lima’s restaurant. I’ll meet you there at midday.

Mangueira Samba school

Right. No street names, no house numbers….this was going to be an interesting adventure!

After 90 minutes of commuting, I exited the train and was hit with a sweltering heat that only the suburbs of Rio, landlocked and devoid of greenery, are capable of producing in the height of summer. Perspiration dripped down my brow and soaked my dress, but I shivered with goose bumps at the sudden change in temperature from the arctic train ride.

As I made my way along the dusty road to the viaduct, I sensed that I was being watched. A LOT. Perhaps it was the bleach blonde hair? Or my 5 foot 10 frame? Or possibly because I totally looked like a fish out of water, a real gringa trying to find her way in this very foreign land.

Mangueira Favela

Posso te ajudar? (Can I help you?)

A lovely elderly lady, with skin parched from the unforgiving sun and hands gnarled from a life of picking fruit and veggies, looked up at me as I passed her market stall.

You’re not from around here, are you?

No senhora, I’m from Australia.

She squinted at me and thought for a moment.

Oh! Oh! CANGURU! CANGURU!

She excitedly mimicked a Kangaroo jumping up and down and laughed uncontrollably as she pointed at me and yelled “Australiana!” over and over again for everyone within earshot to hear.

And there you have it – the best way to break the ice overseas as an Aussie!

A typical resident at her market stall

I then explained that I was here to have a Samba lesson and you’d think I had told her she had won the lotto! At the top of her lungs she shouted with glee:

Gente! Ela quer samba! (Everyone, she wants to Samba!)

Almost instantly I was surrounded by a bunch of kids and teens who started to play music on anything they could get their hands on – old tins filled with rice, pots and wooden spoons – you name it, they used it to replicate the sounds of Samba instruments.

My new friend grabbed me by the arm and shoved me into the middle of the roda (Samba circle).

Now if I wasn’t already nervous dancing in front of people, imagine how I felt right now in the middle of a market place, in front of everyone, at the base of a slum that housed one of Rio’s most famous Samba schools?

No pressure at all really!

Inside Mangueira Samba school

Luckily, a bunch of older ladies from the surrounding stalls all jumped up, relieved to be having a break from their monotonous day, and joined me.

Now not being the centre of everyone’s attention, I could finally relax, and for the first time I began to understand the cultural significance of Samba – this was a dance of hope, of freedom, of self-expression and of community.

We shuffled our feet, swayed our hips and threw our arms into the air as we danced to the beat of the makeshift band. We danced around each other, weaved in and out of the roda and clapped and cheered as each one gathered up the confidence to enter the middle of the circle for their solo.

I was having such a great time that I totally lost track of the actual time, and realised that it was now well past midday and my teacher would be waiting for me.

Dripping in sweat but my heart bursting with joy, I hugged my new friend and blew goodbye kisses to my dance companions, hastily making my way up and into the heart of Mangueira slum without even paying attention to where I was going.

Luckily, my passista teacher had gotten wind that there was a crazy gringa dancing in front of the entrance to the slum and had started down the hill to find me!

As we met, she gave me a knowing smile.

Now do you understand querida?

Samba comes from the soul, and Mangueira is where our hearts reside! It’s the dance of our people, of our nation, and is what we truly live for!

Welcome to my world – now VAMOS SAMBAR! (Let’s dance!)

Mangueira at Rio Carnival