After four days of using Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival block parties to warm up for the big celebrations, it was time for two of the main events:
- One of the two nights of Sambadromo parades from which the annual winner would be chosen; and
- The audacious, traditional finale to the Carnival season, the Gay Costume Ball.
What is the Grand Parade?
Although there are parades in every corner of the cities, the largest, most elaborate and best choreographed are invited to strut their stuff at the giant Sambadromo. One night, for example, is devoted to invited children’s samba schools, another to so-called Group A (large, tier-two) schools. Sunday and Monday nights are devoted to the best of the best, those schools that have qualified for the Special Group, and eligible to compete for the grand prize. Each of the two Special Group nights consist of seven samba schools, who have 82 minutes apiece to impress the judges and the crowds with their floats, elaborate costumes, precise choreography and legions of dancers, drummers and singers.
We went to the Monday night Special Group parades. Since the parades begin at 9:00 PM and don’t end until 5:12 the next morning (much earlier than the 7:00 A.M. for the Sunday night parades), we decided on an abbreviated stay. We arrived for what we were told are the best samba schools, starting just after 11:00. We decided, on recommendation, to do three parades–Salgueiro, Mangueira, Unidos da Tijuca (the latter of which ended up winning this year’s competition). This allowed us to get back to our hotel and get to bed early, by 4:00 AM.
When we arrived, our reserved seats (which range from $250 to more than $2,500 per ticket) were waiting for us. We, along with about 200,000 of our friends for the evening, were ready to be entertained. (Yes, about 200,000–and that did not include the performers, of whom we estimate there are at least 5,000 in each parade. But, with all the people, we had plenty of room, not only to sit, but to stand up and dance in front of, and around our seats, with plenty of room. Why? While those up in the unreserved bleacher seats appeared to be a bit cramped, we had reserved seats only 7 rows back from the parade–an area where rows and seats were well spaced, providing room not only to place drinks and stretch your legs, but to jump up and cheer, and even dance, in front of your seat.
Let the parades begin!
After of our first float arrived, we all had only one reaction. Wow!!! By the time the first parade ended about 80 minutes later, we were in awe. We had been to Mardi Gras several times, and to the Rose Parade. Nothing prepared us for this. Although we loved them all, think of it like this:
- The Rose Parade is like, well, a college bowl game:
- The big Mardi Gras Bacchus parade is a state high school championship:
- A Carnival “Special Group” parade is the Super Bowl.
The floats are not only huge, but complex, mechanical devices that are often gorgeously lit and performers with beautifully costumed people. Many of these floats are awesome in size, scale and complexity. And there are so many, it is hard to select just a few to highlight. But for most, words don’t begin to describe. We will, therefore, tell the story primarily with pictures.
Many of these floats, however, are so out-scale, lovely and intricate, however, as to be best appreciated from up-close—both for their design and for the elaborately costumed riders.
The Casts of Thousands
Although the floats may be the biggest and most sensational hits of the parades, each also consists of thousands of dancers, marchers and musicians, all in elaborate costumes and all continually dancing, gyrating and otherwise grooving to the beats of the school’s own samba songs.
Spectators as Participants
Each is accompanied by booming, hard-beat samba music with people in the stands–some of whom were more than dressed for the occasion–waving flags of and signing along with and some actively (some very vigorously dancing) to the theme songs of their favored schools.
But views of the performers were not limited to those marching in the parades. Many costumed performers were walking the Sambadroma and the nearby streets before and after their parades. Most were more than happy to pose for pictures—and we were happy to oblige.
But enough glitz, glamour and fun for one night, not to speak of for one blog. The Gay Costume Ball needs its own, separate profile.