The high point of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, is the Special Schools’ parade which plays out this Sunday and Monday night at the Sambadromo.
Described by the Mayor of Rio de Janeiro as the biggest folk festival on the planet and the most spectacular show on earth, the Special Schools’ parade is all of that and more. It is a celebration of the Brazilian people and their rich mix of cultures, of Catholic and Condomblé religious traditions, of characters from ancient civilizations and entities from the new world. It’s a stage where the stories of Brazil itself are told.
The size of this spectacle is staggering. Up to 5 thousand people take part in each Samba School’s procession. Of all ages, of all races and from every corner of their communities, they represent the huge melting pot that is Brazil. There are administrators, resplendent in the colours of their school. There are and teams of technicians in t-shirts. Countless “forca” push or pull floats carrying a huge cast of singers, dancers and acrobats. Conductors orchestrate the hundreds of different drums, whistles, shakers, rattles and shakers of the Batteria. “Directors” and “harmonia” keep the endless ranks of foot soldiers moving in time, on time and smoothly; loyal school members who have practised for months, the tourists, taking the shuffle of a lifetime through the sambadrome, the sambistas, the carnival goddesses, plumed, be-jewelled, glittering and gorgeous, the bahianas, the whirling grandmothers in their sweeping skirts, the kids contingent with their lightning feet and the flag bearers, picked from the neighbourhood’s ordinary youth and transformed, for this one night, into kings and queens.
Each school has a theme which ties the whole gigantic spectacle together. Themes are expressed through countless floats, each one a giant extravaganza with its own brilliant (and significant) show and up to 55 different groups of characters and creatures, all pertinent to the theme and all in dazzling costumes which in some way underscore it. The school’s samba enreda, or especially composed samba song, which accompanies the spectacle (and to which performers and audience alike dance and sing along) also re-states the theme. So does the choreography. Some themes are simple,others are deep and meaningful, others are local, others, again, are universal and some are simply ingenious.
The Carnaval competition is tough and every minute detail of the performance counts -. theme, floats, costumes, choreography, music, animation, spontaneity, crowd engagement and last but not least timing. Every school must complete the procession through the Sambadrome in no less than 65 and in no more than 80 minutes.
Carnival is not for the faint-hearted. Beginning at 9pm when the first fireworks light the sky and the first notes of the samba hit the air and ending at 6am when the last officials samba through the g-string framed buttock-shaped exit arches of the Sambadrome, it’s an all-nighter on full alert – with eyes, ears, voice, hips and feet engaged at all times.