Although the big show takes place at the Sambódromo on 28 February and 1 March, the competing members of the 'Grupo Especial' – the top fourteen São Paulo samba schools – endure a full year of heavy planning and preparation. And before they arrive with their extravagant floats, glittering costumes, celebratory tunes and hopes of taking first place and its cash prize, the schools host rehearsals (ensaios) in the weeks leading up to Carnival.
The basics The rehearsals are a chance for anyone planning to parade to learn that year’s chosen song (samba-enredo), for the drummers to master their rhythms, for the dancers to get in step, and for the neighbourhoods to start the celebrations. But don’t let the term ‘rehearsal’ confuse you – a samba school ensaio is as much a party as a chance for the school to practice, and everyone is welcome for a cover fee.
They can be crowded, sometimes slightly chaotic events, so take care to work out beforehand how you’re getting home, and leave valuables behind. Also note that some schools – like Vai-Vai, Pérola Negra and Camisa Verde – are more centrally located and easier to get to via public transport than others.
Read on for a breakdown of nine of the city's top samba school rehearsals.
Avenida Augusto Carlos Baumann 588, Itaquera (2057 5456/ leandrodeitaquera.com.br)
After nearly six months of negotiations, Leandro de Itaquera, a traditional samba school located in the same East Zone neighbourhood as Arena Corinthians, received authorisation from FIFA to use the World Cup name in the theme of its entry in 2014’s Carnival parade.
Rua Cabo João Monteiro da Rocha 447, Vila Maria (2981 3154/ unidosdevilamaria.com.br)
The home-team of Vila Maria – this year, the school turns its attention inward to commemorate its own 60th birthday with a theme celebrating children’s toys and games.
Rua São Vicente 276, Bela Vista (3266 2581/ vaivai.com.br)
With a mostly outdoor practice site squeezed between high-rises in Bixiga, 82-year-old Vai-Vai is arguably the city’s best-known samba school. This year, Vai-Vai cheers with a theme dedicated to the 50th anniversary of the São Paulo-state countryside town of Paulínia.
Rua Sérgio Tomás 622, Bom Retiro (3494 9040/ grestommaior.com.br)
Started in 1973 by splitters from smallish samba school Camisa Verde e Branco, this year, the school plans on taking the crowd on a spirited journey to the tourist destination of the spectacular Iguaçu waterfalls, on the Brazil-Argentina border.
Rua Coronel Euclides Machado 1066, Limão (3931 4555/ sociedaderosasdeouro.com.br)
Started under the auspices of the Rio powerhouse Escola de Samba Mangueira, Rosas de Ouro looks to make their fourth podium finish in five years with their 2014 theme, ‘Inesquecível’ (unforgettable).
Rua James Holland 663, Santa Cecília (3392 4982/ camisaverde.net)
Created in 1953 in Barra Funda, this is one of São Paulo’s oldest and most traditional schools. This year the school is parading in the second tier Grupo de Acesso, and will try to return to the glory of their 2002 vice-championship.
Rua Girassol 51, Vila Madalena (3031 9349/ gresperolanegra.com.br)
Representing Vila Madalena, Pérola Negra (Black Pearl) hopes 2014 brings better luck than 2012 when a fire on their float set their chances at a win aflame.
Avenida Casa Verde 3498, Limão (3857 7525/ mocidadealegre.com.br)
The 2009 champion hopes to will itself back to the title with a spiritually-motivated theme about having faith. Follow the drummers' lead around the Limão neighbourhood at this adventurous rehearsal.
Rua Ité, Vila Guilherme (2959 3377/ x9paulistana.com.br)
With green, red and white as its colours, ‘Shees-Nove’ Paulistana has only won the main competition twice in 36 years – perhaps the reason for their crazed, 2014 'Insano' (insane) theme.