Carnaval can be smelt and breathed in the air of Rio de Janeiro. Everywhere you look at Carnaval time you can see a Carnaval smile, you can hear a Carnaval samba beat and you can feel the Carnaval spirit.
On the first day of Carnaval I was on the Metro to Copacabana when about six teenage boys started drumming on their surfboards and beating on the train walls. The passengers started tapping their feet, and those Carnaval smiles spread even wider, and all of a sudden people were dancing the samba in the isles. It was only then, that I realised what Carnaval is.
I had been asking and asking, “What is Carnaval?” I had received vague answers about it starting as a pagan celebration in either Rome or Greece. The Carnaval balls were then imported from Italy in the late nineteenth century, and had their ‘golden era’ in the thirties with legendary balls at the Copacabana Palace Hotel.
I was told that the Samba Parade had also started in the thirties, but it wasn’t until 1984 that it found its home in Rio at the Sambodromo. But I kept wanting to know why is it so special? Why does the whole of Brazil stop for it? Why does it seem to be more exciting than Christmas? Why do thousands of people from all over the world come just to see it? What was I doing there?
I wanted to really get involved in Carnaval so I joined a Samba school called G.R.E.S. Estacio de Sa, with my Brazilian friend Ilona. Two weeks before Carnaval I attended a rehearsal on a Sunday night from 8pm till well after midnight. I got a small taste of the Carnaval spirit there, watching everyone, young and old, samba-ing. There was one lady, who was very, very pregnant dancing as fast, yet as gracefully, as all the others, although it looked like her baby was going to pop out at any given moment. Nothing seems to stop anyone from enjoying Carnaval.
Samba is very intimidating at first. However, I eventually worked out a simple technique to doing the samba:
1. Copy any Brazilian in front of you, they are all good dancers.
2. Swing your arse a lot
3. Throw your arms around and keep smiling, at least if your upper half is looking good, people may not notice your uncoordinated feet.
4. If all else fails, a couple of cans of Skol (the most famous local beer) can’t do any harm in loosening your body limbs and at least you’ll think you’re dancing well!
Anyone can go along to the rehearsals and join a Samba school in the weeks preceding Carnaval. Each school has a core group of choreographers and dancers who rehearse all year round. They open their doors up to the public about a month beforehand. It is kind of like rent-a-crowd, as the more people they have dancing with their school in the parade, the better.
Each person has to buy a costume. My costume consisted of red three quarter length satin pants, silver sandals, a sequined decorated hat and a cape-like top with Peruvian pipes attached to the back, and cost $80 reais. However, the costumes can be more expensive depending on which school you join. Within our samba school there were 28 different groups and about 3,000 dancers in all.
It was explained to me that usually each samba school gets to choose their own theme each year. They might choose something historical, something comical or sometimes they choose to pose a serious issue, as a form of protest. This year, however, was the 500 year Anniversary of Brazil and all the samba schools had to create their song, costumes and choreography around this theme. Each school is then judged and awarded prizes based on many criteria including choreography, music, costumes, floats and even excitement and enthusiasm. The schools have different grades, and in the earlier nights of Carnaval are the less well known schools, culminating in the best, most exclusive schools on the final night.
Our school wanted to depict the integration of different cultures into Brazil. The samba school song had been composed around this theme and outlined how each of the cultures had created the Brazil of today. Our parade was on the second night of Carnaval and we started dancing down the Sambodromo at the stroke of midnight.
Each cultural group danced together in blocks. The traditional group of old women dancers were the stars of our school, dancing in the centre. They have been with the school for many years and are their most respected dancers. They are easily recognisable in their huge, lacy, hoop dresses. The dancers on the high platforms, who were lifted there by cranes, are called ‘Passistas’. They are the best dancers of each school, often wearing little but high headwear.
Surprisingly, the samba which I had been so anxious in learning, was quickly cast aside in all the excitement and was replaced with hundreds of people running around wildly. Luckily, that was something I could do. The audience was fantastic. They were all samba-ing together and cheering us on, and some of them were even singing our samba school song. It felt as though it was one big union of the Carnaval spirit in one place, so full of energy that it might have exploded.
Then all too quickly, although it had been fifty minutes in all, we passed under the Apoteose arches and it was all over. Strangers were hugging each other and starting to take off their hot and sweat-soaked costumes.
Each city in Brazil has a unique Carnaval experience. In Rio, the samba schools are the main attraction. In Bahia, it is apparently completely different, with the emphasis on music. But no matter where you are for Carnaval you are bound to be seduced and liberated by the Carnaval spirit.
I am currently starting to organise Australia’s first annual Carnaval. It will start on the last Friday in November and go for four days. The main attraction will be a parade down the Bourke Street Mall and will feature the ‘footy-kick dance’ to didgeridoo music. I hope it will catch on.
Carnaval starts on a Saturday and goes, officially, for four days, ending on Fat Tuesday (or Shrove Tuesday), so the dates change every year. However, in many cities the festivities go for almost a week. Carnaval 2001 begins on Saturday 24th February and finishes on Tuesday 27th February.