The Sambadrome is not for the faint-hearted.
The 700 metre long Marques de Sapucai avenue was purpose-built for Carnival in the 1980s. With a capacity of 100,000 spectators, and culminating in the Apotheosis Square, a 90 metre trilegged arch which has become a noted symbol of the Rio Carnival (which many liken to the shape of a Brazilian woman’s bunda!), the avenue is made of solid concrete and is unforgiving on your feet and hips.
After overcoming the initial drama of having to fight off another girl (who happened to be the girlfriend of the parade’s director – see my previous blog for all the details!) for my rightful position in this technical rehearsal, I finally step into Sector 1 (the very first entry point of the avenue) and am immediately blinded by cameras and TV crews.
So much for a low-key rehearsal.
Anyone who is anyone in the Carnival industry is here tonight, watching from the sidelines. All of the other schools’ Muses and Queens, dressed to the nines, greet me with big smiles or polite nods as I parade past them, but are secretly checking out my outfit, my hair, my make up, my body and my Samba skills.
As I zigzag back and forth in 6-inch stiletto heels, parading, posing and performing to each side of the stadium (whilst singing the school’s theme song in Portuguese over and over again and smiling for all of the cameras), I try in vain to conserve my energy for the most important points along the avenue – the judging stations.
To my utter despair, I feel like I’ve run a 10km marathon by the time I reach the halfway point.
Despite training with a personal trainer 3 times a week for 12 months prior to Carnival – squatting, lunging, lifting, planking – not to mention doing daily dance cardio, in gladiator platform boots, on abandoned concrete pathways around Brisbane (in an attempt to replicate the Samba avenue, much to the amusement of onlookers), I made it halfway down the avenue and felt like I was going to die.
I had a severe stitch, I was panting like a dog and my stage make up was starting to run down my neck like an Amazonian river. I wasn’t allowed any water or any breaks.
Oh and I forgot to mention the 40C heat and 100% humidity that sneakily drains your energy, your focus and your sanity.
Must. Keep. Going. Must. Keep. Dancing.
Spectators were shouting to keep on singing and dancing (some locals can be super harsh critics, especially towards Muses as they have a reputation for not doing much but posing on the avenue), despite me having danced like an energiser bunny to the other side of the stadium and back not even 2 minutes prior.
There is no reprieve and no compassion.
The parade is an agonising 55 minutes in duration, and samba schools are penalised if they take too long, or finish too early, so there are time marshals positioned to the sides of each ala (wing/aisle) – basically more people screaming at you to STOP! GO! WAIT! DANCE! SING! SMILE! HURRY UP! SLOW DOWN!
I felt like my heart was going to burst right out of my chest, my legs started to cramp and my feet were going numb.
Come on girl, you can do this. Only half way to go. Show those girls what you’re made of.
I head over to the opposite side of the stadium, belting out the school’s enredo (theme song) whilst dancing like there’s no tomorrow.
I receive blank stares from the crowd. One person even decided to BOO me. Are you serious buddy?
I am Samba-ing my butt off here, singing in perfect Portuguese and doing the correct choreography to match with the school’s lyrics, and you are boo-ing me? What the **** is your problem?
I turn my back on him and head over to the other side, my confidence shattered.
As I approach another group of onlookers, the tears start to well in my eyes.
How can people be so mean? I am trying my very best out here. I have travelled from the opposite side of the globe to participate in this event, which injects no less than 3 Billion Reais annually into the local economy, most of which comes from tourists like me.
Suddenly I feel that familiar fire start to burn in my belly. The one that only ever appears when I feel threatened or infuriated.
FLIGHT OR FIGHT?
I take a moment to make my decision.
Screw them – I am here for me! I dance to express myself, I love Samba and how it makes me feel strong, feminine and powerful. I am proud of myself and how far I have come.
I do not need the approval of others, I already approve of myself!
With that empowering thought, I hold my head high and channel my inner Beyonce as I storm over to another group of onlookers.
As I approach them, I tell myself that no matter how they react to me, I will let their judgement slide off me. I am determined to enjoy this moment that I’ve worked so very hard for.
I strut right up to them, so close that they can see the sweat on my brow and my chest rise and fall as I gasp for air. I start to dance like my life depended on it, and to my absolute surprise, they start to clap. First one, then another, and then everyone joining in, so loud that I can’t even hear the drums for a moment. I feel like I have my own mini cheer squad as they blow me kisses and urge me to keep on dancing, shouting out things like “You look spectacular!” and “Que samba no pe!” (What amazing Samba!)
Thank God for gay men!
To be honest, I don’t really remember what happened next. All I know is that I made it to the end, with the Brazilian woman’s BUNDA firmly in my sight, my head spinning and my muscles burning, and I even managed to do an interview in perfect Portuguese for Brazilian TV, followed by an impromptu freestyling to the samba school’s bateria who had congregated around the finishing area.
How I made it home, how I got out of my dress and into bed is still a mystery.
It’s incredible what the body is capable of.
I woke up the next morning and couldn’t move. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck.
I dragged my aching body out of bed and into the shower, then shuffled down to breakfast like a little old lady.
The hotel manager looked alarmed.
Tudo bem senhorita? Is everything ok Miss?
Oh yes, I just paraded last night.
Ah Sim! He looked at me knowingly.
Welcome to Carnival!
Have you read the other blogs in this series?