Rio's first all-female samba school prepares defiant parade

As Carnival approaches in Rio de Janeiro, members of samba schools perfect their minutely-timed dances and rhythms

Elonore Hughes
Wednesday 15 February 2023 16:06 GMT

As Carnival approaches in Rio de Janeiro, members of a samba school perfect a minutely-tuned performance with dancers twirling in blue, red and white skirts and 40 drummers pounding the rhythm with gusto.

There isn’t a single man in sight. This samba school, in Rio's Madureira neighborhood, is the city's first to be run by and for women.

The community-tied music and dance clubs have always included women, most commonly as seamstresses and dancers. They’ve played the schools’ smaller instruments and Carnival queens lead processions in elaborate, sequined outfits. But rarely do women call the shots on finances, themes or even costumes.

“The big samba schools are coordinated by men, which means women are used to receiving orders,” Barbara Rigaud, a 54-year-old cultural producer and hairdresser who is the head of the new Turma da Paz de Madureira samba school, or Group of Peace from Madureira, known by the initials TPM.

During a recent rehearsal, the musicians played under a huge red and orange marquee, offering some protection from the sweltering sun, while older women and a young girl sat in chairs lined against the wall.

“Here, a woman can express her desires, her ideas, her opinions, which increases self-esteem,” said Rigaud, a Black woman who wears beaded earrings and a wide smile. “It is empowering.”

TPM started in 2011 as a bloco, the name for musical groups that flood streets with parties during the Carnival season. Rigaud decided she wanted to take the women-only group further and compete in the city's samba leagues. She successfully sought approval from city councilors and the school was inaugurated last September.

The school has 320 members, and rehearses in the the lower middle-class neighborhood of Madureira in Rio’s north zone, along with some of the city's most prestigious samba schools, including Portela and Império Serrano.

Among the group's dozens of drummers is Gisele Rosires, 47. She is proud of her big, bulky surdo drum, but the blowback is strong.

Men look me up and down, they think I’m not capable,” she said. A year and a half ago, she was playing in Madureira’s park for her first show with the school, when a man took the instrument from her. “He said, ‘You’re a woman, get out’”, said Rosires, who, not wanting to make a fuss, ended up leaving, annoyed.

Challenges start at the very mention of TPM’s name; the acronym is the same in Portuguese for pre-menstrual syndrome, or PMS. While Carnival’s street bands often employ clever puns, this was an unintended coincidence that often elicits laughter and mockery from men. Some call them the Turma de Putas de Madueira, or Group of Whores from Madureira.

Patriarchy in Brazil remains persistent. Women are the majority of Brazil's electorate, yet in October congressional elections claimed only 18% of the Lower House seats. There's an even smaller proportion of female senators. In business, women hold leadership positions in 38% of 250 mid-market companies surveyed by consultant Grant Thornton. That percentage has climbed from 15% in 2015, but remains short of parity.

Meanwhile, sexual harassment and assault remain widespread in Carnival’s street parties. Over the last decade, however, women have increasingly been standing up for their rights and spreading the message “No means No!” on stickers and pamphlets.

When women are in the spotlight for Carnival, they are often sexualized — particularly Black women. During its coverage of Carnival each year, behemoth TV network Globo airs vignettes with the so-called Globeleza, meaning “Globo beauty,” played by a Black actress whose role is to promote the spectacle by dancing suggestively while virtually nude.

“Being part of this school is a way of saying we are together. I think women need this, Black women in particular,” Margaret Oliveira, a 55-year-old Black housewife who is part of TPM’s group of dancers, said at the rehearsal.

Making time for oneself in a society that values and expects self-sacrifice from women is an act of resistance, Oliveira added.

With rare exception, women who contributed to samba over time are omitted from its history, said Maira de Deus Brito, who researches samba and the afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé at the University of Brasilia.

For their first parade, on Feb. 19, TPM will honor Iansã, a female deity and warrior of Candomblé. Carnival is just a few days off, but costumes remain incomplete due to a lack of funds. Their vision also will fall somewhat short given the procession is required by parade protocol to include two men as masters of ceremony.

“It has to be a man for now, until it changes, until this machismo ends,” Rigaud said.

As in any power dispute, the school is going to face problems and opposition, said Paula Dürks Cassol, who wrote a paper about women’s rights and samba in Rio de Janeiro published in the Journal of International Women’s Studies last year.

“Every time women try to create new methods of resistance, emancipation and empowerment, there are going to be barriers,” Dürks Cassol said. “But I am sure that thanks to their union and strength, they will overcome.”

At dusk on the day of TPM's recent rehearsal, the group spilled out from the courtyard, with the sound of their drums reverberating up and down the narrow street leading off Madureira Park.

This year, the school will make its debut in Rio's lowest-tier samba league. If the women perform well enough, they can climb the ranks for next year's parade. Already, Rigaud has her sights on reaching the Sambodrome, where only the top schools compete.

"We’re not here to play around," Rigaud said. "We’re here to fight, to win."

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