Carnaval Dreams Go Up in Smoke

Not the Rose Bowl Parade, not Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, not even Cher in Las Vegas come within a fraction of the fabulous spectacle that is the desfile (parade) of Rio de Janeiro’s traditional escolas de samba (samba schools) during Carnaval.

Every year, the top 12 schools that make up the Grupo Especial strut their stuff through the Sambódromo – the massive concrete stadium designed by Oscar Niemeyer to hold 90,000 cheering, screaming, and samba-ing fans – in the hopes that their elaborate floats, thousands of costumed dancers, and specially composed sambas will lead them to be crowned champions. No sooner is the party over than work begins in earnest for the next year’s extravaganza.

Preparing the parade involves thousands of people from poor neighborhoods in Rio’s sprawling Zona Norte, and thousands of hours of intensive and intricate labor.

Preparing the parade involves thousands of people from poor neighborhoods in Rio’s sprawling Zona Norte, and thousands of hours of intensive and intricate labor. Between floats and costumes, each escola de samba spends millions of dollars – much of it raised through private donations. Until recently, the schools prepared for the desfile in sheds and garages within their own Zona Norte neighborhoods. However, logistics were complicated and conditions were often precarious.

As such, in 2005, as part of the beginning of an ongoing project to totally redevelop Rio’s centrally located, but woefully run-down port zone, the Cidade do Samba was built within close proximity to the Sambódromo. Created out of abandoned warehouses, this vast complex provided the Grupo Especial schools plenty of space to store materials, sew costumes, and build allegorical floats, a process that visitors can observe from a metallic catwalk if they’re in town between November and the days leading up to Carnaval.

One of the justifications for the Cidade do Samba was to protect floats and costumes from damaging conditions such as fires (which from time to time occurred). For this reason, irony underscored the tragedy that occurred this week when a fire broke out at the pavilion that stored the floats and costumes of União da Ilha samba school and quickly spread to the pavilions of two other schools, Grande Rio and Portela.

Thick plumes of smoke could be seen from far and wide throughout the city before a crew of 120 firemen were able to douse the flames after a 4-hour battle. Although fortunately there were no casualties, plenty of dreams went up in the smoke: all in all, over 8,600 costumes were destroyed as well as numerous floats. The worst of the damage was reserved for Grande Rio; no vestiges of their hard work survived.

With less than a month to go before Carnaval, which erupts March 4 – the escolas are scheduled to parade on March 6 and March 7 (Sunday and Monday) – there’s little chance of these three schools competing. Rio’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, who himself is a fan of the tradicionalíssimo Portela school, has already liberated R$3 million reais in emergency funds to the three schools (and has promised more if private donations fall short).

Already makeshift tents have been erected and members of the escolas are desperately working around the clock in order to parade with some semblance of their usual glory. And yet with 3 weeks until the main event there is no way that they will be able to compete against the other schools in 10 categories that range from best percussion to best costumes. Indeed, it has since been announced that all three escolas will be participating in the parade “hors concours.”

Despite being heartbroken, the schools’ leaders and adherents have vowed that nothing will stop them from singing and dancing at the Sambódromo; even if it’s only in shorts and t-shirts, the biggest party on the planet is serious stuff and “the show must go on.”

(Note: Due to the fire, Cidade do Samba – which, aside from hosting performances, contains a Carnaval museum and is usually open to visitors – is temporarily closed to the public).

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