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How to take part in a Rio Carnival parade

Rio's amazing six-day Carnival conjures up visions of exotic feather-clad dancers and hedonistic partygoers. For most of us, the chance just to see one of the Carnival parades at the Sambadrome would be enough, but Stephen Hodges took matters one samba-step further...
How to take part in a Rio Carnival parade
How to take part in a Rio Carnival parade

Rio de Janeiro is home to golden beaches, the Christ the Redeemer statue, and of course, the world-famous Carnival.

My girlfriend and I had decided to visit Rio for Carnival. While planning the trip I came across a travel forum where someone mentioned that not only did they go to the festival — but they took part in a Carnival parade at the famous Sambadrome. We headed for the official Rio Carnival website, which provided details of how to take part in a Rio Carnival parade by purchasing a team costume.

For those that don’t know, Carnival is a celebration that is held across Brazil in the lead up to the Christian season of Lent. Rio’s Carnival parades are a contest between two hundred local samba schools, which is organised in a similar way to a football league. Each school is judged on their parade performance to determine a winner. There are two divisions. Each year the team that finishes on the bottom of division one is relegated to division two and the team that finishes on top of division two is elevated to division one.

In addition to their core performers, each school enlists a number of costumed participants to be part of their parade entry. We found the full range of team costumes and prices posted online. All we had to do was figure out which team costume we wanted to wear, and our decision was made easier by the fact that prices ranged from $250 to $750 per costume! We opted for the cheaper end of the market. Then it was just a case of picking the costumes up on the day of the performance and joining our team in the Sambadrome that evening.

How to take part in a Rio Carnival parade
How to take part in a Rio Carnival parade

Like many others we caught the train into the Sambadrome dressed in our costumes, which made for some very colourful train carriages! We found our marshaling area at the back of the parade ground and met the forty or so other members of our team. There were participants from across the globe.

What amazed me was the number of people involved in the performance. In our school alone, there were the forty participants dressed like us, twenty or thirty main performers and at least twenty people who organised us throughout the parade. We didn’t have a set dance routine to learn, but we did need to keep in formation. Each school had a spectacular float, which featured their team of experienced dancers. There were ten schools performing that night in the second division, so you can imagine the total number of people milling about.

As you march into the Sambadrome with its bright lights, your senses are assailed from every direction. It’s impossible not to start moving in time with the music. The entire audience was on its feet, clapping, cheering and dancing.

The parade ran for 45 minutes and despite the heat and high humidity we kept moving the whole time. We finally made it to the other end of the Sambadrome, tired and bathed in sweat, but thrilled at having taken part in one of the world’s most famous festivals.

How to take part in a Rio Carnival parade
How to take part in a Rio Carnival parade. Image: Bigstock

As the teams of participants dispersed, many of the costumes were given away to local kids who use them to play dress-ups.

Carnival is a spectacle of grandiose proportions, and being involved first-hand was an experience we will never forget.

Do you have any tips for how to take part in a Rio Carnival parade? We would love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.

Additional images: Bigstock

Stephen Hodges

About the writer

Stephen Hodges was a teacher and a social worker before he left Australia for a three-year overseas adventure. While travelling, he worked as a grouse beater in Scotland, a chicken farmer on a Kibbutz in Israel and a camp counsellor in France. On his return to Melbourne, Stephen began working in the travel industry and set up a business, which he ran for six years. He still has a passion for travel and believes life is all about experiences — and that you can find them in the most unlikely places, if you look hard enough.


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