The Samba before Carnival season is not non-existent. It would not be an understatement to state that cariocas only exist for the Carnival.
Samba schools, for instance, spend a better part of the year perfecting their routines, making their costumes and building their floats to make the greatest impression while they parade for an hour or an hour and a half at the Sambadrome. Some samba schools have their own warehouses although a few others run dress rehearsals on the streets.
You can watch them do their thing as most of these rehearsals are open to the public.
Although about 13 schools are allowed to compete for the championship title during Carnival Sunday and Monday, there are more than 100 samba schools throughout Rio. For most of them, there’s no lull between Carnivals although in reality they are separated by months.
The well-known schools include the Unidos da Tijuca, Sao Clemente, Uniao da Ilha, Salgueiro, Portela, Porto da Pedra, Grande Rio, Beija-Flor, Imperatriz Leopoldinense, and Magueira, which also performs at the Rio Scala Nightclub for the Mangueira Ball. These schools have their own signature color schemes and theme songs and they don’t veer too much away from those elements.
You can visit their rehearsals and the participants as well the supportive residents will gladly teach you all the samba moves.
As the Carnival season nears, you can hardly find a free space in Brazil to sit in. Every school and street band carves an area where they practice samba before Carnival competitions. These schools announce the places where they rehearse beforehand so you likely follow your favorites and watch them fine-tune their routine. The hotel where you are billeted in can tell you which samba rehearsals are nearby.
Taxi drivers can drive you there or if you are walking, just ask anybody and you get your answer.
Schools also practice samba before Carnival at the Sambadromo. The rehearsals start as early as five months before the actual competition.
This is where you can feel what it’s like to be at the Sambadrome and witness the performers do their thing without necessarily paying for admission. Although you may have to use your imagination a bit because the dancers and the bands are still in their street clothes; and the bleachers or box seats are still empty unlike the 80,000-strong crowd watching the event during the Carnival Sunday and Monday. But at least you get the idea of the whole exercise.
When you are visiting Rio for the Carnival, don’t content yourself by just being a spectator. The only way to immerse in the carioca culture is by mingling.
The events are created specifically for tourists to participate. You’ve watched samba before Carnival during the rehearsal sessions, but you have to get in the middle of the dancers, flag bearers and bands to get the full experience of the ‘Greatest Show on Earth.’