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The making of Rio's Carnaval floats

Will a storied samba school regain past greatness with this year's float?


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.”