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Party like a Carioca: The Rio Carnival

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Intro to Carnival
Carnival, a four day celebration of excess and pleasure, is celebrated throughout Brazil. The biggest and most popular festivities take place in Rio de Janeiro. Carnival begins on a Saturday, usually in late February, and ends the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Although it only lasts four days, it takes months and hundreds of people to prepare for the parades and city-wide celebrations.
Samba Parade
The Rio Carnival Parade, also known as the Samba Parade, is one of the most well-known events of Carnival. This colorful and raucous event provides Rio de Janeiro’s samba schools with an opportunity to compete against each other and showcase incredible artistry in music, dance and design.
Sambodromo
The parade takes place in the Sambodromo, the “stadium of samba,” a building that was constructed specifically for the occasion in 1984 by world renowned architect Oscar Niemeyer. The structure can hold about 70,000 people, and all seats face towards the central Parading Avenue, or the samba runway, so that all audience members can see the schools making their way through the stadium. There are different types of seating—from bleachers to deluxe box seats—so you can decide how close you want to get to the action.
Samba Songs
Each samba school chooses a song and composes lyrics, and these songs form the backbone of every school’s presentation. The school will be judged on the instrumentation, lyrics and how well the song is reflected in the visual elements of the float and parade participants.
The Visual Element
The samba schools have a number of different visual elements to their parade. First and foremost is the float—each school has several large structures that match the year’s parade theme. These floats are huge, as the schools usually have several featured samba dancers showing off their steps on the structure itself, and take months to construct. The costumes of the dancers are designed to further illustrate the school’s theme and float.
Who is Involved
There are huge numbers of people involved in each school’s presentation for the Samba Parade. A group of 12-15 samba dancers lead the school down Parading Avenue—these dancers wear elaborate costumes, perform intricately choreographed dances and help to set the tone for the rest of the school’s show. Several “wings” (or alas) hold the largest group of marchers, with 20-100 people per wing all wearing themed costumes. Generally each school has several wings scattered throughout the procession. The drum corps marches in the middle of the procession, helping dancers keep the beat during the entire parade. The “Queen of the Drummers” is one of the most recognizable figures from Carnival—she is usually a beautiful young woman and wears an elaborately designed, often provocative costume. Her presence is meant to inspire the drum corps and introduce the drummers to the crowd. In all, there are huge numbers of people involved in each Samba School procession, and it takes all of these people dancing and singing together to create a visually stunning, well-performed show.
Party With the Cariocas!
If you want to party like a local, you can march in a parade with a local samba school. Order your elaborate costumes by December 28th from a local tourism agency and enjoy an incomparable experience of the parade. The cost varies by school’s reputation, costume details and the day the school is marching, but they usually cost between $400-$700. (For this price, many tourism agencies also include transportation to and from the parade.) For more details, visit the Carnival website.
Samba Parade Isn't Your Only Option
If you can’t make it to the Rio Carnival Parade, don’t worry—there are plenty of opportunities to see parades and local dancers. There are five Samba Parades staged throughout Carnival, so check the official website for a list of competition days. If you won’t be in Rio during Carnival, you can watch samba schools rehearse in the Sambodromo on the weekends leading up to the event, when the building opens its doors to the public free of charge.
Street Parades
Head to Cinelândia Square for open-air dances that celebrate the joy and music of Carnival. Held each night of the festival 5 p.m.-3 a.m., Cinelândia hosts organized dances, but be on the lookout for spontaneous dances in the streets as you travel around the city. Some of the most popular street dances can be found just outside the Sambodromo, near the Arches of Lapa and at the Ipanema beach. These spontaneous gatherings offer locals and tourists a chance to dance, enjoy local music and drink together.
Carnival Balls and Galas

If you’re looking for some more structured celebration, venues throughout the city host a number of balls and galas during these four days. While the Magic Ball at Copacabana Palace is one of the most famed events, the Rio Scala nightclub has also been a popular (and less expensive) site for Carnival balls. Scala balls feature themed nights, and some of the best features are the local music and flamboyant costumes.

For more information about the Copacabana and Scala Balls, visit the official website. Tickets can also be purchased through the website.

Carnival, a four day celebration of excess and pleasure, is celebrated throughout Brazil. The biggest and most popular festivities take place in Rio de Janeiro. Carnival begins on a Saturday, usually in late February, and ends the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Although it only lasts four days, it takes months and hundreds of people to prepare for the parades and citywide celebrations.

By Elisabeth Granquist

Photos courtesy of Riotur - Images Supply; Rio Postais Digitais; Ricardo Azoury

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