Friday, February 20, 2009

Carnaval in Rio: Beija Flor de Nilópolis

Talk about high energy. It was the last rehearsal before Carnaval and the whole community was in the streets and in the rehearsal hall getting pumped up in anticipation of another first place championship for last year’s winner: Beija Flor.

Nilópolis is a suburb of Rio, a little less than an hour from our apartment. It is the proud home of Beija Flor, who has been the first-place winner of Rio’s Carnaval five out of the last six years. The folks there know how to come together for a cause.

In two cars we arrived some time after 10 p.m., parked in an off-street lot very near the rehearsal hall, and bobbed and shuffled our way up two long blocks crammed with celebrants, vendors, families and the occasional security officer (few tourists make it out this far to experience a Samba School rehearsal). I love this stuff. Everybody smiling. The smell of meat on the grill. Grandmas holding grandbabies dressed in matching outfits of blue and white (the official colors of the School.)

R$10 admission for the ladies and R$15 for the guys. We bought our tickets, but then stayed out in the street for a few rounds of beer and some churrasquinho. It wasn’t yet 11:00 p.m. and things surely wouldn’t be getting whipped up inside for at least another hour.

Once inside the first thing that hits is the heat. In spite of the 20 or 25 industrial-size fans panning back and forth the ambient temperature is easily in the high eighties – and we don’t yet have 3,000 people dancing! I have my trusty terrycloth miniature hand towel to keep me from drowning in my own sweat.

We buy a few beers and position ourselves along the side of the practice parade route that loops around the center of the cavernous space. Announcements are coming from the stage and people are being called to assume their positions in the order they will parade on Monday night.

While waiting for things to get underway Luiz and I speak with some of the older women in the Baiana ala. Every School has a Baiana ala that features essentially the grandmothers of the community. Their costumes are typically some variation of a large-hooped dress with some flamboyant headdress. Their standard choreography is to twirl around in one direction then the other while sort of lifting their arms up in an alternating fashion. It’s so cute! Anyway – we were asking the women how many times they had participated in the Carnaval competition. We heard 5, 12, 30 and 35 times/years!

Finally all (firm) reminders to arrive on Monday two hours before liftoff are completed and the bateria shatters the buzz of the crowd with the samba music from last year’s championship performance. EVERYONE begins to dance and shout out the lyrics.

For the next couple hours people are dancing/moving nonstop, moving in a huge circle, singing this year’s samba, rehearsing their choreography and keeping their formation in straight lines, both forward and back as well as side to side. Nothing will ding your scores like a disorganized and sloppy contingent screwing up the visual from above in the Sambadromo.

Unable to resist, Lilia and Zanza jump into a Community ala to go along for the ride and make one loop around the hall. Their excitement and smiles coax all of us to join in as well. Now we are all crashing the party, squeezed between two sets of folks who obviously know we are ‘extra’ participants. I did my best to keep in line and smile broadly whenever the “Harmonia” coach came by to check on our required high level of enthusiasm.

Finally, after we have hopped back out of the parade and cooled ourselves with a few icy beers we get to the end of the rehearsal. It’s about 2:30 a.m. The bateria stops on point and the crowd applauds their hours of effort keeping everyone’s feet light and happy.

While the party in the street will go on past sunrise, we give in to the necessity of getting at least a little sleep before folks have to be at work in the morning. Once back at the apartment Luiz and I shower off the salty, sweaty evidence of a great night out and fall instantly to sleep.

Qualidade de Vida indeed!

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