Live From The Sambadrome - Parade Night!
After days of rain, we luck out so grandly with clear skies and warm temperatures on the night we have tickets to the Samba Parade. The previous two nights of parades had quite a bit of rain, and besides the poor spectators sitting on cement grandstands in the rain, it pains me to think of the elaborate costumes and floats that would be drenched. What a shame.
We bought transfers to the Sambadrome with our parade tickets as we had been advised that it was the safest and easiest way to get there, and luckily, our pick up point is right across the street at the Hilton. As we wait in the lobby, I notice girls putting glitter on themselves, and as I look closer, I see that the Hilton has a table full of different glitter and Carnaval paraphernalia for its guests. Only in Brazil!
When we arrive at the Sambrodome, our laminated tickets around our necks, we go through security. It’s pretty lax, and as soon as we are through, we are on a mission to find our Sector. We have tickets for the grandstands, with no seating allocations, and we have been warned to get there early. We are pleased to see that our sector, 6, is pretty much empty. We find a good place next to the stairs and plop our cushions down. We are all dressed up again - we bought some of the gemstones on stickers for our faces and we fit right in with all of the other parade goers. We see some of the most elaborate costumes here that we have seen so far; one man is walking around with a giant headpiece sprouting feathers. Most people have some sort of costume on - whether it is just flowers in their hair, or glitter on their face. You are definitely the odd man out if you haven’t glammed yourself up for Carnaval!
It’s only 7 when we find our seats, and the parade doesn’t start until 9:30. The bleachers fill up quite quickly, and a group of travellers from The Netherlands sits in front of us. It’s nice to talk to other people and feel their excitement. The Sambadrome is huge - almost half a mile long and the bleachers tower over the road that runs down the middle. Below us are the more pricey seats - boxes and party rooms that are way out of our budget. There are sections with 6 chairs right next to the road and although you would get a great close up view, we have been told that the grandstands are the best seats in the house because you are seeing everything from up so high.
People are dancing already and I can’t stop gazing around me in awe - I had seen the Sambadrome before, but with the lights on and the stands filled with people, it’s like a completely different place. You can feel the energy in the air - it’s like the whole place is pulsing with anticipation. About 9:15 we notice that the first Samba School - Estacio De Sa - has taken its place. We strain to see what awaits us but all we can see are bright colours and lights - that’s how big the Sambadrome is! We are just about in the middle so we are pretty far from the parade entrance. When the clock strikes 9:29 a strange thing happens - instead of turning to 9:30, it resets to 00:00 and music starts blaring. The parade is starting! The music is so loud and the crowd positively vibrates to its beat. Everyone is standing and I realize that my view is going to be much more restricted than I thought. But it doesn’t matter, the intensity of the enthusiasm of the people around me is contagious and I find myself jumping and screaming along with everyone else.
I find out later that the clock is recording the length of each parade - there is a time limit of an hour and they lose points if they are majorly under or over. The clock is at 00:15 when the floats finally reach us and I get to see them up close. They move really slowly, stopping at certain points along the road; the Sambadrome is so huge that it just takes that long for them to dance the entire length. I have dreamed of this moment my entire life and it’s so overwhelming and so astounding in person that I have tears in my eyes. The sheer size of the floats is indescribable, the first one is long - like a city block long - and it has two sections. The first is home to what looks like a dinosaur skeleton poking out of a gigantic rib cage. The float must be three stories high and the ribs alone have to be 10 metres high and as thick as 2 telephone poles. Dancers writhe all around the float and two women adorned in feather headdresses and flashy yellow costumes stand proud at the front of the float. They reach out to the crowd and you can see them soaking in the energy. The second section of the float has several more dinosaur heads and another rib cage, but this time there is a massive lion bobbing on top of the float. It too is about 10 metres high and so life-like it’s almost frightening. Its mane sways with the movement of the float and the entire cat is somehow bouncing to the beat of the music. It’s like nothing I have ever seen before. I thought I knew what to expect, but seeing this in real life is mind blowing. The sheer size of the floats is impossible to describe - they tower over the people in the grandstands, making them look like ants.
But it’s not just the floats that are impressive - behind the lion is a group of dancers - hundreds - all decked out in sparkly purple costumes with spiky head pieces. There are 2 or 3 beautiful women who dance in front of each float - they dance like nothing I have ever seen before. Their feet move so fast that even from up here, it’s dizzying. They samba to each side, showing off their perfect bodies, their stunning costumes and their impeccable moves.
Another giant group of dancers clad in green with leaflike headpieces follow another float. They move as one, in perfect time with the music and so many questions roll through my head. How? How do they perfect the dance with so many people? I can’t imagine the time and dedication that goes into something like this. The making of the floats and costumes is a process my brain can’t handle - they are so big and beautiful and so perfect. Where do they store the costumes and the floats? Yes, we saw the one Samba school preparing for Carnaval but there is no way everything for the parade could be housed in one building. There are about 6 or 7 giant floats in each parade and thousands of dancers. Thousands. I am beyond impressed. I’m incredulous.
The first parade lasts for an hour and every float that goes by, every group of dancers that goes by, leaves me with my jaw hanging open. It’s a high I’ve never experienced before - this is truly the Greatest Party on Earth. The exuberance of the dancers and the crowds is lifting my spirits to a place they’ve never been before - this is the most incredible thing I have ever seen. I wonder how anything can top this - there are still 6 more schools to parade - and the next one is even more exciting and impressive.
The next school to parade is Viradouro, and as soon as their music starts, I know I’m going to love them. It’s a catchy song, and although I don’t know what they are singing, I find myself trying to sing along. Their first, extremely yellow float takes up half the Sambadrome. It’s the longest one I’ve seen yet, and the flashiest. Gold swirls adorn the float bed and it supports a gigantic powerful blue and white bust of a woman holding what looks like two mirrors in her hands. There are smaller replicas of her on each side of the float. Underneath the main bust is a circular terrace that has scantily clad, gold helmeted dancers shimmying away while water glides over the roof and in front of them. I can’t look away.
But I have to because the next float is stealing the show. It’s my favourite yet - it’s not as high or as long as the previous one, but it has purply blue light strands that wave from the top like tentacles. Underneath are massive figures of African women in mostly orange. It’s in three sections and the lights decorate each section and the orange and purply blue lights make such a nice contrast. The next one is almost complete silver and the one after that is striking in white and red. I can see photos of this one making a nice Christmas card. As I watch the parades, I remember that each school is telling a story through their art. Try as I might, I can not make sense of the story in any of the parades. Perhaps it would help if I understood the words to the music, but it doesn't matter to me in the moment. I'm just appreciating what is in front of me - and it is magical.
The next school is Mangueira, last year’s winner, and the crowd goes wild. They have one float that completely blows my mind - it’s Jesus on the cross, and it is nearly as tall as the Sambadrome. Even if you aren’t religious, I think this would give you chills. It’s mesmerizing, and as it comes closer, I see live men chained to crosses wearing only loincloths and crowns, writhing away like they are in pain.
When Grande Rio starts their march down the Sambadrome, I feel like I am personally invested in their performance. Because we toured behind the scenes of their school, I’m even more excited to see how they compare to the other schools. I know they have never won, but I am impressed by everything about them - their costumes, their dancers and their out of this world floats. They have a jungle theme with huge animals shaking in time to their song. I could easily describe every single float and dancer that I see tonight, but that could go on forever. A few other highlights include a mermaid in a pool of water, an astronaut floating in space, helicopters attached to the side of a float, and lots of favelas (Rio slums) depicted in various ways. The dancers continue to amaze me - it never gets old watching them move like that. The colourful costumes, the songs and the energy of the people in the stands will remain in my heart forever.
We stay until the 6th school is nearly done, and by this time it's 5 a.m. and we are bone tired. Every muscle aches from standing on cement for nearly 12 hours and we make our way back to the transfer station. As we drive through Copacabana at 6 a.m., we witness the sun making its ascent over the ocean. It’s the perfect end to the perfect night. I will never forget what I saw tonight, and how I felt. This was truly the most incredible night of my life. Carnaval has exceeded my expectations.
(Check back soon to see who wins and how Rio Grande places!)