It wouldn’t be Carnival in Rio without the Sambadrome. And it wouldn’t be the Sambadrome without the samba school parades. After all, when you picture Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival, you probably see samba dancers in intricate costumes gyrating their way down the runway of - you guessed it - the Sambadrome! It’s an unmissable part of Carnival, especially if it’s your first time at the world's biggest party. If you’re confused about what a samba school is and how the Sambadrome parade works, don’t fear; we’re here to help.

The samba school parades at the Sambadrome are the highlight of Carnival / Image Source


The samba schools are essentially samba organisations, usually associated with a particular community, often a favela. They are not places where people go to learn samba. Instead, samba schools spend most of their time preparing for Carnival. Not only do they have a large contingent of members, but they have supporters as well, much like a football club.

Rio de Janeiro has over 100 samba schools, but only the top schools compete in the Sambadrome. This competition is divided into two tiers: Serie A, the 12 smaller, second-tier schools, who compete on the Friday and Saturday night, and the Grupo Especial (Special Group), the 12 first-tier, large samba schools, who compete on the Sunday and Monday. These are the best of the best. The winner of Serie A gets to advance into this group in the following year, while the lowest ranking first-tier school is relegated into the second group.

The parade sambas toward the famous arches of the Sambadrome / Image Source


So how does the parade work? The parade is the most formal aspect of Carnival, unlike street Carnival, with a fixed order of events, and a carefully judged competition. Each school has 82 minutes to make it down the runway of the Sambadrome and is judged on the following aspects:

• Percussion band
• Samba song
• Harmony
• Flow and spirit
• Theme of the year
• Overall impression
• Floats and props
• Costumes
• Vanguard group
• The flag-carrying couple

And it is taken seriously. Millions of people tune in when the results are announced to see who the winners are. Then the top 6 schools parade once more the following Saturday for the Champion’s Parade.

The Flag Carrying Couple is an important part of the parade / Image Source


The samba schools parade in a specific order, dancing down the runway toward the famous arches of the Sambódromo.

Comissão de Frente - This is the vanguard group that opens the parade, introducing the school. It consists of a small group of dancers (12-15), and the opening float, which usually has the school’s name or logo. As the opening number, the dance and float are usually very elaborate and impressive, and there are often celebrities on the first float.

Abre-Alas - This is the wing. Typically, there are between 5 and 8 wings in the parade. They consist of a float, each with a different theme (falling under the main theme), and dancers. You can participate in the parade and you’ll join in with one of the wings, according to your assigned fantasia (costume). While you don’t need to samba, you do need to keep a good attitude and try not to lose any points for your school.

Mestre-Sala y Porta-bandeira - The flag-carrying couple is one of the highlights of the parade. The woman carries the flag of the school, which is not allowed to touch the ground or wrap around the flag pole, and is judged on how she dances with it. The mestre-sala's role is to protect her, and together they dance one of the most elaborate dances of the parade. This is one of the crowd favourites.

Rainha de Bateria - The Queen of the Drummers is usually a beautiful woman, and these days is often a celebrity. Wearing a gorgeous costume, she sambas in front of the band, giving them inspiration. It is important that she exudes happy vibes, and keeps an authentic smile on her face throughout.

Bateria - This is the percussion band, or drummers. They are literally the beat of the whole parade, as they perform the school’s song. The band is made up of around 250-350 drummers (and only drummers), who are complemented by the vocalists behind them.

Carro de Som - These are the vocalists of the school, who sing the song. They are behind the band, and are often on top of a sound truck, with microphones, or marching along with the band.

Ala dos Passistas - This is one of the most spectacular wings, made up of the passistas - or expert samba dancers. They are a core group of 15-20 of the school’s best dancers.

Ala das Baianas - The whirling ladies are a wing of older women, wearing traditional Baiana costumes (from Bahia), including large hoop skirts and headdresses. These are respected women in the school and giving them a special space to perform is a way of thanking them for their dedication.

Velha Guarda - The rear guard signal the end of the procession. This final group is usually comprised of respected male members of the school, dressed in gala gear. In addition, there are stewards, dressed in the school’s t-shirt, who walk along with parade, in between wings and behind, to ensure that the samba school sticks to the time limit.

rio carnivalEach float is intricately designed according to a theme / Image Source

The greatest thing about the parade, besides the gorgeous and intricate hand-made costumes, and the incredibly engineered and decorated floats, is how much fun it is. The participants exude such happiness, proud to be performing after months and months of hard work, and the crowd is equally excited. It’s an atmosphere comparable to nothing else.

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If you are visiting South America for carnival this summer, we can help you enrich your travel experiences. Check out our tours and activities in Rio de Janeiro, São PauloChile, Colombia, Uruguay, Buenos Aires, and across Argentina.

By Nicole Eberhard