Arts & Entertainment

Rio’s lower-level samba schools hungry for major-league success

By Maria Angelica Troncoso

Rio de Janeiro, Feb 3 (EFE).- More than 60 lower-level samba schools in Rio de Janeiro, home to Brazil’s most emblematic carnival, are determined to stand apart from the crowd, work their way from one tier to the next and eventually earn a place among the elite clubs in the city’s iconic Sambadrome.

With just two weeks remaining until the start of the Rio Carnival, the workshops of the city’s 92 “escolas” are all putting the finishing touches on thousands of glitzy costumes to be worn during pre-Lenten festivities scheduled from Feb. 17 to Feb. 22.

But only 27 samba schools, less than a third of the total, have the right to competitively parade in the Rio Sambadrome, a 700-meter (2,295-foot) stretch of Marques de Sapucai street with a 90,000-person seating capacity.

Those spots are reserved for 15 Gold series schools (second division) and a dozen Special Group schools, the highest category comprising the elite of the elite, including 22-time champion Portela, 20-time winner Mangueira and nine-time champ Salgueiro.

Behind them are 65 schools in the Silver, Bronze and Group B categories that will look to shine in free parades on Intendente Magalhaes Ave., a competition known as the Carnival of the People where, like a third- or fourth-division soccer team, they will look to earn promotion to the next tier with a strong performance.

No matter the level, creativity, originality, determination and money are the ingredients for success, although in the lower categories the obstacles are clearly greater.

The Special Group schools, which wow audiences with their thrilling choreography and elaborate floats, receive the lion’s share of financial support in the form of both tax breaks and financial and logistical aid from the government and a steady flow of private sponsorship.

Subsidies from the Rio municipal government in recent years have amounted to between $200,000 and $400,000 for each of these elite schools, or more than 10 times what the Silver or Bronze series schools have received.

Special Group clubs also earn additional revenue from different events throughout the year and have the right to a share of the proceeds from the sale of Sambadrome tickets, which range in price from $16 to $1,200.

Those elite schools are able to provide year-round employment to around half of their staff and earn additional income during the tourist season.

“There are around 400-500 people working normally, but at peak times there can be 900-1,000 because besides those in the barracks – where the workshops are – we have people who work in the community,” Edson Pereira, the Salgueiro school’s parade director, told Efe.

Although schools in the lower categories also receive some public funding and logistical support, they have to rely on their own ingenuity and small donations to raise needed money for the parades.

“It’s extremely difficult because a lot of companies don’t value these schools. For them Carnival doesn’t exist outside of Sapucai,” Darlan Santos, president of Academicos da Rocinha, a samba school currently in the Silver category, told Efe.

One way for the so-called “minor league” samba schools to gain access to high-quality resources is to buy used items from Special Group schools at a discount and give them new life on their floats.

Those competing in the lower categories say they need to work twice as hard as the elite schools to move up the ranks.

“You can’t think small,” said Santos, who helped lead Rocinha to one of the higher categories and says professionalism is required to stay there.

But despite the intense competition, he added that more solidarity exists at the barracks used by the Silver category schools than among the Special Group competitors working in the Samba City complex in Rio’s Gamboa neighborhood.

“The battle is out there on the avenue, but inside this barracks we all try to walk together and push the others so they don’t fall behind,” Santos said.

Regardless of the category, joy is the prevailing emotion.

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