With drips of rain running down my thighs, I waited under an increasing drizzle in bright red Lycra briefs, which, honestly, felt a little itchy. Over the Speedo, I was adorned with orange, red, and green feathers; shin guards; and a headdress. Back home, I might have been mistaken for a misplaced Vegas showgirl, but in Rio de Janeiro during Carnival, I was just another guy on the street in an elaborate Amazonian warrior costume.
As my friend Lara and I waited to parade down the Sambadrome – the massive open-air exhibition space built just for Carnival parades – ovations came from all directions from tens of thousands of people in the maniacal crowd, adding to the cacophony that was dominated by the rhythmic drums of samba music.
Just ahead, the conductor of my group signaled us to move forward.
“It’s showtime!” I said enthusiastically as we stepped forward.
Like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnival is the celebration held before Ash Wednesday and the Christian season of Lent, the 40 days prior to Easter when many Christians forego certain foods and favorite activities in solidarity with Jesus. Carnival – which will officially be held February 13–17 this year – developed as a last hurrah and a way to celebrate before having to give it all up. As in New Orleans, it is not just a day, but a season. And for decades in Brazil, this period of partying has included dancing the samba – or, put another way, partying your ass off by shaking it as fast as you can.
By 1932, this butt-shaking dance had evolved into samba parades, which eventually transformed into the huge spectacle that today attracts visitors worldwide. By the early 1980s, there were so many people going to Rio for the Carnival celebration that a huge permanent venue – the Sambadrome – was built for spectators to watch the parades from grandstands.
Unlike Mardi Gras, Rio’s festivities are not just a party. The parades are a fierce competition among Rio’s 12 main samba schools and clubs, each representing a different district of the city and its favelas. In other words, Lara and I needed to shake it like we meant it.
Through a local tour operator, we’d signed up to join the Beija-Flor school, a seven-time winner at Carnival. That year, their theme was the glory of the Amazon rainforest. In the days leading up to the event, I was sized for my costume, learned the school’s theme song, and practiced my dancing. Though I wasn’t as skilled in pelvic shaking as seasoned samba dancers, I did my best imitation.
Back at our big debut in the Sambadrome, I realized a dress rehearsal would have been helpful – gyrating to samba music was a different experience in my itchy crimson undergarment. Thanks to the few caipirinhas in my system, though, I overcame that irritation and sang along and shook to the beat with a tribal staff in hand, rain pouring down my face, and every last bit of energy I had.
Lara and I were at the front of the pack, along with our squad of tourists. Behind us, hundreds more followed – the members of our team who had been practicing for the past year to parade before the judges. It took about 45 minutes for our group to get from entrance to the exit, but the dozens of groups and floats in the Beija-Flor presentation alone took a couple more hours to complete their route. Meanwhile, we watched from the stands to take in the spectacle, where the infectious rhythms and melodies, the roar of the crowds above, and the euphoria consumed me like nothing else mattered.
The party isn’t confined to the Sambadrome, of course. In Rio, Carnival is everywhere. All around town that weekend, spontaneous parties broke out on the beach, in the streets, and in the big dance halls where the samba schools rehearse. Day or night, you could count on randomly seeing a marching band passing by with an entourage of dancers.
When Ash Wednesday came, the city became quiet, and life returned to normal. Setting out from my rented apartment in Copacabana, I meandered around town that day, but was stopped by a crowd of people staring at a television in a food court. On the screen, a panel of judges was tallying the results of the Sambadrome contest. In the end, Beija-Flor had won its eighth Rio Carnival. For my contribution, I received no medal or trophy, but victory made parading around in that tight, itchy swimsuit all the more sweet.