Preparing to perform in Rio Carnival as a Muse could somewhat be likened to getting ready for your ultimate wedding day.
Hair stylist, nail technician, make up artist, intricate costume, photographers buzzing around…the only difference is that at your wedding you are (hopefully) surrounded by people who love you, but on the Samba avenue, you can pretty much guarantee that the majority of people will hate you.
Not because you’re not a good enough dancer, or not beautiful enough, or your costume isn’t spectacular enough, but simply because most people will just be jealous.
The position of Muse is a role of privilege. You need certain connections, finances and status in order to be considered for it. After all, you are a major highlight of the school’s parade, and need to represent them with ‘charm, beauty, kindness and lots of Samba’ – the pre-requisites of a so-called ‘successful’ Rio Carnival Muse.
The fact that I was a foreigner who spoke Portuguese was a huge drawcard. The fact that I could dance Samba well and was invested in the culture also helped greatly, but essentially, it was the fact that I was able to pay that got me over the line.
It’s the true reality of Rio Carnival these days. If I chose to dwell on the fact that the school was more interested in my money than me, then I could have not spent the entire year preparing my fitness, dance technique and honing my Portuguese skills in order to up level my performance from the last time. I could have simply turned up, put on a costume and walked down the avenue.
But I am a professional. I have dedicated 15 years of my life to this career, and I do very much care what the Brazilian people think of me – a representation of their culture abroad – so I put in the time, energy, hard work and personal savings to prepare myself to the best of my ability, knowing that it probably still wouldn’t matter to the majority of onlookers, but that I could hold my head high knowing I had done my very best.
On the morning of my performance day, after spending the entire night escorting my tour group to perform in the second division of the parade, I had finally arrived home at 7am. By the time I showered, ate and finally calmed down after such a huge night of responsibility, I only had a few hours before I had to start getting ready for the evening. Not a great start to one of the biggest days of my career, but one that was unfortunately out of my control.
As I drifted off into a restless sleep, frightening thoughts about the evening ahead kept popping into my head.
- What if I don’t wake up with my alarm clock and sleep through the entire parade?
- What if I get stuck in terrible traffic and can’t find my school amongst the tens of thousands of people in the marshalling area?
- What if I can’t find my make up artist at the Sambadrome and have to enter the avenue without a face on?
- What if it pours down and completely ruins my feathers, plus causes the avenue to be so slippery that I won’t be able to dance?
Unfortunately for me, the majority of these concerns did actually eventuate, starting with the weather.
It had been a very unusual summer season for Rio, with a late onslaught of heat waves, followed by a series of severe storms that had rendered the city impassable in many areas, one of which was of course the Sambadrome.
Despite my nightly prayers to Iansa, the fierce Brazilian warrior goddess of thunder, lightning and protectress of women, my wishes fell upon deaf ears, and yet another violent storm hit the city at the very time that I was making my way to the avenue.
After being stuck for more than an hour inside my Uber, which had parked right in front of the Sambadrome entrance waiting for the torrents of rain to subside so I could get out and not drench my costume and hair, I finally lost my patience and made a huge run for it, as time was ticking and my make up artist was waiting.
Costume in arms, raincoat on and running towards the gate, I was forcefully stopped by security guards requesting to see my avenue identification. What?
I’m a Muse for Imperio Serrano. Can’t you see by my costume? Does it look like I’m pretending to be someone I’m not, just to get in to watch Carnival? You know the line up and my school is about to go on in less than an hour and I need to get my make up done – let me through!
My hysterical voice and wild eyes might have had some effect at any other time, but apparently these guards were quite used to people pretending to be who they weren’t and hence getting a free ticket into the show.
You don’t understand! I am from Australia and have flown over 24 hours to get here and my school is waiting for me. OPEN THE GATES!
They looked at each other in amusement and suddenly burst out laughing.
Ok Kangaroo Sambista! Calm down! We just had to make sure you were genuine! You never know the extent people will go to these days just to get in to watch the first division of Carnival! Now hop along and don’t break a leg!
Bloody Brazilians and their sense of humour!
I ran like the wind for the make up pavilion, almost knocking a few people out on the way with my enormous bag of feathers, and arrived breathless and dripping wet.
My make up artist looked at me stunned.
What on earth happened?
Don’t even ask! We have 1 hour until I need to be on the avenue, so let’s do this!
With that, she worked her magic and transformed me from drowned rat into glamazon, with half an hour to spare so I could find my school and get into costume without feeling totally frazzled.
As part of a Muse position, we are allowed one assistant to join us on the avenue as our ‘apoio’ (support) to help us get into costume pre-parade, and assist with any issues that may arise throughout the parade. We aren’t supposed to stop at any point (which means no water breaks), but our ‘apoio’ is allowed to assist us with costume malfunctions and generally be our cheer squad for motivation, as well as give us instructions to speed up or slow down so that we keep in time with the rest of the school (and don’t get hit by floats or props!)
With half an hour to go, mine still hadn’t arrived due to a horrendous traffic jam in the outer streets of the Sambadrome., and had now jumped out of his Uber and was making a run for the marshalling area, where we’d try to find each other.
As I hastily made my way through the chaos (think 6 schools of up to 5 thousand participants in each, all trying to find their positions), with my ridiculously heavy back piece under one arm and my boots and headpiece balanced precariously under the other, I scanned the crowd nervously to try to catch sight of him and my school.
I knew which side we had to meet (schools are told in advance whether they needed to marshal on the left or right side of the entrance) but I still hadn’t been informed about which section of the parade I’d be performing in, even though I’d attended all of the street rehearsals in the lead up to tonight.
At each rehearsal, I had arrived early and searched for whoever was in charge on that night, introducing myself (over and over again) and explaining my position. Without fail, every single rehearsal I would just be thrown into any section that had a gap, as no one had any idea of where I was to be placed. It was both infuriating and terrifying, as my main concern was whether or not they’d even remember who I was on the parade night, and if they would have allocated a space for me, despite having already paid for my position in advance.
Welcome to the (dis) organization of a Rio Samba school!
After winding my way through the backstreets for over 15 minutes, and with only 15 minutes to go, I finally recognized the head of the ‘harmonia’ (the time marshals who make sure the parade flows smoothly, everyone is in their correct position and the school moves through the avenue in the allocated time frame) and made a run for him.
Ola! Do you remember me?
Yes of course my Australian Muse! How can I help?
Well, I’m not sure what section of the parade I’m supposed to be in!
He looked at me in disbelief.
Has no one told you?
The look I gave him back meant I didn’t have to say a word.
Oh meu deus! Ok, let me check! But quickly, get into your full costume with your back piece and headpiece on and be ready, so when I discover where to put you, you can jump straight in as the parade begins!
Nothing like cutting it finely!
So there I stood on the street, surrounded by thousands of people, and ripped off my clothes. My assistant was supposed to be there to help me but I still couldn’t find him, and there was no time to be coy as I had to get my costume on in record speed so I didn’t miss my entry! So much for the glamour of being a Muse!
Luckily for me, it seemed a bunch of people were in the same position, having been delayed by traffic, so everyone was stripping off in the middle of the street with not a care in the world. It was Carnival after all!
Fishnet stockings – check!
Bodysuit and neckpiece– check!
Boots and headpiece – check!
Just as I was pulling my enormous back piece out of the costume bag and assembling it, my dear friend Helio, who had helped me with all of my previous Carnival tours, and was tonight going to be my assistant on the avenue, finally arrived, puffing and panting.
I’m here I’m here! Now quickly, let’s get this back piece on you and find out where you are placed in the parade!
Helio! They just told me to wait at the entry point of the avenue, and as soon as my section passes, they’d signal for me to jump in!
Are you kidding me? That is crazy! What if we miss it?
Without warning, I burst into tears.
No no no! Don’t cry! It’s ok! You’re going to be fine! I’ll find the President and ask her myself! Just stay here and don’t ruin your beautiful make up!
He then disappeared into the expansive crowd, leaving me standing alone in my 8 inch heels, struggling under the weight of a 15kg back piece, fearing that I may not even make it out on the avenue tonight.
Suddenly, the sky was alight with a massive strike of lightning and a deafening clap of thunder.
No Iansa no! Take your storm elsewhere! IT WILL NOT RAIN ON MY PARADE!
I looked up into the night sky, pleading with her to delay the storm just a little longer and allow me to dance down the avenue one last time as a Muse.