Rio de Janeiro – the history of Carnival

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The Rio de Janeiro Carnival is the biggest carnival in the world with almost five million people attending in 2011. Since  1723 the carnival has been put on 46 days before Easter to prepare for Lent. People flock to the city to join in the street celebrations and watch the incredible costumes, dancing and floats go by. Accommodation for Rio Carnival fills up quickly – the key is to book early to get the best beds at a decent price or it can get expensive.

How Rio Carnival began…

It was the ancient Greek spring festival in honour of Dionysus, the God of wine, that started it all off. The Romans liked the idea and took the festival as a great excuse for some drunken revelry. The Roman Catholic Church turned it into a festival for Ash Wednesday and it quickly evolved into a week-long celebration of indulgence before the 40 days of abstinence before Easter. Since then the Carnival has developed from once being a street fight with brawls and riots involving mud, water and food, to a masquerade ball to a costumed street parade. All these influences have ended in the Rio Carnival as we know it today.

Rio Carnival is now a huge event that’s televised around the world. The country stops for a week and the festivities run all day and night. Reports state than 80% of the country’s annual beer consumption is washed back during this week and it’s also when 70% of the country’s tourism happens too.

The Samba dance off

One of the main aspects is the Samba school dance off. Each participating school nationwide chooses a theme for their production and the costumes, floats, music and choreography interpret this. Each school could be made up of thousands of participants and a good few floats uniting in their quest to tell a story with their production. As they progress in the school they’ll be put nearer the front with the ‘comissão de frente’. These are the people who set the theme for their school-mates to follow. There will usually be one or two dancers on top of the floats while more will stay on the ground dancing around and working the crowd to impress the judges in their allotted 80 minutes.

The samba schools are not just musical groups – they are neighbourhood associations providing a variety of community needs, including health and educational resources.

When and where is the Carnival held?

The Carnival begins as soon as the year’s King Momo is crowned by Rio’s mayor on the Friday. That night a children’s parade starts things off innocently before the dance, theatre, arts and music get going on the Saturday. Sunday and Monday are the big days, culminating in the top six Samba schools competing on the final day.

The main parade is in the Sambadrome in downtown Rio, but there are always local events in the streets, including a huge ball at the Copacabana Palace and Beach. Everyone joins in in whatever way they can. They bring their percussion instruments to join with the batucada style of samba that is danced in Brazil and they all know the moves to dance along.

Getting around

Taxis are the simplest way to get around Rio during the carnival, although it could be quicker to walk with the amount of people in attendance in the centre. You can of course take the subway to the Sambadrome too. Admission to the Sambadrome is anywhere between $200-1000 – although there are some agencies that can arrange for you to actually be part of the parade, making it free.

The carnival is much safer than it used to be with security stepped up a notch. Plain-clothed police and security officers will be everywhere, but of course, make sure you still keep to the usual safety rules that you would in any situation full of people.

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