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Samba schools & Carnival parades

Get a glimpse of the organizational part and investigate the roots of the uplifting and stimulating rhythms of the Brazilian Carnival.

Published at Wed, August 28 2019 • Updated Thu, September 19 2019
A Brazilian Carnival dancer in a spectacular outfit.
© AlbertoBrazil / Pixabay
A Brazilian Carnival dancer in a spectacular outfit.

Getting involved in the Brazilian Carnival is actually an unforgettable experience for participants and attendants. The rhythm the costumes and the level of participation are the major elements that offer a unique feeling and construct probably the “greatest show on earth”. Today, the main characteristics of the Festival are mainly related to the Afro-Brazilian culture which is a fundamental part of Brazilian society. A closer look at the music, the ritualistic parades and last but not least the organizing role of the “samba schools” give a clear picture regarding the principles of the feast.

Samba Schools

Samba school flag carried by a dancing couple.
© Agência Brasi... / Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0]
Samba school flag carried by a dancing couple.

The samba schools are dancing, marching and drumming associations representing a particular neighborhood.

They are organized at the local community level and their principles involve a strong sense of voluntary offer and unity.

Their history is related to the Brasilian Carnival itself while apart from the entertainment purposes, their role has many more aspects for the Brazilian society.

Samba school formation

Mangueira samba school at Rio parade in 1970.
© Brazilian Nati... / Wikimedia Commons [CC0 1.0]
Mangueira samba school at Rio parade in 1970.

The first samba school was established under the name Mangueira in Rio in 1928. It was actually the period when samba started to become the national dance of the country.

Seven years later, in 1935, Sao Paulo got the first samba school and soon that was the case for other states as well.

The term “school” derives from the schoolyard location that hosted the rehearsals of the first samba school.


The sambadrome of Rio De Janeiro.
The sambadrome of Rio De Janeiro.

For almost 50 years, the different samba schools were competing for the best parade performance in the streets of Rio.

But in 1984 the governor of the city constructed the first sambadrome, a parade-area structure where the spectators could observe the floating parade groups.

Since that time, those structures host the carnival parades with thousands of spectators on the spot and millions of others via the live screening across the world.


Samba school members in preparation process.
© Léo Pinheiro / Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Samba school members in preparation process.

The samba schools are active the whole year round since they organize various events, but mainly due to the fact that the required preparations are not a matter of some weeks or even months.

Activities like costume making, float construction, choreographies, and rehearsals need countless hours of voluntary work and dedication. Apart from the volunteers, the samba schools have the opportunity to provide working positions to some poor members of society.

Parade performance

Carnival parade participants in the sambadrome.
Carnival parade participants in the sambadrome.

The Brazilian Carnival is a festival of huge proportions and this is clearly illustrated at the number of performers of each samba school which can go up to 3000 participants.

Elaborate costumes and big parade floats are accompanying the dancing groups (blocos), while through the chosen theme, each school can honor historic figures, myths or even ancient cultures.

Financial resources

Gavioes da Fiel (samba school) carnival float.
© Andersonn.ss / Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0]
Gavioes da Fiel (samba school) carnival float.

The planning and the parade preparation is a megaproject that requires many working hours as well as financial resources.

The political and commercial interests that emerge from such an event, attract many sponsors but also some other sources of funding. More specifically, it is said that “barons” who control drug trafficking and illegal gambling at the favelas (slums) also contribute financially to the local samba schools.

Afro-Brasilian heritage

African-inspired clothed carnival dancers.
© Fábio Goveia / flickr [CC BY 2.0]
African-inspired clothed carnival dancers.

The samba schools are definitely more than dance and entertainment associations. They are active community factors and in many cases they cover needs such as educational requirements and medical care especially at the poorer neighborhoods.

Traditionally, they represent the Afro-Brazilian heritage at the level of working-class activism and pride in contrast to the mainstream system and authoritarian development.

A panoramic picture of the Rio sambadrome.
© Gresasc / Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 4.0]
A panoramic picture of the Rio sambadrome.

Basic elements of the Carnival parade

Every year, each samba school chooses a theme for their parade performance. This theme can be related to a myth, a historic event or figure or even a current social or environmental issue. During the parade show, the chosen theme is displayed divided into different segments. Each of those various segments or wings “alas” includes approximately 100 school members disguised in the same outfit.

The front of the parade includes individuals who are saluting the crowds as well as a female dancer who holds the flag of the samba school. It is common for the leading singers to follow introducing the theme song of the year. The drumming section together with other instruments accompany the singer giving the spectacular tone and rhythm that synchronizes the movement of the whole group. The samba school veteran members have also a prominent place mainly on the float of the parade. The queen and other related roles like princess, godmother, and muse are distinguished positions that are given to the most talented samba dancers who represent the school. But also in some cases, they can be covered by celebrities of other guest stars.

For the majority of the samba schools, the preparations for the next parade start just a few days after the end of the Carnival celebrations. The local community is active with various activities throughout the whole year. While the person who is the main responsible for the guidelines and the main philosophy of the parade is the director of the samba school. It is quite common that the directors who take care of every single detail and supervise the whole school are paid professionals with a great experience of parades from previous years.

— Read more —
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