Monday, March 02, 2009

Carnaval, Rio-style

By Patricia Smiley

In 1959, French director Marcel Camus released a movie filmed in Brazil called "Black Orpheus" (Portuguese: Orfeu Negro) that featured breathtaking Brazilian music and noir effects. The world has never been the same. The film won the 1959 Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival and the 1960 Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film.

“[Black Orpheus] is based on the play Orfeu da Conceição by Vinicius de Moraes, which is an adaptation of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, setting it in the modern context of Rio de Janeiro during the Carnaval…The film is particularly renowned for its soundtrack by bossa nova legend Antonio Carlos Jobim, featuring songs such as "Manhã de Carnaval" (written by Luiz Bonfá) and "A felicidade" that were to become Bossa nova classics.”

Several years ago, I was invited to dance the samba in the official Carnaval parade in Rio de Janeiro thanks to a Brazilian friend whose aunt worked for one of the city’s top twelve samba schools. With visions of "Black Orpheus" dancing in my head, I gladly accepted.

For the uninitiated, Carnaval is four days of pre-Lent revelry, which in Rio includes beach parties and dancing in the streets. The grand finale is a visual and auditory feast of a parade that highlights a major competition between the top schools. Judges consider each entry’s mastery of choreography, costumes, and music. Winning the competition is serious business as it brings national adulation to the successful school. Planning this event is a monumental task, and the moment one parade is over, plans for the next are already in high gear.

My school had a theme song, which I had to learn in Portuguese, as well as elaborate floats, musicians, solo performers, and over 3,000 dancers divided into sections, each featuring different highly-crafted costumes.

There were 150 performers in my group, all dressed as archangels. Since some of the other costumes consisted of only strategically placed sequins, by comparison, I looked like an Amish farm wife. My tunic was made of metallic pink and gold fabric with aqua highlights and yards of drifting white chiffon. The headdress was molded gold plastic topped with long pink feathers. Spanning at least six feet, the pink and blue-feathered wings were worthy of any Las Vegas Pterodactyl show. And did I mention my gold lamé shoes?

I'm the "angel" in the middle, as if you didn't know.

Getting to the parade meant rising at O-dark thirty, taking the subway to the staging area, and waiting for my turn in the spotlight. Waiting and wading through rivers of urine from overflowing porta-potties taxed beyond capacity. Need I say that I did not keep those gold lamé shoes?

After hours of anticipation, fireworks exploded and the crowd began to move. My archangel compadres and I danced our choreographed samba number, sang our Portuguese song, waved, smiled and threw kisses to the 70,000-80,000 cheering fans in Rio's half-mile long Sambodrome stadium, which was built especially for this event. School coaches darted in and out of the lines of dancers, cheering us on and reminding us to smile. After all that preparation, build-up, and expense, the whole shebang lasted only 90 minutes.

I suppose the theory is after the final caipirinha (*the national cocktail of Brazil, pronounced KIE-PEE-REEN-YAH]) has been consumed and the last grains of sand have been shaken from your bikini, you are ready to fast and sacrifice for Lent in the days leading up to Easter. But sometimes you just don't want the party to end.

A short film about the Carnaval experience in Rio:

1 lime quartered
1 tablespoon of sugar
1 shot of cachaça
1/2 Cup of ice cubes with water

Place the lime and sugar in the bottom of a glass. Using the handle of a wooden spoon, crush and mash the limes. Pour the liqueur and ice. Stir well. Decorate the glass with a slice of lime. Great with summer barbecues.

Cheers! And Happy Monday!


  1. Patty, you dark horse, you! Wow, and Wow again - what a wonderful story for a freezing cold Monday morning (well, it is here in the Windy City!). Trouble is, I probably won't stop thinking of those Amish farm wife gold lame shoes for some time ...

    Thank you for not keeping this story under your headdress!

  2. I actually brought the tunic and head gear home on the plane. The wings were too big and the shoes...well, you know that story. I wore the costume at a couple of Halloween parties and then sold it to a costume shop in Hollywood. Great memories. Stay warm, Our J.

  3. Wow! We learn more about Patty all the time. Keep it coming!

  4. Wow, Patty! What a tale! And what a costume. Gorgeous!! Dang, but you people lead interesting lives.

    Don't blame you about the Amish farm wife gold lame shoes...

    Happy Monday, everyone. :-D

  5. Paulie and Marianne, I think you should offer to do a taste test between the mojito and the caipirinha.

  6. Am I the only one to notice myself regretting that Patty hadn't arrived to find herself in a substantially different "school"? Amish farm wife, indeed!

  7. Like a School for Scandal? No, that's another movie.

  8. Patty, So glad you are once again a part of my Mondays! And this one? Well it was just a doozy. I do want the seat next to yours in the rest home.

  9. I've never had a caipirinha, but I'll never decline a taste test.

    I did learn how to make a Pisco Sour (Peru) at a cooking class at Ciudad, downtown L.A. Looks a bit like the caipirinha, but you whip some egg whites for a frothy top.

    Meanwhile, naked readers, don't you just love Patty's matter-of-fact tone? "Several years ago, I was invited to dance the samba in the official Carnaval parade in Rio de Janeiro."

    I can imagine the opening line of Patty's next novel. "The trouble started several years ago, when I was invited..."

    You get the idea.

  10. Mims, thanks for tuning in. Yes, we gang 5 will have much to talk about in the old folks' home.

  11. thirty or forty years.

  12. Jeff, you are too cool for words.

    Paulie, I remember Pisco sours. Yum! But that's another story. A taste test is definitely in order. And will you please write that book for me?

  13. When is it time for Dark and Stormies? :-D I'll try a Mohito!


  14. Oh yes, Marianne! Dark and Stormies have to be part of the taste test! When can we start?

  15. I had the good fortune to spend two Carnivales in Central America and man, those guys can teach us uptight Anglos a lot about breaking loose.

    Party on, Garth.

  16. David, yeah, Carnaval in SoAm is an eye full. Where were you? Details, please.