After spending a few unexpected days in bed recovering my battered body from the aches and pains of the technical rehearsal, I had to reluctantly admit that I was not as prepared as I thought I was to face the arduous 55 minutes of parading down the 700-metre Sambadrome.
I only had 2 weeks until my debut on the Marques de Sapucai (Rio’s famous Samba avenue) as the first Australian Muse in the history of Rio Carnival, and the very first International Muse for Rio’s oldest Samba school, Estacio de Sa.
I was starting to feel the reality of the enormous pressure I had placed upon myself. I have always been ambitious and a high-achiever, but this was taking it to the next level.
Getting here was the culmination of a dream that had taken 15 years to come to fruition, and that involved a lot of blood (Samba costumes can be ridiculously uncomfortable and at times dangerous!), sweat (dancing in 40C heat with 100% humidity on solid concrete is not as glamorous as it looks) and tears (people gossiping about you and screaming at you as you perform is definitely not for the fainthearted).
Despite a grueling training regime for 12 months leading up to my arrival in Rio, my recent experience at the technical rehearsal made me incredibly anxious about the upcoming parade.
I had danced my heart out in my 6-inch glitter heels and had almost died of exhaustion at the halfway mark. I had also only been wearing a dress. No 15-kilo back piece. No 5-kilo headdress. No 8-inch gladiator boots.
To say that I was a little nervous was an understatement.
I was so determined not to collapse halfway along the avenue in a big pile of feathers that I video-called my personal trainer back in Australia and showed her the (minimal) equipment I had available in my hotel’s gym. Together we devised a twice-daily strength plan, plus I incorporated aqua aerobics exercises in the hotel’s lap pool and nightly Samba cardio sessions at local music clubs and whatever samba school events were happening around town. Add to this daily Yoga sessions for flexibility and sauna sessions for recovery and I was totally spent (not to mention practicing daily in my back piece!). I increased my carbohydrates and protein, and cut out all sugar, alcohol and fats.
I was an emotional mess.
Over the past decade, the image of a Rio Samba Queen has morphed from a toned, fit, curvaceous woman into a body-building warrior. These women spend their entire year pumping iron, meticulously following meal plans and rehearsing for hours at their Samba schools in the oppressing heat and tropical thunderstorms of Rio’s spring/summer.
To say that I was at a disadvantage was an understatement.
How could I compete with these machines?
Each time I went to a Samba school rehearsal, it seemed that their boobs, butts and legs were getting bigger, along with their enormous (fake) hair. Their nails kept getting longer, their dresses shorter and their tans even darker (not to mention the obligatory bikini tan marks that in Australia are super daggy but are the height of sexiness in Rio!)
These women seemed like they were from another planet.
Although I was feeling fit and confident with my body and my Samba when I arrived, it wasn’t long until I was comparing myself to every single girl in the room. I had always been taught that natural beauty was key, but it felt like the total opposite here.
My anxiety only skyrocketed when the President of my Samba school made an off the cuff remark at the final rehearsal before Carnival about my ‘non-existent’ booty and my ‘white skin’ (despite having spent hours each day working on my ‘Carnival tan’ and in the gym building a booty that I was proud of!)
I felt like I was in the middle of the Miss Samba Universe Competition. Add to that the fact that the entire school was watching my every move – making sure I knew all of the words of their theme song in Portuguese and was singing it non-stop, that I knew all of the bateria’s drum breaks and could bust out into super fast Samba at any point without breaking a sweat, and could confidently engage with the crowd (despite being met by scowls) – it would have to have been one of the most stressful times of my life.
In that moment I lost my joy for dance.
I was so overwhelmed with the industry’s set beauty standards, the ridiculously talented local girls dancing up a storm, and all of the shade being thrown my way from the community that I just couldn’t take it anymore.
As it was the final rehearsal before Carnival, everyone was dressed to the nines, including the Passistas (professional dancers) in their sparkly dresses and amazing Samba heels. These girls are renowned for their dance talent but also notorious for their competitiveness.
As they strutted past me and into the middle of the quadra (the Samba school’s headquarters), one of them flicked her hair extensions my way, trying to throw me off guard. Others whispered words under their breath, which I fortunately couldn’t understand due to the immense noise of the drumming, and others even danced right up in front of me with the most bitchy expressions, daring me to respond to their unprovoked threats.
I was completely rattled.
At that moment, my schools’ Queen and Head Muse invited me to the stage in a formal attempt to present me to the entire community. I could hardly breathe let alone dance.
They literally had to drag me on to the stage. I felt like a robot as I went through the motions, completely disconnected from the music and the moment.
All I could think of was what a failure I was. How I would never be good enough in their eyes.
Practicing my best stage smile, I finished my awkward presentation and bowed to the audience, hastily taking my leave without even bothering to say goodbye to anyone. You could not get me out of that place fast enough.
Out on the back streets of Rio in the middle of the night, the tears started to pour as I tried to hail a cab.
What am I doing here? Why did I waste all of my hard earned money investing in something that I thought would bring me joy, but instead is continuing to bring me despair?
Just as I was about to jump into a cab, I felt an arm on my shoulder. I turned around sharply, thinking it might be someone asking for money. To my surprise, it was the Samba school’s official photographer and his beautiful Passista girlfriend.
Oh here we go – another drama about to unfold. She probably thinks I was flirting with her (much older) boyfriend while he was taking my photo inside earlier.
I stand up straight, shoulders back and head held high, preparing for battle.
Can I help you? I hold their gaze firmly, trying to deflect the fact that my voice is wavering and my eyes are red from crying.
Ola Musa! We just wanted to say that it was so wonderful to see someone in the quadra tonight with such natural beauty! It’s very hard to find these days in this Samba world, and it was an honour to watch you dance with such femininity and grace.
I couldn’t help myself. I burst into tears and hugged the both of them to within an inch of their lives.
Thank you thank you thank you! You don’t realize how much this means to me! I knew there would be people out there who appreciated natural beauty and good old-fashioned hard work! Just as I was losing all faith in Brazilians, you two come along and make my night!
They look at me utterly confused.
I then realize that in all of the evening’s stress, I have suddenly forgotten how to speak Portuguese (despite having spoken it fluently for the past 10 years!). No matter how hard I try, I cannot get the words out. So I revert to the universal language of hand signals and give them both a HIGH FIVE!
With huge smiles, they return my gesture and even offer to pay for my cab ride home.
My faith in humans restored, I now turn my attention to my next daunting task…..dealing with the Samba school’s atelier to ensure my Carnival Muse costume arrives in time….
- How to Survive the Sambadrome?