The Samba School Parade at Rio´s Sambodrome is something everybody has to experience at least once in life. The event is broadcast live to several countries, and all Brazilian states. Watching on TV is cool, but not half as much fun as being there. You have to mingle with the crowd, sweat, maybe even march with a samba school.
Unlike Street Carnival the Samba Parade is not free. Tickets are actually quite expensive, but more than worth the investment. Twelve special group schools march on Carnival Sunday and Monday, six each night.
The parade starts at 9 p.m. and goes on until sunlight the next day, around 6-7 a.m. This samba marathon is more than a show - it's also a fierce competition. Each year a school is downgraded from special to access group, and vice-versa. The year of 2011 is an exception. As there was a fire at Cidade do Samba, none of the schools will be downgraded
What is a Samba School?
In case you are getting completely mixed up: Samba Schools are not teaching institutions. A Samba School is basically an association of people from the same neighborhood, usually a working class community (or favela) in most cases located in a suburban area. They get together on a regular basis for samba nights and rehearsals (ensaios) at their samba court (quadra). Samba schools provide invaluable jobs to the community, that is employed year-round in the production of costumes and floats.
Each year samba schools choose a different theme. In the year 2000, for instance, schools highlighted different periods of Brazilian history, celebrating the country's 500th anniversary. In 2004, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Sambodrome, samba schools were allowed to re-edit their favorite Carnival themes from the past.
Samba Schools may take to the Parade anything from 3,000 to 5,000 members, and from 6 to 8 floats. They try to illustrate the theme chosen. All costumes and floats are original, made from scratch every year. Think of it as a tropical opera, or rather, a collection of several operas happening on a single night.
A Samba School has from 60 to 75 minutes to make it through the runway. This means that each member will actually spend in the Sambodrome only about 25-30 minutes tops. The experience is so intense, though, that the memories last a lifetime.
Be the Judge
Several aspects are judged by a jury of experts chosen by LIESA, the league of Samba Schools. Judges are strategically stationed in odd and even sectors, to make sure the schools do their best all the way through.The 6 schools that score best earn the coveted honor of marching again the following weekend, at the Winners Parade on Saturday.
Of course all Cariocas consider themselves experts when it comes to judging a samba school. Many keep a personal score to compare (and inevitably disagree) with the final result. Cariocas support their favorite school just like they support their soccer team - with a lot of passion. In Portuguese you do not say you support Mangueira or Flamengo. You say what would translate simply to I am Mangueira or I am Flamengo.
Samba School by Parts
Schools are divided into alas (wings or sections), with people wearing the same costumes. Abre-alas is the first group, limited to 15 people or less. They are in charge of greeting the audience, setting the mood, and introducing the theme. Choreographies are often quite elaborate, and may be performed by professional dancers.
Floats (carros alegóricos) are decorated structures that carry special guests in luxury costumes, named destaques (see floatees). Many have special effects - a bird with flapping wings, a dragon spitting smoke, etc. The proportions are limited by the narrow tree-lined streets that give access to the Sambodrome. Oversized floats are at the risk of losing part of their decoration even before entering the runway, or could get stuck along the way.
Floats may be motorized, and have mechanical parts. Yet most are still pushed by men from the community, either in T-shirts, or wearing costumes designed to blend in. Before ideas of exploitation of cheap labor and other indignities start to pop in your mind, try to understand that everybody is more than happy to contribute in whichever way they can. Being a part of the samba parade is an honor, and these volunteers would probably look awkward in a baiana costume, anyway.
Even though complete nudity is not officially allowed, sometimes floats carry topless or almost-naked beauties, male and female. You get the idea: a little body paint, lots-a-glitter, a smile... The best looking men and women are selected for these special spots.The right stunt is a guaranteed headline the following day, and some do not draw a line for a chance of few seconds in the spotlight (see funny but true stories).
Each float carries on top a cherry, someone in in an impossibly heavy and incredibly luxurious costume. There are cranes in the concentration area to get these people to their elevated positions. Imagine trying to climb a ladder with an extra 100 pounds on your back!
Some alas are mandatory, and play a very important role in overall performance of the school. Velha Guarda is the group of men in the typical white suit and Panama hat, representing the malandro, a traditional Carioca character. They may be the last ala to march, usually accompanied by their female counterparts.
Ala das baianas is a wing with women dressed in big round colonial-style skirts. These positions are reserved for ladies from the community, and their (very expensive) costumes are subsidized. Dozens of baianas spinning around always bring down the house.
Porta-Bandeira and Mestre-Sala are the leading couple in the school. Porta-bandeira is the lady that carries the school banner with pride and poise. Crowds stand and cheer as she passes by. Her partner, the mestre-sala, has the job of drawing everybody's attention to his queen. And they do that by performing the most elaborate samba steps and courtesies ever - seeing to believing. Samba Schools also have a children-only sector. They have their own version of the porta-bandeira and mestre-sala, and their dexterity often equals or surpasses the adults.
The bateria (percussion band) sets the beat. They are preceded by a queen ( or rainha da bateria), that can be either a beauty from the community or some TV star or VIP, plus a number of princesses (girls fight fiercely for the position).
The vocalist is know as puxador, and may go on a sound truck right behind the bateria, or march along the samba runway.
Atravessar is a term used when the bateria and puxador go out of synch - and when it happens the school inevitably loses points. School members must also sing along the whole time, or they will lose points in harmony. Evolution and Group are two other aspects judged, the school must flow smoothly and without any blank spaces.