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Surely besides the beaches and caipirinha, when you think of Rio you think of the colourful and famous carioca carnival. And if you’ve heard of the parade, surely this great avenue flanked by concrete structures will feel familiar. Welcome to the world’s most important outdoor stage; the Sambadrome!
The Sambódromo Marquês de Sapucaí, designed by the architect Oscar Niemeyer was inaugurated in 1984, it is located on Marquês de Sapucai avenue, which extends from Presidente Vargas avenue to Frei Caneca street. It is one of the oldest streets in Rio de Janeiro and the cariocas are proud to say that it is the cradle of the samba.
It is officially known as Passarela Professor Darcy Ribiero and along its over 500 metres in length, the Samba Schools parade during the most important carioca holiday of the year, to compete for the coveted title of “Carnaval Champion".
Each samba school usually has six to eight floats. And they have an eighty-minute parade to show off and demonstrate along the avenue why they are clearly worthy of being the best samba school in all of Rio.
40 judges at strategic points of the Sambadrome score ten categories: Band Percussion, Samba Song, Harmony, Courage and Spirit, Floats and Facilities, Costumes, Front Group, Flag Bearer, Song of the Year and Overall Impression.
Every year, the Carnavalesco, one of the people most revered by their members of the school, chooses a theme. You never know what they will surprise you with, it can be a particular historical moment, a famous figure in the history of Brazil, a special moment ... the floats, costumes everything is a display of creativity, but it does not end there, each school spends a lot of time creating a samba song based on the theme presented in the parade. The judges place great importance on this and are very attentive when listening to the lyrics, melody and adaptation of the choreography to the theme, thus punctuating the harmony. The theme and samba song remain a secret until December, when the trials begin.
The top 12 schools in Rio, known as the Special Group, compete and parade on the Sunday and Monday of the carnival, 6 schools every night. Each with wonderful staging and a dance and colour show.
Salgueiro, Mangueira, Beija-Flor and Mocidade are the most famous. Some schools include as many as 3500 people and they must all achieve synchronicity in their movements. To achieve this, the schools are divided into sections called wings comprising between 20 and 100 people, which wear the same costume. Sometimes 2 wings wear the same costume. Amid the wings, the floats pass, sometimes driven by very strong men, but these days almost all of them are motorised.
On the top of the floats guests invited by the school can be seen, such as models, actresses, etc.; this is something Gisele Bundchen has done; spectacular dancers wearing elaborate costumes are also featured. It is a spectacle of overwhelming beauty and sensuality.
The Front Committee or Frontline is a group of between 12 and 15 dancers who perform choreography with a high degree of difficulty and are located at the front of the formation. In some cases, their costumes do not correspond to the school’s theme. They have the task of presenting the school to viewers and attracting the attention of the judges.
Often, the spectacular Queen or “Rainha” of the samba school, chosen by competition, leads the cavalcade while the atmosphere of the Sambadrome is heating up. The carnival always has wonderful samba dancers, self-confident and impressive, competing for the title of Carnival Queen. This bevy of beauties provide the show for the most part, with their elaborate costumes and dance numbers elegantly executed in incredible stilettos. Each year, there is a competition to be selected as Carnival Queen in a contest that takes place beforehand, with participants having one minute to show their qualities as queen. With the difficulty of doing this in wonderful costumes that weigh up to 20 kg. The 2 finalists are named Carnival Princesses. And they accompany King Momo.
Some of the other most important roles within the samba school are the standard bearer, this is a very important lady who is in charge of the samba school’s flag and is accompanied by the samba host, her escort who is responsible for focusing attention on their flag, and protecting it symbolically wearing a bandanna or a fan. Carnival historians say that in the past, they concealed some kind of knife to easily use it if anyone tried to steal the flag from the school.
Both are elegant dancers and symbolise the essence and honour of the carnival culture. It is the highest distinction for individuals who have dedicated their lives to carnival.
The Drummers, you could say they are the heart of the school, because with their instruments they bring joy, life and energy to the parade. In fact, besides the costumes, the dancers, the school with the best drummers usually gets the title of Champion. Judges look for concordance between the percussionists and dance group.
And they are presented by a Queen of Drums, a spectacular dancer who is supposed to inspire and motivate the 200 or 300 men following behind her.
Of course, the samba dancers also known as "passistas" are a small wing, an elite group from the most elite school, no more than 15 or 20 people, chosen by competition each year for their dancing skills. It is wonderful to see the swagger of bodies merge with the music. The judges choose the best carefully.
And of course, it would not be carnival without its Bahianas. The bahianas are women of a certain age flamboyantly dressed in traditional Bahia costumes. These dresses have large skirts, which are used to make beautiful turns; when they rotate along the avenue they represent the soul of the samba schools. These are people who have been linked with the school for a long time and they are received with joy and respect. Each school must have a minimum number otherwise they are penalised.
The Parade of Champions is held on the following Saturday. A new and last chance to see this wonderful show. The 6 best samba schools in the Special Group parade, those having received the highest scores. Again, everything is filled with joy, colour and music but without the pressure of competition.
Although there are other days to see parades, such as what the samba schools call Access Group and Gold Group aspiring to enter the Special Group for the competition the following year, and they parade on the previous days, the Friday and Saturday .
Or even the children’s parade, organised on the Tuesday, where larger schools introduce future generations to the carnival. It’s a real joy to see the pace and strength in these small bodies. Entrance to the Sambadrome that night is free, but the show is no lower in quality than the main event because it has all the elements: costumes, floats and promising dancers. More than 2,000 children participate in a spectacle worth witnessing.
Oh, by the way, you too could be among them, since many of the schools offer a number of costumes for anyone who wants to fulfil their dream of parading in the Sambadrome. This is very well organised, you can buy them online and a guide is provided with instructions on how to make the most of your time, where to pick up your costume, meeting area, even the lyrics. Best of all is that there is no distinction between race or social status. Everyone has the same goal: to have fun.
If your visit coincides with the carnival and you have a ticket to attend the renovated Sambadrome that can now hold up to 75,000 spectators, there is nothing more to say, just, well, awesome. But if you are not so lucky, but you find yourself in the city close to the carnival dates, you have the possibility of free access to trials at the schools which takes place in the Sambadrome, it is not the same, but you can feel and experience the carnival in a unique way.
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