“Follow the feathers” was my strategy for finding the Sambadrome stadium in Brazil this past Sunday, the first evening of Rio Carnival‘s famed samba parades. The metro exit was packed with crowds moving in all different directions, so I had little choice but to follow the handful of people wearing large, extravagant costumes in front of me. They were obviously going where I needed to go.
The strategy worked out, because my costumed friends didn’t just lead me to the parade venue — they headed straight for the backstage staging area where hundreds of dancers and participants were being outfitted for the main event. As the costumed gentry walked through the security gates, I concealed myself in their feathers and followed along. Backstage access, secured.
The highlight of Rio de Janeiro‘s Carnival festivities, the Sambadrome parades are all-night marathon spectacles of samba school processions that take place over the Sunday and Monday of Carnival. The parades start at 8 p.m. and last until well past dawn, with about seven schools putting on elaborate shows of about an hour each.
Rio’s samba schools spend all year preparing for the parades, constructing huge floats, designing extravagant costumes, and of course, choreographing and practicing complex samba numbers. Each samba school chooses a theme and a story, usually related to some aspect of Brazilian culture. This year, for the first time, booklets were distributed to all guests that laid out each act of the parade, highlighted special celebrities, and listed the lyrics to each samba school’s signature marchinhas, or Carnival songs.
The work pays off. Thousands of people, Brazilians and tourists alike, pay up to $1500 for a chance to view the parades, and the results are followed as closely as the American Super Bowl. Schools are judged by ten categories, including theme, samba song, percussion band, harmony, flow and spirit, floats and props, costumes, vanguard group, flag carrying couple, and overall impression. This year, Unidas de Tijuca took the top prize, with a theme centered around folk singer Luiz Gonzaga and the culture of Brazil’s northeast region.
And the parades themselves? Breathtaking. The floats were massive, with mechanized figures and fountains. The costumes were gorgeous, and with the binoculars I borrowed from my neighbor, I could see the intricacies of the sequins and beading. The dancing was tremendous, and the 3,000 to 5,000 paraders exuded an energy that infected the entire stadium. Everyone was on their feet.
What words and photos can’t describe, hopefully this video can. Or, you could just start planning for next year.
Check out Gadling’s full range of Rio Carnival 2012 coverage here.