Carnival gives Rio de Janeiro its party reputation. Yet this carefree week of extravagant floats and skintight leotards stems from a year’s worth of effort behind the scenes — work that’s done by dozens of groups whose membership is based on who you know and whose followers are as fiercely loyal as supporters of a sports team.
“Throughout the year, we don’t stop,” says Alex Coutinho. He’s a choreographer of the samba dancers at Paraíso do Tuiuti samba school. Rio has more than 100 samba schools — more like entertainment companies that do social projects than schools — yet all eyes are on the top 14 (known as the Special Group). When Carnival arrives, they each have just 75 minutes to parade in front of 40 judges in the outdoor show area known as the Sambadrome. Whoever does it best is crowned the winner of Carnival.
In the months leading up to the big show, locals and tourists can get a taste of what’s to come. Rehearsals for the Special Groups typically happen on weekends, and they’re open to the public. These practices turn into big parties, where the performance accompanies a night of drinking, dancing and socializing. On a recent Friday night when I visited Paraíso do Tuiuti, musicians on a large stage filled the air with samba, with an ample dance floor full of fans and intrigued tourists dancing below. Above, drapes of blue and yellow — the school’s colors — covered the ceiling.
Samba schools are like football teams in Rio; everyone has one and everyone wants their school to win.
Andre Gonçalves, the current Director of Carnival
The top samba schools, such as Mangueiro, Paraíso do Tuiuti and Salgueiro, have thousands of people involved in the preparations, from the dancers and directors to the costume designers and float engineers. “Samba schools are like football teams in Rio; everyone has one and everyone wants their school to win,” says Andre Gonçalves, Paraíso do Tuiuti’s director who oversees the operations there. “It’s a huge responsibility. We have to put on an incredible performance,” he adds.
The “school year” begins right after Carnival ends. Over the next few weeks, members dismantle floats, recycle costumes and plan the next year’s theme, which influences everything from outfit designs to music lyrics to dance choreography. Costume and float production begins in June — and everything for all of the schools is created in the City of Samba, a huge workshop in downtown Rio’s downtown. Parade rehearsals begin in July, and the workload intensifies from there. “From December until the official Carnival, I sleep about four hours a night,” reveals Coutinho.
If samba school sounds like your kind of thing, you’ll first need an “in” — it’s a tight-knit community. Forget about being a Carnival Queen unless you’re a celebrity, famous samba dancer or somehow scouted for your samba skills — or unless you pay for the privilege (you still need to be a great dancer and good-looking). Better to pitch in with your technical skills or labor. There are no fees to join a samba school, which is considered an organization and is partially government funded, but you can pay to be part of the parades. The cost varies and can be expensive (between $450 and $3,000 for a spot on the floats), and includes the costumes and sometimes practicing for a few weeks. Bottom line: The schools are looking for 100 percent commitment and dedication.
And that’s evident as I watch at Paraíso do Tuiuti. A tambourine rattles onstage followed by the heavy pound of a steel drum, sending a wave of excitement through the room. Professional samba dancers sashay onto the dance floor and begin to twirl, their legs kicking at an extraordinary pace, breezy smiles on their faces. Coutinho joins them, leading his team into a breathtaking performance that leaves the crowd whooping and cheering.
Later I ask Coutinho how he feels seeing the school’s efforts come together during Carnival. “To see the music live, to see your school perform …” He trails off smiling, before adding, “It’s indescribable. We live Carnival the whole year. There is no emotion like seeing your school in the parades.”
Go There: Special Group samba school shows
- When: The 14 Special Group samba schools rehearse on the weekends.
- What to expect: The party starts at 10 p.m. and continues until the early hours of the morning. The vibrant events include costumes, dancing and a live band playing the school’s Carnival songs.
- Cost: Entrance fees vary, but typically start around $5.
- Key Carnival dates: The parades last four days — this year it’s Friday, March 1, until Monday, March 4. The champion’s parade (when the winning samba school performs) is on the following Saturday, March 9.
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