Being a Muse in the world’s most spectacular parade, broadcast to over 500 million viewers globally, comes with just a little bit of responsibility.
Not only did I spend countless hours in the gym for a year in preparation for the physical stamina needed to endure the parade, and in the studio perfecting my dance technique, I also invested in a professional performance coach to get my mindset on track to deal with the psychological challenges that I knew lay ahead of me.
These sessions involved mainly visualization – imagining what it would be like to be one of the main dancers on the Samba avenue, the dream I had carried in my heart for the past 15 years, and learning techniques to deal with the consequential anxiety, fear and potential events that could unfold and that were out of my control.
In the lead up to Carnival 2017, I arrived in Rio a few months prior in order to acclimatize myself to the tropical heat – the term Rio 40 Graus (40 Degrees) is definitely not an understatement – and soak up all of the pre-carnival fever that hits the streets and the samba schools in the lead up to the greatest parade on earth.
Carnival is a pre-Lenten celebration held in February/March each year. The initial escolas de samba (Samba schools) were formed in the slums of Rio in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that a semi-organized parade took place through the streets, which eventually led to the construction of the Sambodromo in 1984, a purpose-built stadium which can seat up to 100,000 people.
Each year, Samba schools choose a theme for their parade. There is fierce competition between Compositores to write a Samba-enredo (theme song) to be selected as the main song representing the school, as the prize money is lucrative and the elevated status within the Samba industry is even more so.
Each school has at least one Carnavalesco, an Artistic Director who selects the theme for the parade, which will serve as inspiration and guidance for the Samba-enredo. The theme must be followed in minute detail, not only for the song selection, but also for all of the costume and float designs. This is a full-time job, all year round and, once Carnival is over these incredible artists take a short break and then begin designing again for the following year.
Schools consist of hundreds of percussionists known collectively as the Bateria, Passistas (Samba dancers), Commisao da Frente (a group of male/female dancers often contemporary/ballet trained who perform choreographed routines), a ‘Mestre Sala’ and ‘Porta Bandeira’ (male and female flag bearer), a Rainha da Bateria (Queen of the drums), Musas in front of floats and Destaques on top of each float (most often celebrities in magnificent costumes), as well as Alas (sections/wings) consisting of 1000+ members wearing matching costumes, Baianas (whirling ladies that represent the African roots of Samba from Bahia) and finally the Velha Guarda, elderly dancers/performers/percussionists of the school that protect its history and culture.
In Rio there are 13 schools in Division 1 Grupo Especial, 7 of which parade on Carnival Sunday and the other 6 on Monday, and 13 schools in Division 2 Grupo Acesso, 6 of which parade on Friday and the other 7 on Saturday night, so in total, the Desfile (parade) goes for 4 nights. On the final Tuesday night, the Children’s Mirim Carnival takes place, and on the following Saturday is the Desfile dos Campeoes, (champions parade), where the top 5 schools from the first division and the winner of the second division parade again to celebrate their victories.
Each school only has 55 minutes from start to finish to pass through the Sambodromo (sometimes with up to 5000+ members!), located on the Marques de Sapucai Avenue, which is referred to by Cariocas (Rio locals) simply as Sapucai.
A panel of judges decides the overall champion for Division 1 and Division 2, following criteria such as costumes, theme song, participation, float design, musicality, timing and choreography. These judges sit in box seats at various points along the Samba avenue, and points are deducted if school members don’t sing their theme song throughout the entire parade, if costumes don’t match, if the drumming isn’t in sync, if the school parades for longer than the allocated time, and so on. Some critics might even suggest that the winners are decided even before the parade begins….
The prize money is enormous for Division 1 – approximately $15 million Brazilian Reais, and $5 million for Division 2, so despite the fanfare, this is a serious competition! The results are announced on Ash Wednesday quarta-feira de cinzas, and many school members congregate at their respective headquarters, whilst the school leaders attend the public announcement of the results at the Sambadrome.
Some of Rio’s most famous Samba schools include Estacio de Sa (the very first), Mangueira, Beija Flor, Portela and Salgueiro.
Every weekend, all year round, these Samba schools have an ensaio (rehearsal night) in preparation for Carnival, with drumming, shows, singing and dancing, and these are open to the general public. They also often have feijoadas in the lead up to Carnival (lunch gatherings offering Brazil’s most famous dish of beans, meat and rice) with live Samba, in order to fill the coffers to pay for the parade.
Rehearsals are generally held inside the quadra (samba school headquarters) during the year, but as Carnival gets closer, school members take to their local streets to improve their fitness and stamina for the avenue. These are known as an ‘ensaio de rua’ (street rehearsal).
So here I find myself, hair and make up perfectly done, wearing one of a selection of custom-designed couture dresses from the school’s atelier (which cost me a small fortune and are mandatory for Musas – you simply cannot wear the same dress to each rehearsal!) and my 6-inch Samba heels strapped on for dear life as I gather with the entire local community, ready to rehearse.
I hear a distant rumble and can’t quite work out if it’s the sound of the bateria warming up, fireworks signaling the start of the rehearsal, or a tropical summer storm making its way towards us.
All eyes are on me.
The school’s Presidente. His wife. The Carnavalesco. The Mestre de bateria (Leader of the Drums), the Queen and the entire samba school community.
Despite the rumblings from above, I catch whispers from the locals:
Quem e? (Who is she?)
Nossa Musa? (Our Muse?)
Nao acredito! (I don’t believe it!)
Kanguru! (Kangaroo i.e. Aussie)
Claro que nao sabe sambar! (Of course she won’t know how to samba)
Prostituta (you can work out for yourself what that one means)
Thank God for therapy.
I draw on my 15 years of stage experience to put on the biggest performance smile I can manage, take a deep breath and strut out onto the pot-holed street as an electrifying bolt of lightning splices through the skies. Within minutes I am drenched from head to toe, my painstakingly prepared curls now plastered to my face and my mascara turning me into an Aussie panda. But that didn’t stop me one bit.
I Samba-ed that day like my life depended on it. And in a Rio samba school, it quite literally did.
After parading through the streets for what seemed like an eternity, (but was in fact only an hour), my feet covered in blisters, water rushing down my legs like a river and my so-called couture dress all but falling apart, I am feeling triumphant!
I DID IT!
I SURVIVED A RIO SAMBA SCHOOL!!!
Special mention to Karla Lopez from The Samba Shop for your input and expertise <3
Have you read the other blogs in this series?