The Rhythm of Rio is Contagious

Barbara takes you  to one of Rio's Samba Schools to learn about Brazil's passion for the intoxicating rhythm of the samba

via Magic Carpet Journals

The flag bearer or porta bandeira

It is past midnight and I'm stuck in one of the worst traffic jams I've ever seen. I am heading towards Portela, a suburb in the northern part of Rio de Janeiro, far from the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana. But then it is Saturday night and this type of car gridlock is not unusual in the Brazilian city with a population of six million, who seemingly descend onto the streets in the balmy nights. Soccer may be the priority sport here, but the samba places high on the list so I am on my way to the Portela Samba School on Rua Clara Nunes.

I've been warned that nothing starts before 11 PM, but I have been in the car for over one and a half hours. When I arrive, well part midnight, it is to the boom, boom, boom, beat of the samba, an ear shattering throbbing which I hear from the car.

Dodo, Doyenne of the samba schoolThere are about 20 samba schools in Rio which in a most competitive way, have united the neighborhoods. Each year during Carnival, they vie for the coveted and important first prize at the annual parade. Forty days before Easter, the Cariocas (the locals) pay homage with their dazzle, enthusiasm, passion and joy. This year, as it has been since 1984 when the Sambodromo was built, this spectacle of color, glitz, music, floats and costumes will take place March 4thand 5th. Carnival has become one of the largest attractions of Rio with the Sambodromo (Rua Marques de Sapucai-Parca II) accommodating over 58,000 each day offering a variety of prices for seats. As soon as Carnival is over, the preparations start all over again for the following year and rehearsals begin again in October.

Tonight I'm here to watch some of the practice drill. I pass through the stalls of the huge colorless, drab building expecting to see fabulous costumes of feathers and sequins, head dresses that reach over 10 feet, tight skimpy outfits and some fare bodies. Ay caramba, am I in for a surprise! This evening, the rehearsal is for the singers and musicians who will be part of the procession and the noise of the bands in the bus terminal-turned-rehearsal stadium, is thunderous. I stand at the side, trying to look inconspicuous. I do not have the natural rhythm and everyone else is gyrating around this massive space. There's even a young girl, about 6, who is keeping up with the 400 of the 5000 members who are here tonight. They see the samba schools as a religion.

The main attraction for the moment is a coA dancer mesmerized by the beat of the musicuple - she, the flag bearer (Porta bandeira) and he, master of ceremonies (Mestre-sala), who will open their section of the parade. She's wearing a flouncy white skirt and blue top, carrying the club's blue and white flag. Of course, when she appears in the parade, she will be resplendent in an extravagant costume, which can cost up to $3000. She spins and with every turn, her skirt flies up revealing her splendid tanned legs. Her partner's movements look as though he's made out of elastic. One minute he's kneeling on one leg, the next he's in the air. The spell is cast. The band gets even louder. Everyone is sambaing around the room and even I catch the bug and move a shoulder here, tap a toe there. It's contagious. I watch with envy, a woman, well into her 40's, her blonde hair in dozens of tiny long braids, jeans tight, the off the shoulder blouse snug. She moves, mesmerized, for an hour without stopping as though she's part of some great movie scene.



All the samba schools are affiliated with the Association of Samba Schools of the city of Rio de Janeiro which was organized" to create a guild that would awaken respect and pride without losing the infatuating joy that is so characteristic of the street clubs.". The usual number of members range from 3500 - 5000 in each school. According to records, the first schools began in 1929 with about 50 members. By 1937 the dictator Getulio Vargas, decreed that Carnival must have a historical or patriotic theme. Rules for this pageant are strict. Winning is everything so making sure that points aren't lost, is a major concern. For instance, if you get sick or drunk, off goes a point, then there's the choreography, which must be theatrical and colorful. The floats must make an important impact since it symbolized the school. There's also a penalty if you pass the hour and twenty minutes allotted each samba school in the procession. Too slow or too fast, more points lost.

IRhythm is a dancer's most important asset.t's now past two a.m. Enter Maria das Dores Alves Rodriques, the 79 year old doyenne of this samba school, who herself, started dancing in 1935. Impossible to hear a word she is saying, we head to a somewhat quieter section where we can talk through an interpreter. "Dodo" comes armed with magazine clippings and books, many featuring her photo. Still slim and certainly full of spunk, she is dressed in a figure revealing t-shirt and embroidered black and white skirt. She is quick to point out that she and the school have won awards in 1986 - 89.

Dodo's job is to oversee rehearsals, direct the lady's group and the older women (Baianas) who still take part in the parade. "Certainly, everyday of the week, people come to practice," she tells me. Singers (Paxador de samba-enredo) who sing the samba story (Samba-enredo) must be able to serenade for over an hour without stopping.

Brazilians listen, dance and then move like no one else," Dodo says proudly, getting up from the chair and moving to her own beat. I ask about the other clubs. "Oh, there are spies. We all practice year round and we know what the other schools are doing and they know about us," she laughs which is so very typical of the Cariocas, always laughing, always smiling. But, Dodo admits, there are always surprises. Every club tries to attract the most important Brazilian celebrity for their main float and "no one knows who it is going to be, except for the organizers." Dodo knows who it is this year, for Portela Samba School, but she is not telling. She does not get paid but lovingly volunteers her time and energy, which also involves her own boutique, Dodo Da Portela, located near the entrance where she sells souvenirs.

The theme for the year 2000 Carnival was The History of Brazil. Besides being the Millennium year, Brazil celebrated its 500th birthday in the year 2000. Because of these two events the costumes were very special. Dodo added her own feelings, "I'm just glad to get into the millennium alive and still be able to take part in Carnival!

By Barbara Kingstone


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Last Updated on November 08, 2008 by M. Maxine George editor.  2000 Magic Carpet Journals. All rights reserved