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In honor of today being the first day of Carnival, I decided to share my experience and lessons I learned when I had the amazing opportunity to march in the sambodromo in Brazil.  Today’s entry is mostly about the parade, while tomorrow I’m posting tips about getting through the after-party in one piece.

Brazilian Carnival Float

Learn Basic Samba Steps at a Samba School (Escola de Samba)

I was able to see the preparations for and take part in Brazilian Carnival thanks to the program I was studying abroad with in São Paulo.  They took all 30 of us students to a samba school called Peruche a couple of days before the festivities started, so we could learn a little history and see some great dancers and costumes.  Each samba school is associated with a neighborhood, usually a favela, and they create the floats and provide the dancers for the sambodromo, the main parade during Carnival.

Samba School Costumes

Samba School Costumes

We were lucky enough to have some of the head dancers teach us basic steps.  If you’re in Rio de Janeiro, you can check out the samba schools’ schedules and descriptions to attend a samba night and learn the dance.  Here’s the thing about samba: the basic steps are actually pretty easy to learn, it’s just extremely difficult to do them without looking like you’re having a seizure.  In other words, to do them gracefully and follow the rhythm.  Which is why the next step might be necessary.

Drink a Couple of Caipirinhas

You don’t have to get drunk (though if you want to, go ahead).  But a couple of drinks will get you over your fears that you will look spastic while marching in the sambodromo, and more willing to really get into the mood of the festival.  Either you will get over yourself and get better at dancing samba, or at least you will convince yourself you’re a samba star by the night’s end

Plus, you’re attending Brazilian Carnival.  If you can’t enjoy some caipirinhas now, then when?

Have Fun With the Costumes & Watch Out for the Heat

Brazilian Carnival Costumes

We were dressed in white and red Greco-Roman(ish) costumes, with huge feathered headresses and 3 foot wide shoulder pads.  Only the samba queens wear glorified body glitter as outfits, so you don’t need to worry if you’ve been hitting the por kilo meat buffets a little hard.  The only downside of my costume, besides bumping into things constantly, is that I was wearing 3 layers while manically dancing down a long sambodromo with huge bright lights on either side, and the São Paulo weather was in full summer mode (90 F, 100% humidity).  So be prepared for some messiness and, if you’re anything like me, your hair expanding up and out.

Singing & Traditions: Smile & Fake It

Brazilian Carnival Globo

Globo Cameraman

We couldn’t understand or speak Portuguese, besides a few basic words, but the entire time we were marching, everyone else was singing along to some catchy (and I assume, traditional) song.  So we just smiled and lip-synched really exhuberantly for the first couple of verses, and then picked up enough to scream out at least some of the lyrics.  Brazilians are really friendly, open people, so have fun, get over yourself, and have a good attitude, and I promise no one will look at you strangely for not knowing what to do or messing up.  Everyone was really welcoming when we were there, and we even got interviewed by Globo, a top TV station in Brazil, about how we enjoyed the experience.  And I am 99% sure they were being friendly and not laughing at us (a group of 30 sweaty American students with headresses) during the interview.

Congrats! Now Sit Back and Enjoy the Show

Brazilian Carnival Float 2

This was my favorite part, because I got to relax with a cold beer in the stands, rest my legs, and watch the rest of the parade go by along with my friends.  The samba queens who led each school were all drop dead gorgeous (surprise), and the floats were gigantic, colorful works of art, overflowing with glitter, dancing women and transvestites.  Each school of samba has a different theme, and usually it is some kind of commentary on a social issue, or a tribute to a historic event or figure.  From what I understood, transsexuals, transvestites, and women are so prominent in the parade because of Carnival’s tradition of role reversal; groups that are still somewhat hidden in Brazilian society, such as transvestites and transsexuals, get to claim the spotlight, and the prized positions of samba queen and porta-bandeira (person in charge of samba school flag) are designed for women only. 

Brazilian Carnival Float 2

The parade ended at 6 AM, and after hours of dancing, singing, laughing, and drinking, I was exhausted.  No matter how well you rest, and hydrate, and conserve your energy, if you’re going to tough it out and stay for the whole event, know that you will end your first night at Brazilian Carnival like this:

Exhausted Carnival

Brazil Carnival 2014 ends March 4th, and the rest of the days of the festival will probably be an even bigger blur.  So remember to keep calm and party on.

If you want to see a short video of the sambodromo check out my video of Carnival here.  Sorry for the shaky quality, this was taken in 2009 with the really cheap digital camera I had back then.