It was around seven in the evening when we gathered at the back of Rio’s enormous Sambódromo, on Avenida Presidente Vargas. We numbered in the thousands, all scrambling to locate our precise positions in the parade: which area, which car, which platform was it? Dozens of singers, drummers and dancers, outlandishly dressed with feathered hats, wings and plumes, hurrying to position themselves along the procession… plenty of others gathered around food and drink stalls, waiting for their schools to parade later in the night. The place was buzzing with excitement: we were all soon to samba in the world’s greatest parade stadium.

Rio Carnival

This was Carnival season in Brazil’s leisure capital: the beginning of two days where fourteen samba schools would compete for the honour of being elected the top school for the year. The competition here started in 1932, and since then the names of the escolas have been mythical: Mangueira, Mocidade, Grande Rio, Imperatriz, Vila Isabel, Beija-Flor, … Thanks to a friend’s friend who designed some of the costumes for Vila Isabel, I managed to get into the action as a participant rather than as a spectator: the only way to feel the soul of what was the most extravagant samba show in Brazil.

The clock was ticking. My friends and I were to dance right at the front on the opening carriage of the Vila Isabel show. Having identified my position, I went up the ladder to step onto an 8-meter high platform, on top of our silver-and-blue, neo-baroque float! My fellow dancers and I were all escorting the astonishing near-naked women that were amongst us. I remember looking down at the glittering, vibrating procession behind us along Avenida Vargas. The view was astounding. Our parade stretched for hundreds of meters, with thousand of participants. There was the bateria, a section of 200 drummers, the commissão de frente, with elderly people to be honoured, dancers with elegant blue and white hoopskirts, and other elaborate allegorical floats.

Vila Isabel’s theme (enredo) for this year’s parade was the work of Niemeyer: “Oscar Niemeyer, o arquiteto no recanto da princesa”. The theme is chosen by an art director, Carnivallesco, who is also responsible for the ways the messages are conveyed visually. Niemeyer was the architect of the capital city Brazilia but also of numerous famous structures in Rio. Everything in the procession reflected what he had built: the colours, the props, the floats, the theme song. As my friend was explaining to me, “This is like theatre. But we show it all through dance!” It was like a giant popular opera. Themes picked by other schools were extremely varied, some with socio-political themes (poverty and hunger) and others with historical and biblical (the Old Testament) references.

Shortly before 8pm, our carriage started to move slowly forward towards the entrance of the Sambódromo, pushed by a maintenance crew. The other carriages and foot dancers were following behind us. There was a sense of anticipation, but also of anxiety. Those parades were fiercely competitive. A year of preparation went into them to select themes and design costumes, to write songs and rehearse steps, to choreograph dancers and train percussionists. These samba schools were much more than musical groups – they were neighbourhood associations. Money to be rewarded to the top schools would then trickle down to the supporting favelas, those miserable Brazilian ghettos with no safety nets. Winning the samba competition meant better healthcare for many. So community pride and a sense of responsibility led most participants around me to stay concentrated ahead of the one-hour official parade in front of the judges. There was much more at stake than having a good time. Costumes, rhythms, designs, music had all to be of top quality.

The specialist judges rated the presentation and substance of the parade, but even the public in the stands had scorecards! In Rio, everyone seemed to get into the competitive spirit of the Carnivall. I looked at the categories: bateria (the band), samba enredo (the song), harmonia (co-ordination and unity), evolucao (spirit of the participants), enredo (the School’s theme), alegorias e adereços (floats and props), fantasias (Costumes), comissão de Frente (vanguard dancers), mestre-Sala e Porta-Bandeira (dancing master and flag carrier). There was no room for error to be elected champion.

Precisely at 8pm, we entered the stadium and began to enact an amazing samba show in front of thousands of people in the stadium, and live for millions of others on TV across Brazil. We were dancing ecstatically to the pulsating rhythm of the samba, provided by the school’s percussion orchestra, while the puxador was singing the school’s song:

“… Entre os frutos e o reconhecimento deste primeiro grande trabalho, uma missão maior, a nova capital. O sonho de Juscelino, teria projeto urbanístico de Lúcio Costa, e em Niemeyer, o artista principal . O Palácio da Alvorada, a Catedral de Brasília, o Congresso Nacional, o Palácio do Planalto, o Ministério da Justiça e o Palácio dos Arcos, levaram sua assinatura. Sendo difícil precisar qual seria o mais bonito, arrojado e sinuoso… Viva Niemeyer, Viva a princesa, Viva o povo, Viva a Vila” !

There was a sentiment of collective delirium and abandonment, of feverish intensity, of physical mayhem. Voices joined drummers, dancers moved sensually with percussions, costumes shimmered and glittered. The atmosphere was humid. We were sweating, smiling relentlessly to the spectators and to the cameras. Our carriage was making slow progress through the Sambódromo, using its one hour to reach the majestic Niemeyer’s Arch which marked the end of the procession. Upon reaching the other side of the stadium, cranes dismantled the procession to allow the next samba school to do its show. It was a year of meticulous preparation for only one hour of collective pride and glory!

But what an experience! The crossing was completely surreal for me. Not only because I found myself dressed up in a flamboyant, uninhibited Carnivall costume, amongst three thousand performers, dancing on a 8-meter high platform in Rio’s Sambódromo (although that in itself is quite a sight) … but also because less than two weeks earlier, I was in full winter gears watching penguins on the frozen sea of Antarctica, a thought which actually did cross my mind whilst dancing the samba. The contrast was bizarre, but it crystallized my craving to experience the world to the fullest.

For Cariocas (Rio inhabitants), this time of the year was a cherished and effective way of escaping their often grim day-to-day reality. Balls and parades alongside the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana cultivated feelings of folly, playfulness and sensuality. This was the street Carnivall, enjoyed by everyone throughout the city. It was a time of the year to look forward to. Most Cariocas, particularly those from favelas, identified themselves with particular schools: there was a sense of belonging deep in their blood. The community that supported Beija-Flor, this year’s winner as announced on Ash Wednesday, expanded their Carnivall for a few more days to celebrate their victory.

When you step back from this madness, it is clear that the Carnivall plays an important social purpose in preserving Brazil’s cultural traditions, as captured in the costumes, the dance and the music. My Brazilian friends had various explanations for the roots of Carnivall in this country. But it seemed that it began with African immigrants from the Northeastern State of Bahia (as an aside, a state unknown to many tourists but graced with green tropical hills and broad beaches… probably just the way the Portuguese navigator Cabral had discovered it in 1501). I had visited the historical, colonial city of Pelourinho in Bahia’s capital, Salvador, in 2001 and seen those Baiana women dressed in typical white robes and turbans. It is those same women that participated in the Carnivall processions in Rio, singing and moving in circles with their skirts.

And so this is what I would remember most about Rio de Janeiro which they call themselves Cidade Maravilhosa – the marvellous city: its exotic drinks, its vast beaches, its sensuous bodies, its tantalizing drums, and its samba dancers.