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From the bottom of her platform heels to the top of her 15-kilogram headpiece, samba dancer Mishel Finlayson says she is ready to make Carnival history.
The 38-year-old Brisbanite will be the first Australian to take part in the fiercely competitive Special Group of samba schools performing at Rio’s biggest event. Finlayson will take part as a 'muse' - one of the extravagantly dressed dancers leading the processions.
The Aussie is becoming a celebrity in Brazil as the first Australian to sashay her way through the Sambadrome -Rio de Janeiro's enormous outdoor samba venue - as part of the Special Group of samba schools. She’s been featured on the TV Globo network as well as in Brazilian Vogue and Quem Magazine.
Although this is Mishel’s seventh time performing in the Carnival, it is her first as part of the selected Special Group of 13 samba schools that will compete for the title of Champion of the 2019 Carnival.
The invitation to dance with the Imperio Serrano samba school came from the samba school’s queen, Quiteria Chagas. Imperio Serrano will open this year's Carnival on Sunday, March 3.
Finlayson met Quiteria in Italy and says she was always a great admirer of her work.
“I heard she was living in Milan and came to talk to her to get some technical tips," Finlayson tells SBS Portuguese. "Quiteria suggested I could join the 2019 event. In no time I was in touch with the samba school’s president who said she would be very excited to have an Australian as part of this year’s event.”
Finlayson said she always performed ‘samba no pé’ (samba on foot), and worked with other samba schools in the ‘Access Group’, the group below the Special Group.
“It is a great honour," she says. "I’ve been working with samba for the last 10 years, coming to Brazil for 16 years. It is a challenge for me - I am not Brazilian, but I am completely passionate about samba. Samba is not only a dance, it is a lifestyle, it is a religion.”
Enter the Sambadrome: Preparing for Carnival’s biggest parade
Designed by Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, the Sambadrome is a purpose-built parade area for the Carnival. The venue is where 13 samba schools (from the ‘Special Group’) parade competitively each year during the Rio Carnival. Lined with tiered seating, the Sambadrome is a 700-metre stretch along the Marques de Sapcuaí street.
“When you are dancing, those 700 metres feel more like 10 kilometres,” says Finlayson.
Preparation for Carnival can be exhausting.
“I’ve been training and preparing myself for the last 12 months," she says. "I work out, I practice samba with special shin support so I can develop resilience.
“We are also rehearsing on the street as we will dance on the tarmac, and Rio’s tarmac is quite different from Australia’s. Training on the street also allows us to feel the temperature, and acclimatise to the heat, the humidity.
“My diet is quite balanced, drink a lot of water, and I also rest when I can. You do have to become an athlete for this event.”
Although dancing samba is demanding on her body, Finlayson says that her biggest challenge is to prepare herself mentally.
“It is a performance, you have to have a very high self-esteem and you can’t compare yourself to the other Brazilian muses. I am not Brazilian, my body is not a Brazilian body, so I do what is best for me and for my body.”
Extravagant costumes with deeper meaning
Finlayson says that her costume represents the samba school’s theme song, which proclaims the importance of “living and not feeling shame for being happy.”
"I hope I can enter the 'avenida' and show this happiness, this love I have of samba," she says. "I want to show to the public how much I love the Brazilian culture. My costume is colorful, full of pheasant feathers. The headpiece weighs 15 kilos and I will be on top of 16 centimetre platform heels. I am ready.”
An 80-minute parade
“There’s no choreography, but you are required to fill the space around you," says Finlayson of the lengthy explosively energetic parade. "Be aware of the floating trucks, be careful you are not run over, you have to go to the audience a lot and acknowledge them and send kisses.
“Mainly, you have to dance, otherwise the audience will complain, you must dance non-stop. One of my strategies to rest during the parade, which lasts 80 minutes, is to pose. Pose a lot. Breathe, walk a little bit, pose and then boom… time to samba.
“And you have to look wonderful with all that weight on you, absolutely wonderful. I just pray it doesn’t rain.”
In Brazil it is required that all sambistas sing the school’s song, Mishel explains that the jury will also score the muses on their singing.
“You can’t dance only. You also have to sing."
Samba academy in Brisbane
Finlayson has been teaching samba in Brisbane for the last 10 years. She teaches the dance’s steps and history as well as introducing students to Brazilian culture.
“I always say I can teach anyone to samba in five minutes. But to really master the dance, it takes longer.”
Training is important to keep the students fit and strong, but the dance has its own benefits for mental health, she says.
“I also work with samba as a way to lift the girls’ self-esteem. You put women in front of the mirror and they feel insecure about their bodies, they have to feel beautiful and sensuous.”
Finlayson takes her students to participate in Rio’s Carnival parades every year, as she feels they can only fully understand samba when they come to Rio.
"I think samba is growing in Australia and around the world, mainly because you don’t need a partner," she says. "You can go to class by yourself, dance by yourself."
Samba in Australia
Finlayson will also lead the ‘Unidos de Sydney’ samba parade in March. The group will be one of the highlights of the Parramasala Festival in Parramatta.
“I am very proud to represent Australia in Brazil and when I go back home, to dance with Unidos de Sydney, and represent Brazil in Australia,” she says.
O Agobloco está trazendo as clássicas marchinhas de carnaval para um desfile no St Kilda Festival em Melbourne. No repertório 'Mulata Bossa Nova', 'Cachaça não é Água' e 'Turma do Funil' entre outros.
A carnavalesca Karla de Oliveira, da Escola de Samba Unidos de Sydney, apresentou em primeira mão na SBS em Português o samba-enredo ‘Australiana’, criado especialmente para entoar os passistas no desfile do Carnaval de 2019. Com o refrão, “quem gostou faz barulho pede bis, chegou a Unidos de Sydney, sambando e cantando feliz,” a escola promete sacudir as ruas da cidade no ano que vem.
A carnavalesca carioca Karla de Oliveira, com a australiana Amie Baines, criou o projeto da Escola de Samba Unidos de Sydney, que pretende unir o Brasil e a Austrália com o amor pela música, arte e dança do samba.