Samba-Stepping Toward Carnival

Carnival -- it's the highlight of the year here in Brazil. An entire year's effort goes into subverting reality into a fantasy with masks, elaborate costumes and samba dancing until dawn.

As the song goes, "The people work for the entire year for one dreamy moment," and that dreamy moment is the product of millions of dollars worth of work and effort from thousands of people laboring behind the scenes.

Here in Rio de Janeiro, there is no way to escape the impending festivities, no matter how hard one tries. The city is gearing up for the party of all parties.

Posters, television shows and rehearsals for the various samba schools taking part in the magnificent showdown in Rio's Sambadrome, the samba stadium at the very heart of the city's carnival celebration.

The rehearsals are fundamental to go through the intricate moves that all the samba schools perform. The samba schools have the opportunity to show off their moves and songs to a delighted and faithful audience.

And the actual performance is only part of the show. Thousands of revelers turn up to watch the top samba schools rehearse in the Sambadrome. Adoring fans pack the surrounding bleachers to sing and dance frenetically to the samba music blaring from the loudspeakers.

Humble Beginnings, Elaborate Performance

This display, more fitting to a football match, is a far cry from the samba schools' humble beginnings. When they began decades ago, the schools were a collection of talented singers and dancers from the shanty towns. Now the production is a multimillion-dollar industry with elaborate sponsorships.

Mangueira, the oldest and most famous samba school in Rio, is no exception. Founded in the 1930s, the school has won 18 titles in the carnival competitions since 1932 and is the subject of many a samba song praising its energetic vibrance.

It's not difficult to see why Mangueira is the focus of so much adoration. To watch one of its rehearsals is something that is guaranteed to blow the mind of any spectator.

The dancers are decked out in dazzling colors, and carnival kings and queens strut their stuff with a poise and elegance to take one's breath away.

But underneath the glitter and glamour of these samba schools lurks another existence. The samba schools are never too far away from their associations with the murky culture of the shanty towns from which they came.

Mangueira certainly has had its fill of newspaper column inches in recent days as police arrested one of its composers on drug-trafficking charges. This has not been the first incident of crime infiltrating the samba school. In 2004, one of its key members was murdered in what looked like a Mafia-style execution amid conflicts over the choice of carnival queens and drug wars.

During one rehearsal, Mangueira's creative director, Max Lopes, said that this latest criminal revelation was not likely to affect the school's chances of winning the carnival title.

"On the contrary," said Lopes. "Just look at the audience here tonight, they're pushing us on."

While the school may be distancing itself from its more murky associations, there is no doubt that the dancers give an electric performance.