Just to say that Carnival is important to Brazilians is a big understatement. To say that Carnival is for tourists is also wrong. When the vote counting is accompanied by arson, the burning of a float and massive violence over the “wrong” decision by the judges, as happened in Sao Paulo in 2012, it is safe to say that Carnival is more than just important to Brazilians. [wpspoiler name=”Read more” closebtn=”Close”] Brazil lives Carnival. Brazil adores Carnival. Business life stops in Brazil somewhere two weeks before Carnival. The whole world knows that Carnival is a big show that Brazilians put on once a year. The world knows that women wear skimpy clothing and dance samba. Surprisingly, not as many people know that Carnival is a competition of samba-schools. Each samba-school includes thousands of people who regularly practice during the year, and during Carnival they participate in the parade/competition.

Getting ready for Carnival

Nowadays, each school is represented by up to 3,500 participants. Back in the day, when Carnival started to exist, somewhere 80 years ago, only 100 people would walk for each school.

The competition takes two days, Sunday and Monday, or, to be more exact, two nights.

Each school’s entrance is accompanied by fireworks. It just looks so much better against the dark sky! And all the glitter and shine! Definitely more impressive at night! Plus, during the day it’s hot. Temperatures stay around 95 F and drop to mid-70s at night.


A total of 12 schools walk a 700-meter long (roughly half mile) sambadrome in front of 72,500 people, six schools each day. The group of 10 judges, one for each judging category, watches the schools and takes notes. No cells phones are allowed and no alcoholic beverages, for the judges at least… They have an important decision to make, and a tough one! The winner will get all the glory and the worst school will be sent to the lower division the next year.

The difference between the first and second place is sometimes only decimals, like it was in 2012. Unidos da Tijuca with 299.9 points beat the second best Salgueiro by 0.2!

What do all those 3,500 people do during the parade? It depends on their role.

There is a porta-bandeira and a mestre-sala, a couple that opens the school’s procession and carries the flag of the school. During the parade they spend some extra time dancing in front of the judges. If you get a seat in Sector 9, right in front of the box for judges, you will get an extra bonus of experiencing it too.

Porta-bandeira with flag of samba school

Then there is a bateria, an orchestra of percussion instruments. When hundreds of drums would start playing at the same time, it would send shivers down my spine.  Somehow it evokes anxiety that I can’t explain. The whole sambadrome picks up the beat and it feels like you are surrounded by thousands of people in some giant room for meditation.

Drum section can’t be without the queen, or muse. She walks in front of the drums and dances. To be a muse is very prestigious because her name will be in newspapers and her face will be on TV. The whole country will know her name!

Women lose weight and/or have plastic surgeries to be the muse. But don’t expect to see runway model-type bodies at Carnival. Being skinny and flat is not attractive. Women are proud of their voluptuous bodies and they like to show them off.

There is a group of baianas, women dressed in long dresses, and  velha guarda, a group of old samba dancers. There are musicians and hundreds of people dressed in costumes that convey the school theme for the parade.

Not particularly a happy dancer.. By this point she has walked about 2/3 of a mile in this dress

There are thousands of people working for each school behind the scenes. In two days, and only 90 minutes for each school, we see the results of their one-year long project.

There are people who come up with the theme of the parade, costume designers and tailors, composers, singers, people building floats and many more that I can’t even think of.

Each school has a song that’s written for the parade. It is repeated many times during an hour and a half long walk. Even if you didn’t speak Portuguese at the beginning of the Carnival, you will at the end. All in all, repetition is a good thing for studying a foreign language.

Most schools are located in favelas (shanty town) but it does not necessarily mean that the schools are scrambling for money. All of them have sponsors, some legal, some-not so much. To have your name associated with the winner of Carnival is the best advertisement most companies can only dream of. When the school wins, the whole country knows the winner school of the Rio Carnival.

Some schools also receive grants from the government.

If the school joins a samba school union, like União das Escolas de Samba de São Paulo, or Liga Independente das Escolas de Samba do Rio de Janeiro, and moves up to the top of the schools ranking, the size of the grant will vary depending on the school hierarchy, from 30,000 to 350,000 Brazilian reais ($15,000 to 220,000), according to Cintia Costa’s article “Como funcionam as escolas de samba” (

Some schools are very well financed. In 2007 Beija-Flor, a school that has won the champion title seven times in the last 14 years, had a budget of seven million Brazilian reais. Usually it shows in more elaborate costumes and floats.

One of the floats by Beija-Flor in 2012

But even the schools with ampler budgets are experiencing the results of Brazil’s attempt to get control over illegal activities. Cash flow has decreased after some school sponsors had been put in jail.

Schools’ budgets may be tighter, but the desire to impress judges and the audience is on a par with athletes competing for Olympic gold. For many people to win the competition is one of their lives’ biggest achievements and a source of pride.

Carnival 2012 happened only three months ago but the schools have already started preparing for Carnival 2013.

And as always, a long period of blocos (street parties) all over Rio will precede the big event.  Thousands of locals and tourists will be partying day and night on the streets of Rio for three weeks, consuming 80% of all beer sold in the country during the year.

Octoberfest, you don’t need to worry about competition. Antarctica, the beer that’s sold at the blocos is light and tastless. Antarctica, please forgive me. I am not your fan.

I am looking forward to the next Carnival! Little compares to this feast of color, light and emotions! And no arsons, please! And no trash on the beach!

Monday morning on Ipanema beach. The first day of Carnival just ended