RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — In a dusty, stifling warehouse near this city’s old port, glittery chunks of mirror are glued onto platforms that will hold dancers, colorful leg bands go on statues of scandalously clad women, a final coat of spray paint settles onto a float.
Workers are putting the final touches on five floats that tell the story of Rio de Janeiro’s oldest samba school, Estacio de Sa. The samba schools — organizations with loyal followings often based in poor neighborhoods — are at the heart of Rio's Carnaval.
Each year the schools concoct original samba songs and build elaborate floats. School members, some in elaborate costume, parade for judges at the city's packed samba stadium for four nights during Carnaval. Select samba schools compete for the top prize.
Next year, Estacio de Sa hopes to be part of that elite group, known as the “Grupo Especial.” But they'll have to earn it Saturday, when they parade as part of the second-tier “Grupo de Accesso,” or Access Group.
The competition among samba schools is fierce. The teams (which are called schools, but are really teams) that win each league (which are called groups, but are really leagues) switch places with the losers of the higher group for the following year. From the Special Group, it goes to the Access Group, and then Group A, B, C and so forth.
The Estacio de Sa school has a storied past, founded in 1928 as Deixa Falar about the time modern samba came into being. The school has since gone through mergers and name changes and as Estacio de Sa — the name of the neighborhood where the school is located — it won the overall championship in 1992. Early this decade it fell into the Access Group. It triumphantly returned to the Special Group in 2006, but was quickly demoted the next year.
“We went to the moon, and then were sent back to earth again,” said Claudio Luis Rodrigues Paulino, who was one of the many sweat-drenched community members working in the warehouse on Thursday.
For members and fans of the school, the 2007 loss stung badly. In the neighborhood, lachrymose glands went into overdrive.
“I saw it on television,” said Andre Pereira, 39, a lifetime fan of the school. “I started to cry. We dedicate ourselves to the school. We give ourselves over to the school, with all our soul.”
Pereira was preparing ribbons for a float that depicted the Sao Carlos favela, with its shacks rendered in the deep blue shadows of nighttime. He lives in the community, and during most of the year he sells children’s clothes door to door there. But come Carnaval, he plays a dual role.
He has been working 12 hours a day as head of the “aderecistas,” the team that adds the minutely detailed decorations and flourishes to the floats. And come tonight, he’ll be at the top of one of them, samba-ing in a ring of kites in an elaborate costume.
“I think there’s a chance we’ll get to the top group,” he said. “We’re doing everything possible.”
It’s also a special year because the artist responsible for overseeing the whole process is Chico Spinosa, the wildly gray-haired “carnavalesco,” as his role is known. He last led Estacio when it won in 1992 before moving on to other schools and eventually leading one of Sao Paulo’s legendary schools, Vai-Vai, to several victories in the better-funded but less legendary Carnaval in Brazil’s financial capital. Now he is back in Rio.
Estacio's theme this year is the history of the school, depicted over five floats. Spinosa’s design starts in Africa, where a large percentage of the school’s members, not to mention samba itself, have roots.
A glittering gold lion roars out of the first float, trailed by mammoth, hauntingly gorgeous heads of an African man and woman. One float shows the founder of the school, who is a hero of the early days of samba, Ismael Silva. Another displays famous musicians who grew up in the favela, such as Gonzaguinha and Dominguinhos do Estacio. Yet another float is an homage to the modern art theme that won the 1992 Carnaval, and includes six black women with their, er, ample behinds extended out from the float at a gravity defying, libido-inspiring angle — representing the work of 20th-century naturalized Brazilian artist Lasar Segall.
Any wide-eyed first-time Carnaval visitor seeing the glorious floats might be tricked into thinking victory was assured, but in other warehouses around the city, equally motivated schools were undoubtedly working on similarly stunning floats.
Balance, said Spinosa, is the key to success with the judges. “Success comes from the totality: the synchronization of the music, the dancers and the aesthetic,” said Spinosa. “When one outdoes the other, it doesn’t work.”
There is more at stake than glory.
“Going into the Grupo Especial [the school] becomes better known, more profitable, and brings more opportunities to the community,” said Sueli Flor Santos, who has served in various leadership roles over the years and whose family’s devotion to Estacio de Sa goes back to her grandmother. “The school is not just about samba, it’s also about social projects. For those of us who are part of the school, Carnaval is the culmination of everything we do during the year.“
In a back corner of the warehouse, a wiry, balding 53-year-old named Gil Cardozo Mota swept up the sawdust and styrofoam cups the other workers have left behind. He is also from the community and a lifetime supporter of the school. He thinks Estacio de Sa is bound to win.
“With this kind of beauty,” he said, gesturing to the floats, “we’ll only lose if we are robbed again.”
But Cardozo Mota had a surprise admission: in all his years supporting the school, he has never been among the thousands who dance along with the float. That’s because he does not know how to samba and in his youth preferred to dance American style. “I’m not going to lie about it,” he said. “Michael Jackson is my idol. James Brown too.”