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A Mocidade samba school performer out in front of a float full of Freddie Mercury look-alikes. The school's theme was Rock in Rio. (Photograph by Emily Ainsworth)

One Night in Samba City

Bottle the pheromones in Rio de Janeiro during carnival, and you’ll become a billionaire overnight.

It’s no surprise that the heart of carnival pumps faster in Rio than it does anywhere else in the world. In a city of seismic social disparities, it’s the one time of year when it doesn’t matter if you measure out your wages in handfuls of beans or if you live in the most expensive gated estate in the Southern Hemisphere. Instead, it’s how many kisses you steal in a night and how many samba steps you squeeze into a second that count.

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Men dressed in drag at bloco called Me Espeta (Poke Me). (Photograph by Emily Ainsworth)

When carnival season hits, it claims the streets with hundreds of blocos (minor parades), and parties on nearly every corner of the city. No matter where you are, you can hear the beat of a tamborim drum. And there’s something for everyone.

There’s the delightfully named celebration, Suvaco do Cristo (Christ’s Armpit), which takes place at the base of Rio’s most recognizable icon near the city’s world-class botanical garden. There’s one for devoted pet owners, where chihuahuas in frilly dresses and costume jewelry steal the show. And, of course, the sugary sands of Copacabana and Ipanema are hit by a tidal wave of parties, with the Bola Preta (Black Ball) attracting more than two million revelers.

You can follow the samba beat as it twists through rush-hour traffic and beach volleyball games, up into the hills to the unforgettable Bloco das Piranhas in the recently pacified favela of Vidigal, where the night air is thick with confetti and raucous laughter.

Or, if you’re like me and embrace the idea that you’re only going to live once, carnival means it’s high time to finagle your way into Samba City, the warehouse complex where Brazil’s most celebrated samba schools make their magic. The experience rivals Alice’s free fall into Wonderland. It might just be the hot glue vapors, or the 30-meter lizard being put through its paces.

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Me, being helped into my very bedazzled costume. (Photograph by Emily Ainsworth)

Each year the city trembles and frets and half-believes the rumors that nothing will be ready for the big night. Fires in ateliers burn costumes to ash; the flag bearer develops terrible acne; Brazil suffers a nationwide sequin shortage.

It was in this climate of hand-wringing anticipation that I ambushed the president of Mangueira, one of Rio’s most prestigious samba schools. He cuts a fearsome figure, even whilst sporting his team colors: a powder-pink afro and day-glo-green Nikes. I was hoping to snag a spot on top of a float, positions normally reserved for those with the best bottoms in the city. I was thankful when he was too preoccupied to say no.

The creative director, who was tasked with outfitting me for my parade debut, asked me how naked I wanted to be. ‘The Brazilian girls I dress tell me my g-strings are too modest,” he said, by way of explanation. Modest is fine by my standards, so I was measured up, promised a flamboyant tropical flower outfit sewn with a King’s ransom of plastic emeralds. I skipped off before someone could pinch me and tell me I was dreaming.

Carnival fantasias (costumes) are the stuff of dreams. You can spend the better part of your day scrolling through page after page of costumes — Indian princesses, Pierrots and Cardinals, you name it. What you cannot do, however, is try on your outfit before the big night; it’s bad luck. Instead, waiting behind the Sambadrome for your cue at 3:00, 4:00, or 5:00 in the morning, you might find yourself stripping amongst strangers dressed as pigs, mummies, and astronauts in a backstreet gutter, panicking that your headdress will fall off, or that you’ve smeared lipstick across your face.

The parade of course, is serious business. You sing your soul inside out, and samba all the sweat from your body. I danced so hard that the fluorescent tulle pompoms fell off my costume.

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The Unidos da Tijuca samba school. (Photograph by Emily Ainsworth)

Each school puts a highly choreographed spin on a narrative in praise of Brazil. Grande Rio made a protest about oil royalties both hilariously sexy; Estacio de Sa, the city’s oldest samba school, resurrected a long-dead musician with its rousing eulogy; and Beija-Flor whipped the topic of horse breeding into an epic.

World-renowned musician (and former Minister of Culture) Gilberto Gil has called Rio home since the 70s. He explained how Rio’s take on carnival is unique because it is so cosmopolitan; how his own hypnotic sambas have been inspired by the city’s shimmering heat; how Rio is his muse. “Like any great city, [Rio] is always in flux, but essentially it is Rio,” he said. “It stays the same – incredible, beautiful…it is central to interpreting Brazil and Brazilians.” As he said, cariocas have flair — and at carnival, that simple truth is on full display.

So this is why on results night the fire brigade have their hoses at the ready, and why the suitcase containing the final scores is delivered to the Sambadrome by armed guard, as if it holds the secret formula for Coca-Cola, or a map of the world’s undiscovered gold mines. Whether Carnival holds the key to Rio’s allure or the other way around, the city and its most famous celebration are locked in a passionate embrace.

Emily Ainsworth is a National Geographic Young Explorer.