You’ve heard about Carnival in Rio de Janeiro and know it is arguably the biggest party in the world, when travellers flood Brazil’s city to join “Cariocas” (Rio locals) in a week-long blow out during the peak of summer. The grand finale is an electrifying samba dance-off through the aptly named Sambadrome. While it’s popular for tourists to attend this Samba Parade as spectators, it’s less commonly known that you can actually join the samba school and sing and dance your way through an unforgettable experience.

Waiting our turn to Samba dance

Carnival costumes represented the Italian population in Brazil

Carnival in Rio de Janeiro
Credit: SMP

As my husband is from Rio, his friends obtained our tickets and costumes from one of the 12 participating samba schools before we arrived. The competition winner earns serious bragging rights, and each school prepares year-round with original themes, music, dance routines, floats, and a variety of dazzling costumes.

Just because we were on vacation did not mean we could arrive unprepared. We had plenty of opportunities to practice our samba steps from one street party to the next. By the time we lined up at sunset backstage for the official event, everyone was exhausted and exhilarated as we waited until well past 4am for our entrance. Despite this, it was crucial that we kept up during the 1-2 hours it took to make it through the stadium, as dozens of judges were scattered throughout the crowd to critique the performance. No one cared how awful my Portuguese was or how sleep deprived we were as long as our lips & legs kept moving.

If we missed too many beats, a choreographer would blast their whistle in our direction – although the warning was easy to miss amongst the whistles, drumming, and chorus from the other 30,000 revelers. Just when I thought I might collapse, the roar of the crowd subsided, we exited the stadium, and the first signs of dawn appeared. It was time to head to the after-party.