Situated on the top floor of a samba school’s production facility in Rio De Janeiro, Ana Cláudia Azevedo uses a glue gun to attach purple and gold sequins to a piece of fabric. On the table lies an artist’s sketch of an elaborate woman’s dress she is trying to create for Brazil’s annual Carnival, which is still six months away.
The dimly lit warehouse of the Portela samba school is quiet, with just a few people helping her, some people in administrative offices and a couple more building an eagle sculpture. In a corner on that same floor, a man is making a hat out of Styrofoam.
The first floor looks abandoned, with stripped-down parade cars lined up and a few discarded decorations, like a giant green alien head, scattered throughout.
In a few months, this place will be bright and filled with people working to create nine parade cars and costumes for about 4,000 people for the samba school’s annual performance.
Every February, samba schools across Brazil participate in Carnival, the country’s festival featuring organized parades from samba schools in cities like Rio. Each school is given 82 minutes (soon to be 78 due to changes suggested by a TV station) to dance, sing, drive and drum through Sambadrome Marquês, a long street surrounded by stadium-style seat.
The top two groups of schools have about 3,000-5,000 people, while the lower-tier schools have about 1,500 participants.
It’s much different than the United States’ Rose Bowl Parade or Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade because each group is judged on their 82 minutes of performance, and the theme has to be consistent throughout all of the parts. Every portion of the 4,000-person display has to be united.
And winning means a lot for these groups.
In Brazil, samba is much more than a dance. And the samba schools aren’t focused on teaching people how to samba. While they have various performances throughout the year, the parade is each samba school’s end goal.
Even while the Olympics consume the city, the 70 Rio samba schools of various levels are already preparing for Carnival.
“Samba is not simply the songs,” said Marcus Falcon, the president of the Portela samba school. “Samba is also about groups of feelings. They combine the rhythm, the dance, the music, the art and mainly the passion.”
At the front of the warehouse in the center of Rio, a man guards the entrance, making sure other samba schools don’t steal the secrets of Portela. Every samba school in the top bracket (12 schools) has a warehouse in what is deemed “Samba City.” Portela’s is situated right next to the Olympic volunteer uniform pick-up for the time being.
Started in 1923, Portela is the oldest remaining samba group in Rio, said Raphael Azevedo, the school’s press officer, and one of the oldest schools.
The school has won 21 times — an all-time record — and in 2016 scored in the top three. Portela hasn’t won first place in Carnival since 1984, but it’s the school most closely associated with the history of samba.
“It’s the most majestic samba,” Falcon said. “Portela has this strong connection with the history of samba. It’s one of the oldest samba schools in the world and has some unquestionable and unconquerable qualities.”
Even for Brazilians who aren’t involved directly with a samba school, it’s a part of their culture, especially in Rio. Brazilians gather every year and purchase tickets for the Carnival.
Valci Pelé, one of the people in charge of dance and the timing of the show, still remembers watching Portela perform on TV long before he joined the school.
He wants to leave a positive impact on people, and for him, that comes from teaching teenagers and kids at the samba school.
“I consider myself a small cell of this bigger body called samba,” Pelé said. “I’m very enchanted by the opportunity to work with those kids and teenagers. And we have received some compliments from their parents, saying they are becoming better human beings, that they’re behaving better at home or doing better at school. Sometimes, they get here what they don’t have at home or at school.”
Even the Rio government invests in the samba schools. About 10 years ago, the Rio government created “Samba City” for the 12 samba schools in the top tier, Raphael Azevedo said. As soon as a school gets knocked out of the top 12, they have to leave Samba City and their warehouse.
The government also provides $2 million every year for the top 12 schools, and some money for lower-tier schools to create the parades. Television stations give an additional $3 million.
In February of this year, the Sambadrome Marquês, just north of Santa Teresa, was packed with people watching the parades. According to the Rio Carnival website, about 500,000 foreign tourists come to the city each year.
At the front of Portela’s parade was a group of dancers in blue suits, walking next to a boat tipping from side-to-side.
Further along the parade route a giant mechanical Gulliver from “Gulliver’s Travels” rested horizontally on a parade car. About 10 samba dancers hung on to him with rope, as his body slowly righted itself, standing tall. Meanwhile, Gulliver’s head rotated from side to side.
The floats are by no means a small task; making them takes woodwork, design and electrical engineering.
The judges look at the parade as a whole, including how the theme is carried out and if everyone is singing as one. Certain people in the samba school are chosen to hold a flag for the school during the parade and are judged more strictly. If they don’t maintain their energy and smiles the entire time, they’ll lose points for the schools.
There are multiple levels of samba parade competition. At the highest level (the First League), the top-12 schools compete and the one that loses has to move down a level the next year.
While most of the samba school’s work for 2016 will happen later in the year, they are in the initial stages of planning. Portela announced its theme this week.
“Practically speaking, it’s a dive into the waters of important rivers of the world, representing all the religions, beliefs, and the mysteries along the rivers,” said Falcon.
They’ve already created drawings of some of the costumes they’ll wear during Carnival — drawings that only those involved in the process are allowed to see. Now they’re creating the first models of the outfits.
Later in the month, they’ll choose the song they’ll sing during the entirety of their parade. They’ll then work on creating the parade vehicles, taking whatever structure they can from previous years to create work that matches the year’s theme.
In 2015, the school spent $12 million on the parade, Raphael Azevedo said.
By December, samba schools have already made considerable progress with the cars and costumes. About five years ago, Portela and two other samba schools lost most of what they created in a December fire that spread quickly. All Portela’s hard work went up in flames just two months before the Carnival. They had no other option but to participate in the parade with only two vehicles and not be a part of the actual competition.
“To the Portela community, it was very painful because for the first time, Portela was just passing by without actually competing to win,” said Falcon.
When those at the samba school aren’t preparing for the parade, they’re still performing. Every first Saturday of the month, the school prepares Feijoda, a popular Brazilian food, and performs. Recently, they also performed at the Austrian House for the Olympic Games, said Nilce Fran, another person in charge of dance and timing for the samba school.
When asked how much time Fran said she devotes to the samba school, she just laughed.
“Twenty-four hours a day,” she said. “Samba is the air I breathe, and it’s what I like to do the most in my life. It makes me complete as a professional, as a human being, as a woman. So to sum it up, samba is my life.”
Kaitlin Lange is a Ball State University student and writer for Ball State at the Games, a group of 50 journalism students traveling from Muncie, Indiana, to Rio for the Olympic Games. Follow them atbsuatthegames.com, @bsuatthegames on Twitter and Instagram, and facebook.com/bsuatthegames on Facebook.
I’m Kaitlin Lange, a senior political science and journalism major at Ball State. I am finishing up an internship at the Indianapolis Star where I have focused much of my time on politics, education and breaking news. Last year I was the editor of the Ball State Daily News, our school’s student newspaper. I love telling people’s stories and also explaining complex issues in an easy to understand way. You can guarantee I’ll somehow find a way to bring up cats in one of my stories while in Rio.