How Carnival Works

By: Julia Layton
The elaborate costumes and spectacle make Rio's Carnival an international destination.
The elaborate costumes and spectacle make Rio's Carnival an international destination.
© ROBIN UTRECHT FOTOGRAFIE/HillCreek Pictures/Corbis

Where there is music and dancing, there's a party. Where there is music and dancing, plus drag queens, masquerade balls, parades and gorgeous women on fire-breathing floats wearing glitter and a smile, there's Carnival.

The Carnival celebration precedes Lent, the Catholic, pre-Easter period of abstinence, and it happens all over the globe. People around the world call it by different names, though, some familiar, others less so. In New Orleans, it's Mardi Gras; in Denmark, Fastelavn; in Greece, Apokriés; in Venice, Carnevale; and in one tiny part of India, Intruz. There's one party, though, that tends to outshine all others: Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Every February (or thereabouts), Rio's Carnaval grabs the attention of the world.


No matter where they are, Carnival festivities are all about local flavor, and in Rio, that means samba. The uniquely Brazilian song and dance infuses Carnaval from start to finish, for four whole days and nights, revealing the deep cultural significance attached to the celebration. Carnaval, first and foremost, is about Rio.

It is nonsensical revelry, abandon and over-the-top extravagance, and it's a big, big deal. Millions go to party in the Sambadrome, a stadium built specifically to hold the Samba School Parade, Carnaval's main event, where beautiful women in gasp-inducing costumes are telecast around the world.

The festival wasn't always quite so grand, though. While details of Carnaval's earliest roots are a bit sketchy, it was, by all accounts, a more humble affair than it is today.


A Little Background

In keeping with the Carnaval vibe, tales of its start have the feel of a happy, mid-samba shrug. Where exactly did the festival come from, and how did it get to Rio?

No one's completely sure. Some trace Rio's Carnaval to pagan, ritual celebrations of spring in ancient Rome; others have it imported by Italian Catholics who settled in Brazil and brought their pre-Lenten parties with them [sources: Rio, Brazil Carnival]. Some say homesick Italian aristocrats in the mid-to-late 1800s sparked a trend by throwing parties modeled on Venetian balls [source: Ipanema].


Others look to 1723, when a ritual party called Entrudo made its way from Portugal to Brazil. The purpose of Entrudo was to get everyone in town soaking wet. And throw limes. The latter is said to have gotten the festival cancelled in the 1800s after a woman threw one at the king [source: Ipanema].

Some say masquerade entered the picture under the influence of Rio's wealthy Parisian expatriates. Indeed, Carnival was once a European-style affair; it was only in the early 1900s that Rio's Afro-Brazilian cultural flavors took over, and samba took center stage [source: Rio Carnival].

Far more certain are Carnaval's modern roots. In 1924, a brand-new hotel called the Copacabana Palace held its first ball, a black-tie event attended by Rio's social elite [source: Ipanema]. The Copacabana Magic Ball became an instant, annual fixture in Rio high society, followed in the early '30s by the Official City Gala Ball, which claimed Brazil's president among its first attendees [source: Ipanema].

The Samba School Parade came next, marching through the streets of downtown Rio, and over the following decades, the festival started to look like it does today, with four days of street parties, masquerade balls and parades ending on Fat Tuesday. In 1984, the Sambadrome (or Sambadromo) stadium was built in a shocking 110 days to house the Samba School Parade's tens of thousands of participants and nearly 90,000 spectators [sources: Rio, Rosenfield]. With that, Rio's reign as Carnival central was solidified.

Now, every year, before the start of Lent, the city is overrun by exultant, organized chaos.


Four Days of Revelry

Performances inside the Sambadrome are elaborately choreographed.
Performances inside the Sambadrome are elaborately choreographed.
© ROBIN UTRECHT FOTOGRAFIE/HillCreek Pictures/Corbis

Carnaval is a time for abandon, an embrace of Brazilian beauty, sensuality and rhythm. Samba orchestras -- bandas and blocos -- march through Rio, with drunken, dancing revelers in tow. Bandas play the classics. Blocos play something new and different every year. Fans gather at neighborhood bars, waiting for their favorite orchestra to show up and start the marching [source: drag show during Banda de Ipanema draws a huge crowd.

Masquerade balls go on all night, glitzy society ones like the Copacabana Magic Ball, where "luxury masquerade" dress -- intricate costumes that can cost thousands of dollars -- or black-tie is required, and tickets start around two grand [source: Brazil Bookers]. The Rio Scala nightclub balls, including the famously garish Gay Gala, which concludes with a runway show, and the Mangueira Ball, which features a full samba school orchestra and all that goes with it, are more egalitarian parties, with ticket prices in the hundreds [source: Brazil Bookers]. For these, costumes need not be "luxury." They're not even strictly required.


At least one part of the revelry, however, is very serious business: the Samba School Parade. Samba schools aren't actually schools; they're community music groups, made up of musicians and dancers from the same neighborhood. Their show is the main event, and it is a fierce (if joyous and sequin-filled) competition for which samba schools prepare all year.

Over two days in the Sambadrome, at nine hours a stretch, samba schools compete for the champion spot. Each brings an army of thousands, with an orchestra, multiple multistory floats and featured riders, and many required alas, or sections, including drummers, flag bearers, dancers and "whirling ladies," each precisely arranged and dressed alike.

On each float is a "cherry," or star performer, wearing the school's featured costume, which might weigh up to100 pounds (45 kilograms), meaning she's sometimes lifted to her perch via crane. Floats also feature more scantily clad beauties, feathered or glittering, some topless or G-stringed or wearing nothing but artful body paint. Floats may have special effects, like light shows or massive bubble blowers, and many are still pushed along by members of the samba school.

The event is run and judged by Brazil's official samba league, which sets a theme and watches carefully for any missteps -- going over time limit, dancers falling out of sync or sections going off their mark. A winning school is announced on the last night of Carnaval, and the top six schools perform again the following weekend in the winners' parade, also at the Sambadrome.

The Sambadrome fits up to 90,000 spectators, so not all Carnaval partyers can go, although revelers can watch on pretty much any TV in Brazil, or in the 12 other countries that broadcast the festivities in detail [source: Rio Carnival]. International attendees number about 500,000 [source: Rio Carnival].

For those who plan to be among the 500,000, it helps to know the lay of the land before the party starts. Carnaval may be a chance to spend 96 hours in the moment, but tickets for a lot of those moments sell out in advance.


Planning a Carnival Experience

In Rio, be guided by your heart's desires; four months before Rio, be buying tickets.

With half a million out-of-towners in the city, the most desirable hotels book up fast. Travel agents recommend two main areas in southern Rio: On the high-price side, the Copacabana and Ipanema neighborhoods offer the nicest amenities [source: subways run 24 hours a day during Carnaval, getting to the festivities from most locales in Rio is pretty simple.


The Samba School Parade and the balls are ticketed events, and the parade, a Carnaval must, sells out quickly. Ticket prices go up the later you buy. Ideally, you'll get them at face value from the samba league, LIESA. Otherwise, compare prices, because less-reputable sellers will overcharge [source: Rio Carnival].

Advanced purchase of tickets for the most popular balls, especially the Rio Scala balls (and of those, especially the Gay Gala), is also a good idea.

Bandas and blocos are free street parades, and some start in the afternoon, so these can be a good option for family activities [source: Ipanema]. If you must choose only one, choose Banda de Ipanema.

Keep in mind, there's no need to do it all –- unless, of course, that's your thing. For most visitors, a couple of bandas and blocos, a costume ball and, if possible, the Samba School Parade at the Sambadrome are plenty to get a full Carnaval experience -- or at least as full as possible for a non-local.

Most important is the spirit of those 96 hours: Wear what you want, dance how you want, drink what you want and sing like you're in the shower. Just don't heed the call of nature in the street. Even Carnaval has its limits.


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Carnival Works

Doubtless one of the most entertaining topics to research, Carnival was also one of the toughest when it came to historical accuracy, and in several accounts of the festival's early years I came across the debunking of a pretty common tale about the famous Copacabana.

"They" often say Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire danced their very first dance together at the Copacabana Palace in Rio de Janeiro while filming "Flying Down to Rio" (1933). Some even say they met there. In fact, according to Turner Movie Classics, Fred and Ginger danced on set in California, not in Rio, and had probably danced together before, considering they'd previously dated in real life.

The movie did feature on-location background shots, though. So Rio is in the picture. (Could be helpful in a game of Trivial Pursuit!)

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  • Brazilian Travel Centre (BTC). "Salvador and Micareta (Carnaval throughout the year)." (Jan. 8, 2013)
  • Ipanema. "All About Carnival in Rio." (Jan. 5, 2013)
  • Leah Travels. "A Gringa's Guide to Rio's Carnival Parades." Feb. 25, 2012. (Jan. 8, 2013)
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  • Rio Carnival. "2013 Rio Carnival." (Jan. 5, 2013)
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  • Rosenfield, Karissa. "Rio Carnival 2012 Kicks Off In Newly Renovated Sambadrome "The Huffington Post. Feb. 21, 2012. (Jan. 11, 2013)