So how much does it really cost to be a Muse?
It’s a hot topic circling around at the moment, and one that is rife with rumours and gossip. I am happy to explain my experience so you can understand why it’s been an important choice for the progression of my career.
The job of a Muse in a Samba school is to essentially bring graca (grace), beleza (beauty), charme (charm) and simpatia (sweetness) to the avenue, and preferably with muito samba no pe (lots of Samba ability). As she is often placed in front of a float or given an entire aisle to herself when the school would otherwise fill these spaces with hundreds of other (paying) performers, it is a prerequisite for a Muse to pay for her position (i.e. the space she takes up on the avenue).
Both Brazilian and foreign dancers must pay to be a Muse. The majority of Brazilian Muses are TV actresses, fitness models and famous singers who no doubt enjoy Carnival but also understand the power of exposure they will receive by having the spotlight entirely on them for a section of the parade.
The price a Muse pays for her position depends entirely on the Samba school she is affiliated with. Schools in lower divisions charge less, and those in the top division demand a much higher price as there are much more media opportunities and credibility linked to these schools.
The first time I was a Muse, it was for Estacio de Sa in 2017, which was in the second division but had an element of respect and history as it is Rio’s original Samba school. The second time was this year with Imperio Serrano, which was in the first division and has a 72-year reputation as one of Rio’s most traditional schools.
The reason I decided to spend my life’s savings on being a Muse was simple. I had already performed 6 x times in Rio Carnival, both on the ground in a general aisle (as a Roman Gladiator and an underwater sea creature!) and then in various positions on floats – a few times as a Destaque (highlight) and other times with my students as a group.
Each time the parade ended, I was overcome by an immense sadness that I had travelled to the opposite side of the world, taken part in the biggest Samba festival on earth, and couldn’t Samba my heart out as I was restricted to a small space on the float and/or the ground.
As a full time Samba dancer and instructor, this was just so dissatisfying for me. I wanted the challenge of training my body and mind so that I could experience the thrill and adrenaline of pushing myself to the limit in what is essentially the Olympics of the Samba world, and be in a position on the avenue where I could showcase my dance ability with visibility.
Also, having worked in the industry for over 10 years, I was finding it hard to motivate myself to train and take my dance to the next level. The prospect of being a Muse both terrified and exhilarated me, as I knew that I would have nowhere to hide if I didn’t show up and do the hard work in the lead up to Carnival.
The reason why I preferred to go for the position of Muse and not Passista (a group of professional Samba dancers in the parade) was simple. A passista is generally from the community (slum) and lives and breathes Samba. She grows up watching her mother and aunties dancing, learning via osmosis and total cultural immersion. She often spends her weekends at her Samba school’s events and her weeknights rehearsing till the early hours of the morning, all for the pure joy of dance.
Passistas are spectacular dancers. They are fierce and warrior-like. They are competitive, yet community focused. Samba is their world.
Whilst Samba is also my world, our worlds’ are very different.
I don’t have to live in a developing country and protect myself on a daily basis from racism, sexual harassment and violence. I don’t have to struggle to feed myself, pay my rent and support my family. I don’t have to offer my body in exchange for financial support or material possessions. Thank God.
I’m not saying that all Brazilian passistas have lives like this, but from my experience in Rio, many do. I’m also not saying that you need to be Brazilian to be a passista. In fact there are more and more international dancers each year who are arriving in Rio prior to Carnival and training as passistas.
I personally prefer to be a Muse because it means that I can showcase my own individual style of Samba, which is feminine, graceful and elegant. As a passista, the focus is on the group, and their Samba is much more raw, sassy and powerful.
Hence why I decided to be a Muse.
But in my case, as a foreigner and someone who works with Samba, I felt that I had much more to prove than a Brazilian Muse – not only to my Samba school, the wider Carnival community and the international dance scene – but above all, to myself.
I didn’t want to disrespect the art of Samba, the history of Carnival or the Brazilian culture by simply paying for a position, buying a costume and showing up on the night. I also wanted to give my absolute best effort, as it was a reflection of my work ethics and my reputation as a professional dancer.
In order to pay due respect to the position and give myself the best chance to fully prepare, I arrived in Rio months earlier to attend rehearsals, take part in photoshoots and important media events for the school, and train with my Brazilian PT to acclimatise to the searing heat of Rio’s summer, using high intensity fitness techniques designed to achieve the endurance needed for the Samba avenue.
Arriving earlier not only costs a fortune due to the time of year (everything around Carnival time is 3 x the usual price), but greatly hinders my earning capacity back home. Trying to find a balance between keeping up to date with current trends by being on the ground in Brazil, and not being away too long that I lose students or business momentum is always a challenge.
I have been coming to Rio for 16 years now and running my Samba business for 11 of those. Nowadays I am fluent in Brazilian Portuguese, but when I first arrived in 2003, all I could say was ‘Ola!’. I have lived in Rio three times for up to a year each time, was married to a Carioca (Rio local) for many years and ran a Brazilian dance academy in Australia with him, and have dedicated a big part of my life to Samba and positively promoting the Brazilian culture around the world.
So you can imagine my reaction when, whilst I was training in Rio but hadn’t yet officially announced my position, it was brought to my attention that there were some videos posted online from other dancers claiming that all you needed to do to be a Muse is pay, and my position was used as an example.
Moreover, there are Muses and Muses.
I will not disagree that there are definitely women out there who only care about the glamour of the position. All they want is to arrive on the night, put on a pretty (and very expensive costume, which is an enormous added cost by the way!) and walk (not even Samba) down the avenue with the world’s attention on them.
In my case, I trained like a passista in preparation to be the best Muse I could.
Just to give you a glimpse into my training preparation, I’ll summarize what my days looked like in the 12 months prior to performing in Carnival:
Monday – Friday: 1-2 hours of Samba cardio sessions + technique training (often with ankle weights), 45-60 minute weight sessions, 1.5 hour Yoga/Pilates sessions per day
Saturday/Sunday: 1 hour Beach walks, 1 hour stretching and 1-3 hours Salsa/Samba social dancing for cardio
High protein, low fat, low sugar, limited alcohol. Natural supplements to support muscle building, recovery and sleep.
I would see my Performance coach monthly to learn how to clearly visualise my goals, work through any obstacles or confidence issues and release old habits and fears.
I would also, in some shape or form, make sure I had daily contact with Portuguese. Whether it was listening to music, reading the local news, calling a Brazilian friend or watching a documentary, I would always make a concerted effort to stay in touch with the culture behind Samba.
Then once I arrived in Rio, this routine was amplified to ensure that I was fully prepared for the unexpected and inevitable challenges that come with performing in one of the world’s greatest open air spectacles.
So would you say that all I did was pay for my position???