Brazilians possess an innate rhythm and an unbelievable ability to move their bodies to the rapid beats of samba – something that is far beyond comprehension for an average North American such as myself, though I’ve concluded that the only reasonable explanation is that they must have a couple of extra joints in their bodies. Their remarkable ability to samba is fostered through childhood, where local communities are united within the prestigious Escolas de Samba (Samba Schools). Samba Schools are often the foundation of a community, where locals strive to make the team and represent their Samba School in the quest to appear at the world renowned annual Carnival.
Rio’s Schools are the pulse of Samba in Brazil.
They are situated on the outskirts of the favelas, which make it very difficult for tourists to visit. I was lucky enough to have my cousin, an Italian expat in Brazil, take me to Mangueira Samba School – one of the oldest and most respected Samba schools in Rio. Before that night (I call it that night, because that is when I truly experienced Rio), I had no idea what a Samba School was. In fact, I actually thought that we were going to a traditional school where Samba music was taught, and that the public had the opportunity to go and listen.
I can’t believe how wrong I was.
We hailed a taxi outside of my cousin’s ritzy condo in glamorous Leblon to take us to the favela of Mangueira, where we would visit their Samba school. As we bounced around in the back of the NASCAR-racing taxi, I began to notice the glaring difference between the affluent Zona Sol (South Zone) and our destination, Central Rio. The street lights were scarce, the small housing units were stacked on top of one another, and I even caught a glimpse of a SWAT team passing by in a tanker, all of which are characteristic of various areas in Central Rio. We entered the favela, and I felt a lump in my throat as my paranoia began to build. I clenched the door handle while looking wide-eyed out the window. Brazilian funk was playing, the base was pumping, and bodies swarmed the streets – most of which were half-clothed. When the taxi came to an abrupt stop, I reluctantly exited behind my cousin and his friends. I wrapped my purse around my body and fastened it to my waist.
With a nervous smile plastered across my face, I followed my cousin as we weaved through the crowd until we reached the foot of Escola de Samba Mangueira, which looked like a giant watermelon. It was your typical school building, only it was painted in bright pink and green (traditional Mangueira colours). We were walking alongside the fluorescent building when my cousin came to a sudden stop. He bent over and began to speak to the wall. I was about to ask him how much he had to drink when I realized there was a tiny hole in the wall, not even big enough to fit a hand through. He rolled up some cash and stuck it through the small hole, after which a few tickets were slid back out to him. He had just purchased our tickets at a maximum security ticket booth, which was a small hole in a concrete wall, not even big enough to see the attendant on the other side.
We entered the school with our tickets, and after a brief security check, we were in. At that moment, an overwhelming sense of excitement took over. Bright lights illuminated the vibrant pink and green décor, plastic tables and chairs marked the perimeter of the dance floor, and vendors lined the walls. The crowds were pouring in, while those who were already there prepared for the party by purchasing drinks and paraphernalia from the gift shop.
A little while later, the percussion started and I could feel the beat invade my body – the synchronized cadence and sheer power of the thunderous sound was mind-blowing. On a giant balcony overlooking the dance floor, approximately 50-60 men performed as a united percussion and produced a rhythm so irresistible that the crowd instantly swarmed the dance floor. From old ladies to children, everyone was rapidly moving their feet to the music, while wiggling their hips in unison with many other body parts, as they were born to do.
I was awestruck. The exuberance and passion of the dancers and musicians was magical. The party went on until the wee hours of the morning, during which they showcased the school royalty in full costume, and honoured choreographers, as well as the past and present members of the school. It was like a miniature carnival contained within the walls of an institution. Although I have two left feet and not a hint of Brazilian rhythm, I jumped right in with the rest and danced until my feet couldn’t handle any more. The spirit and energy at that moment was something to truly marvel at. The crowd’s allegiance to Mangueira, as well as their respect and passion for their culture was remarkable. Concerns of my safety had now escaped my mind, as I was fully engulfed in the electrifying atmosphere. Without doubt that tonight was the night that I had truly experienced Rio.