Majestic Float takes over the Samba Runway at Av. Marques de Sapucai. It portrays an enchanted forest, with a gigantic tree and several people dressed in costumes.

Carnaval Samba Parade in Rio

The Carnaval Samba Parade at the Sambódromo in Rio is something everyone must experience at least once in life. Think of it as a tropical opera with six acts and thousands of performers. 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. Mingle with the crowd, sweat, and consider marching with a samba school.

The parade featuring special group samba schools (the biggies) happens on Carnaval Sunday and Monday. There's an admittance charge to gain access to the Sambódromo. You have a choice of bleacher seats (arquibancada), catered boxes (camarotes), and ground-level boxes (frisas). 

Giant float on the runway. There are frisas on the ground level, catered boxes on the first and second floors, and bleacher seats on the upper level.
Frisas are on the ground floor, catered boxes on the first  floor and bleacher seats in the upper level.

Face value of tickets is not that high, and you may purchase online. Always compare inflated prices charged by scalpers to the actual price to figure the “service tax”. It may include benefits like transportation, or a catered buffet and drinks in a box (more about prices and location at Meet the Sambódromo).

Confetti, streamers, and party favors - it's pure joy.
This gentleman with a lovely hat was standing next to us, and he noticed we had a stock of party favors. We invited him to join the fun. A moment of pure joy!

What is a Samba School?

In case you are getting mixed up: Samba Schools are not teaching institutions in the traditional sense. A Samba School is an association of people, usually from the same neighborhood, who get together regularly for samba nights and rehearsals (ensaios) at their samba court (quadra).

It is usually a working-class community or favela located in a suburban area. Samba schools provide invaluable jobs to the community. The production of floats and costumes is big business. It is partly subsidized by the State and partly financed by private enterprises that sponsor the parade.

When you run into a stunning princess on her way to the Concentration .

Each year samba schools choose a different theme. The year 2000 was an exception when all celebrated Brazil’s 500th anniversary. Samba schools are even allowed to re-edit favorite Carnival themes from the past. The official samba is chosen in a competition that happens within each school.

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 and give life to the theme chosen. All costumes and floats are original and made from scratch. Cidade do Samba is where special leaguers have warehouses. If it’s not Carnaval season you’re welcome to visit.

From bleacher seats you have a privileged view to floats - some are enormous!

Be the Judge - it's a Competition!

A Samba School has from 60 to 75 minutes to make it through the runway. This means that each member will spend in the Sambódromo only about 25-30 minutes tops. The experience is so intense, though, that the memories of the thrill last a lifetime.

Sometimes less is more. Carnaval happens in the peak of summer.
This is the famous 'recuo da bateria', where percussion bands stay until the end of the parade of their school.

Several aspects are judged by a jury of experts chosen by LIESA, the League of Special Group Samba Schools. Judges are strategically stationed in odd and even sectors, to make sure the schools do their best all the way through. This means that all components of the school have to perform and interact with the audience to cause a good impression.

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 result. There are even smartphone apps for you to .

The last school usually parades early in the morning.
The Samba Parade ends early in the morning. The carnavalesco takes factors like this into account.

Being impartial is not very easy, though. Cariocas support their favorite school just like they support their soccer team - with a lot of passion. The six schools that score best earn the coveted honor of marching again. The Champions' Parade happens on the following Saturday. The winner of the Golden Group is invited to participate!

View of a float fround ground-floor frisas.
View of a float from ground-floor frisas. Different seats offer different perspectives.

Samba School by Parts

Samba Schools are divided into alas (wings or sections), with people wearing the same costumes. Just to simplify, let's refer to anyone participating in the parade as a component. The number of components in each ala and float varies, according to the plans of the school designer (carnavalesco).

Luiza Brunet is one of the references when we are talking about Queens and Princesses.
Luiza Brunet is one of the references when we are talking about Queens and Princesses.

Components all share the same obligation - to perform during the whole parade interacting with the audience. They must know by heart the school theme and sing along. Some of the alas have special choreographies, and one must learn and deliver while at the samba runway.

The results depend on a collective effort. As the parade is seen and taped from all angles nothing escapes the cameras. The components of a float get even more visibility. In addition to performing they have to be oblivious to the heights - some floats are gigantic!

At the concentration and within the passarela (samba runway) Samba Schools place supervisors, to make sure everything runs smoothly. They may speed up or slow down a group. And they keep an eye on people who are misbehaving. Components may take photos at the Concentration and dispersion areas, not while you are performing.

A group of abre-alas at the Concentration. Their performance was awesome!

Who's Who in the Parade

  • Abre-Alas is the first group to open the parade of each samba school. They set the mood and introduce the theme.
  • Ala das Baianas is one of the few mandatory groups. It is composed of ladies dressed in colonial-style skirts, and their choreography includes spinning.
  • Porta-Bandeiras and Mestre-Sala are the couple that carries the samba school banner. They greet the audience, and the gentleman does very elaborate steps to draw attention to the lady.
  • Carros Alegóricos are floats that come in all sizes. The people who populate it may do a special choreography or perform stunts.
  • Destaques are the most prominent members of each float. Their costumes are extremely luxurious, and they are placed high. 
  • Velha Guarda is a more mature group composed of people with  close-knit links to the Samba School. They are very elegantly clad.  
  • Bateria is the percussion band that sets the beat of the parade of each Samba School. Musicians are very dedicated, and participate in rehearsals.
  • Puxadores are the vocalists that sing live the theme of the samba school, in perfect integration with the bateria. Many of them are famous personalities.
  • Rainhas and Princesas are the queens and princesses that you see in-between alas and floats. The most prestigious position is rainha da bateria.
  • Alas are the different wings that parade on the floor with coordinated costumes. They sing, dance, and try to interact with the audience.
  • The Supporting Cast is composed of people who work to make everything run smoothly. They may make an ala move faster to avoid blank spaces in the runway.
  • Carnavalesco is the samba school designer who creates all this magic. Some of them have a distinct style, and became very famous.
The success of a samba school depends on each and every component. Pushing a float is not for everyone!

Now that you're familiar with the basics, explore in more detail with photos and videos the spectacle that these people put together. You may also want to learn a little more about the Sambódromo to became an expert in the subject. Learn to find your way around, and choose what sector and kind of seat is right for you.

Thank you for joining us on this journey into Rio de Janeiro Carnaval Samba Parade!