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The Rio Carnival Parade (or Rio Samba Parade) is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that is not to be missed.
The spectacle features the parading prowess of numerous Rio Samba Schools. Samba Schools are Rio neighborhood groups that spend months preparing for Brazil Carnival and the Samba Parade each year. The Rio Samba Parade culminates in a performance in the Sambodromo, a giant stadium in which the principal paraders strut their stuff for judges and spectators. In the 1980s, the Sambodromo was built downtown as a permanent structure that would house the Samba Parade, replacing the simple bleachers set up by the government every year around Carnival time. Learn more about the Sambodromo here.
While a lot of Carnival celebrations feature parades, the Rio Samba Parade is unlike any other in the world. Although the parades began as informal street gatherings with groups of people celebrating Carnival with music and dancing, eventually the parades became competitions. Local neighborhoods (the Samba Schools) vied for the top status of showing the best performance in the parade. The stakes are raised each year, with increasingly amazing and outlandish stunts performed by the Samba Schools.
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Getting Ready for the Rio Samba Parade
Each year, the Samba Schools get ready for the Samba Parade months before the start of Carnival season. The schools each choose a theme first, and after that, they selecte the samba song (via competition). Then the Carnival Designer and Samba School members choose, design, and create the costumes and floats. By early December, the schools move into rehearsal mode. The schools record their annual samba songs and distribute them to local record stores by Christmastime.
The Samba Schools each choose different themes for the Rio Samba Parade, and they all vary from year to year. Some themes honor particular figures or time periods in Brazilian history or culture; others emphasize certain events, artistry, or other creative aspects. Each school must display its theme in every part of its performance, including in its music, floats, and costumes.
Elements of the Samba School Performance
Each school’s performance in the parade is highly coordinated, creating a show of epic proportions. The performers arrange themselves in a distinctive way for their show. The Samba School performers are split up into different sections, and each section has wings made up of approximately 100 people with identical costumes. In total, each Samba School performs with about 3,000 to 5,000 paraders.
Between the wings of Samba School performers, there are usually eight floats, some of which are simply pushed by community members and others that have motors. These not only provide transportation for important guests, but they also act as platforms for amazing samba dancers who are decked out in intricate and colorful costumes.
Samba Schools each have their own colors (from their flags) and original costume styles. The costumes worn by the Samba School members are designed months in advance and help complete the awe-inspiring spectacle of the Rio Carnival Parade. The creations are something right out of the imagination, made of sequins, feathers, colorful cloth, silk, mirrors, and all other materials possible. These unique creations are planned down to the tiniest detail. The main floatees (destaques) have the most extravagant costumes. These are people picked by the Samba Schools who ride on the floats in special places of honor. Regardless of what role the paraders take, you can be sure to be amazed by the lavish costumes and rich colors that each Samba School brings to the parade.
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Judging the Samba Parade
While the Samba Parade might just appear to be pure entertainment, it’s actually a dazzling competition. During the parade, judges in the Sambodromo score the Samba Schools’ performances on ten categories, with strict regulations and high expectations.
Four judges score each of the ten categories, making 40 judges in total. The judges score on a scale from 5-10, with 10 being the highest score. Scores are totaled and released the day after Fat Tuesday (Ash Wednesday). The judges watch from booths throughout the seats along Samba Avenue in the Sambodromo, with the majority of them in Sector 2. Their positions are noted with banners that say, “Julgadores” (Judges). Keep an eye out for them in the Sambodromo!
The ten categories include the following: Percussion Band, Samba Song, Harmony, Flow and Spirit, Theme of the Year, Overall Impression, Floats and Props, Costumes, Vanguard Group, and Flag Carrying Group.
- Percussion Band
The percussion is supposed to maintain the beat throughout the whole parade. They set the rhythm, and all the paraders must sing and dance to it. When looking at the Percussion Band, the judges consider the regularity and continuity of the beat, precision, and balance. They expect the rhythm to vary and have originality, but the tempo and rhythms should always be controlled and sustained.
- Samba Song
The samba song holds the central theme that the Samba School is displaying in that year’s Rio Carnival Parade. The words have to match the music since judges pay attention to artistic merit as well. Only in this category do judges partition their scores, giving some points for lyrics and others for melody.
Judges score the harmony based on musicality, acoustics, and visual harmony within the performance. To do well in this category, the Samba School’s music, rhythm, and singing needs to blend together perfectly with the paraders’ dancing and movements. Performers can also lose points because of weak singing.
- Flow and Spirit of the Participants
For flow and spirit of the participants, judges look at the coherence and congruence of paraders’ dancing with the music. The parade has to move along steadily while also being free-spirited and natural, conveying the creativity, excitement, and liveliness of the Samba School members.
- Theme of the Year
The theme of the year is the main motif that the Samba School chooses each year, which inspires every part of the parade. The judges pay attention to the merit of the idea on a general level as well as the use of the idea in all aspects of the performance, including in the wings, floats, costumes, and music. The theme should be easy to comprehend and the bedrock of the school’s performance.
- Overall Impression
Overall impression is a category without technical criteria. Judges give marks based on the overall impact of the performance. Because it is such a subjective category, it can be highly contended.
- Floats and Props
Floats and props are judged in regards to their expression of the theme, their uniqueness, and their quality. This includes the movements, design, and colors as well as any special effects created by all the floats and props
Costumes are judged based on uniqueness, style, color, and and creativity. Judges look at costumes both on an individual level and their effects overall. They also pay attention to the costumes’ representation of the theme and how well they deliver the idea the performers are trying to convey.
- Vanguard Group
This category focuses on the School’s opening wing. Judges look at the dancing, costumes, and how well the opening show introduces the School to the audience.
- Flag Carrying Group
In this category, judges score the first dancing master and his partner. They are scored for their choreography, coordination, style, and finesse. Judges look at the variation of their movements as well as their agility, and they also give marks for the symbolic protection of the Flag.
Who’s Who in the Rio Carnival Parade
Carnival King (King Momo)
King Momo is the king of Carnival, and his appearance represents the beginning of the celebrations. The god of mockery in Greek mythology was called “Momo.” According to Brazilian legend, Momo was sent away from Olympus to settle Rio de Janeiro. In Carnival celebrations, King Momo is supposed to be a man of large stature and great joy—and in Rio, he’s needs to be able to samba. At the beginning of Brazil Carnival Rio, King Momo receives the keys to the city. King Momo is in charge of opening all Rio Carnival events, so you’ll certainly see him around at the Carnival of Rio de Janeiro festivities.
Queen and Princesses of Carnival
The Queen of Carnival is competitively selected every year, and contestants are judged based on their beauty, confidence, amiability, expressiveness, congeniality, and samba skills. Overall, she has to have the “carnival spirit.” The second and third place contestants are the Princesses of Carnival.
The Carnival Designer designs, produces, and directs the Samba School’s parade. Sometimes they’re even responsible for choosing and writing the school’s theme. The scope of the Carnival Designer’s work is broad, as they are in charge of the design of each costume and float, the selection and buying of materials, and the creation of the floats and costumes. Some Carnival Designers are renowned throughout Rio for their work, and each has his/her own unique style.
The wing is the basic unit of the Samba School’s parade, and each Samba School is divided into a number of them. The wings are made up of about 20-100 people, all of whom wear identical costumes in a unified performance. Each wing has a leader who is in charge of costume production and sales and coordinates the wing’s choreography and movements.
The vanguard group is the Samba School’s first wing and the audience’s introduction to a school. They have a very important role of opening the performance for the school, and this group of 12-15 members dances in a complex routine. Each year, the vanguard groups of the different schools try to out-dance each other—and the previous years’ performances—creating grander and more complicated spectacles. Unlike the other wings, the costumes for this group of performers doesn’t have to match the school’s theme. Early in the history of the Rio Samba Parade, this group was just a handful of well-dressed men, but over time their role in the Carnival extravaganza has only increased. There is also a float with this wing that displays the symbols of the Samba School and transports celebrities, all of whom don incredible costumes.
Flag Carrying Group
The flag carrying group, or the flag carrying couple, presents the Samba School’s flag. While the couple dances down Samba Avenue, the woman usually carries the flag and her partner “protects” her. Early in the history of the Rio Samba Parade, he brandished a knife to keep other schools from harming the flag, which would cause them to lose the contest. The couple’s choreography is complex and skillful.
Whirling Ladies (Baianas)
The whirling ladies are typically composed of older women who wear snazzy versions of traditional Bahia state costumes. The clothing consists of large skirts with tubes inserted—making for a beautiful effect when the women spin and twirl. As they dance their way down Samba Avenue, they symbolize the heart of the Samba Schools and their African roots. A minimum number of Whirling Ladies must be present in the parade or the school will face a deduction in their points. Usually, this group is made up of older women from the community who have a long history of being a part of the Samba School. It is an honor to be a part of this respected group, and as such, the Samba School pays for their elaborate costumes. While nowadays only women play this role, in previous years men sometimes wore such costumes as well. And some schools even have little Baianas composed of teenage girls.
Percussion Band (Bateria)
The Percussion Band is formed by 250-350 percussionists, most of whom are drummers. They provide the life-beat to the parade, and their rhythms pervade the entirety of the parade. The lead drummer selects the members of this group through competitive auditions months in advance of the start of Brazil Carnival Rio. The Samba Schools bring their own overhead microphones with them, which follow the percussionists. There is also a sound truck that carries samba singers. The costumes of the Percussion Band match the main theme of the Samba School, and sometimes their own costumes are so elaborate it becomes difficult to play!
Each Samba School typically has an acclaimed male lead vocalist who is accompanied by a number of additional singers. They often ride on the sound truck just after the percussionists, and sometimes they parade on the samba runway.
Queen of the Drummers
The Queen of the Drummers is a lovely female samba dancer who precedes the percussionists and introduces them to the audience. As the Queen, she energizes and encourages the hundreds of drummers behind her.
The Samba Dancers make up a small wing of the Samba School’s parade, with only about 15-20 performers. This group is kept small to ensure high quality, as it takes a special dancer to be able to do the samba while proceeding at a walking pace for about a half mile. Thus, these dancers are selected each year through a rigorous competition and become stars in this honored role.
Stewards of the Flow
Every float and wing has several Stewards of the Flow who make sure that the pace is maintained by every part of the Samba School Parade. Because schools can receive a penalty if their parade lasts too long or if there are unnecessary spaces/gaps among the wings, these Stewards play a key role in ensuring that the parade moves smoothly and remains coordinated.
Now that you know all about the Rio Samba Parade, make your plans for to come and see the fun of Brazil Carnival 2013! Experience the sights, sounds, colors, and extravagance of one of the biggest, most spectacular events in the world! Book your flight to Rio Carnival 2013, buy your Rio Carnival tickets, reserve your place in the Sambodromo, and get ready for the excitement!
>>RIO CARNIVAL 2013 PARADING SCHEDULE
>>CARNIVAL OF RIO DE JANEIRO’S SAMBA SCHOOLS
>>THE SAMBODROMO—THE MAINSTAGE OF BRAZIL CARNIVAL RIO