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By Nicole Eberhard, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – While Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is the ultimate South American event to attend, travelers don’t have to wait until February to experience the true spirit of Carnival in Rio. Preparations for the famous samba parades start well in advance, providing tourists with the opportunity to experience some of that Mardi Gras magic.

Samba schools in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Brazil News
The dancers and musicians that participate in the samba school parades start rehearsing months in advance, photo by Rdj4u.

The most celebrated aspect of Carnival in Rio is the samba school parades. Samba schools are not dance schools, as the name suggests, but rather something more akin to clubs, whose main function is competing in the annual parades. Much like football clubs in Brazil, the samba schools have large and devout followings, and winning carries a lot of prestige.

Samba schools are traditionally linked to the neighborhood they are in, most often a favela community. Their identities are grounded in their neighborhoods and the schools have a positive impact on the areas they represent, creating many jobs in the lead-­up to Carnival, as much labour goes into the building of floats and creating of costumes.

The dancers and musicians that will participate in the parade start rehearsing months in advance, with the first rehearsals starting as early as June and July. During this long lead­-up to Carnival, an unforgettable experience is to go to a samba school to watch a Carnival rehearsal.

While rehearsals start well in advance, keep in mind that during the first few months, the sessions are more relaxed, with different bands playing, and dancers learning steps. One special way to experience a rehearsal during this period is by attending a feijoada lunch hosted by a samba school.

Salgueiro samba school rehearsal, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Brazil News
The Salgueiro samba school is one of the most popular and well supported, photo by Rdj4u.

Feijoada (a typical Brazilian stew consisting of beans, beef, pork and more) is served, followed by performances and dancing. This is typically a monthly event, taking place one Sunday each month, and is used to raise money for the big event.

Closer to Carnival time, schools will pick their s​amba ­enredo, ​or samba theme song. This typically happens in October. Now is when the rehearsals start picking up in intensity as everyone from the dancers to the drummers learns the music to perfection. Each school has a dedicated practice night a week, usually on a Friday or Saturday night. This is a great time to visit as Carnival fever is starting to build, creating an electric atmosphere.

A typical tour to visit one of the samba schools during their evening rehearsal includes a transfer to and from the school, an important plus as most samba schools are situated in suburbs outside of the Zona Sul (South Zone) and Centro, and can be difficult for tourists to reach on their own.

Once at the samba school, travelers will get to watch the rehearsal, complete with bands, guest singers, and often a local or international celebrity or two. After the pros have had their go, visitors can join in, mingle and dance with the school’s talented dancers.

A visit to a samba school is an unforgettable experience. It’s a unique, behind­the­scenes look at the work that goes into Rio’s Carnival parades, and offers unique insight into the communities that have been built around these samba schools. After all, Carnival in Rio is not just a few days of parties and parades, but is an intrinsic part of the Carioca way of life.

* This is a sponsored article written by Nicole Eberhard, English Content Editor for R​dj4u.com.

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