Dressed in green and pink costumes and topped off with Afro wigs, eight Japanese people, including this writer, gathered in the lobby of a hotel in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s samba capital, at midnight on Feb. 15.

“Are you ready?” Keisuke Sakuma, the organizer of our group asked me. “Yes,” I answered — though every nerve in my body was jangling ahead of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to dance in the street in Rio’s Carnaval 2010, as the event is termed in Portuguese.

For several years I have taken part in Tokyo’s Asakusa Samba Carnival, which models itself on the one in Rio, and for years, too, I longed to perform in the most famous one of all.

To make my dream come true, I joined a tour organized by Sakuma, a member of Saude, a Yokohama samba school. The school is on friendly terms with Mangueira, one of the oldest samba schools in Rio, and Sakuma has been organizing Rio Carnaval jaunts for Japanese samba fans to go and dance with their Mangueira counterparts since 1998.

“In the evening of the carnival every year, the lobby of this hotel is full of people wearing all kinds of costumes,” Sakuma said, adding that many are from outside Rio and from countries far and wide.

“This year, Mangueira’s turn in the lineup is at the end, so most of the performers from other samba schools have already gone to the venue,” which is one long street called Avenida Marque^s de Sapucai that goes through the city’s downtown area.

“I still can’t believe that I am really going to join the Rio Carnaval,” Kyoko Yamada, one of the tour participants, said as she prepared to perform in the heat of the night with Mangueira, one of six samba schools in the parade — which starts at 9 p.m. and goes right on until morning. Yamada, like me, is a member of the Tokyo-based samba school named Amigos Calientes.

We set off — each adorned with big ornaments on the shoulders of our costumes in the shape of parrots, bananas and pineapples. Just the two of us filled one taxi (at a squeeze). And the taxi ride was party time, too, as the driver was playing loud samba music on his radio.

“Which samba school?” he asked us. “Mangueira! Which school do you like?” I asked him. “Beija-Flor!” he smiled. Beija-Flor, meaning “hummingbird” in Portuguese, was the samba school judged the champion of Carnaval 2008.

Yes, indeed, for as much fun as it is, Rio’s annual Carnaval is a contest, too, with 12 samba schools competing over two days in the top division, the Grupo Especial (Special Group). For the school that comes out on top, there’s honor and bragging rights aplenty — but for the school judged bottom, a numbing demotion to the next league down awaits. With such kudos and loss of face at stake, Carnaval’s annual battle of the samba schools is nothing if not intense. But then, that only enhances the quality of the entertainment!

The Carnaval’s venue is a 600-meter-long boulevard called Sambodromo, along which stands on both sides for 60,000 people were constructed in 1984. It was there, at the starting point, that Yamada and I hooked up with our fellow Japanese dancers around 1 a.m. on Feb. 16. There were crowds of people everywhere in amazing costumes, and motorized floats like huge stage sets up to four stories high with incredibly elaborate decorations.

Every year each samba school chooses a theme and creates music, songs, dances, costumes and floats in that spirit. This year, Mangueira’s theme was “Mangueira e Musica do Brazil” (“Mangueira is Music of Brazil”), and its performance paid homage to various Brazilian music styles, including bossa nova, and to many of the country’s great musicians.

But if you are thinking of a school being comprised of maybe a few hundred people — think again. Mangueira’s Carnaval display featured eight massive floats and involved some 40 different groups of dancers and players amounting to a total of 4,000 performers.

The group that I and seven other Japanese dancers belonged to was called Tropicalia — the name of a type of 1960s Brazilian pop music. Our costumes were tropical-styled, but they were far too hot for summer Rio, where it’s still 30 C even at 3 a.m. So, while we were waiting our turn, we took off the shoulder ornaments and sat in the street in the heat and drank all the water we could. The starting time for Manguiera’s parade was supposed to be 3 a.m., but it was 4 o’clock before we started to take our places.

A man who seemed to be Manguiera’s choreographer spoke to everyone in Portuguese. Then another man in a similar costume asked me, “Do you speak English?” When I said I did, a Spanish man cheerfully interpreted what the choreographer had said: “Clap, step, wave and raise your hands! Now you make a line, OK?”

To form a beautiful line, I held hands with the Spanish man and one of my Japanese friends. As we walked to the entrance of the Sambodromo, we were suddenly bathed in light that shone like the sun. Then we started our routine, stepping out and singing the theme song of the samba school: “Meu coracao e verde-e-rosa/ Descendo o morro, eu vou/ A musica, alegria do povo/ Chegou, a Mangueira chegou” (“My heart is green and pink/ Climbing down the hill I go/ Music, the people’s happiness/ Mangueira is here).

Green and pink are the colors of the Mangueira samba school. When I visited its headquarters in a favela (shanty town) on the hill near the Maracana~ soccer stadium a day before the Carnaval, I saw many flags in those colors fluttering over the shacks and the poor people lounging around.

It’s Rio’s slums that have given birth to most of its samba schools, because samba is a music and dance form created by poor Afro-Brazilians in the early 20th century. So now, because it’s their own true culture, the people in the slums regularly practice samba music and samba dancing, and they spend the whole year between Carnavals making costumes and floats with — if they are lucky — contributions from companies and individuals, as well as their share of ticket sales along the Sambodromo.

Indeed, money is an issue, and to watch the parade of the top-flight Grupo Especial on the first day, I had to pay ¥24,700 in advance, while to perform on the second day my costume set me back ¥35,000. Certainly, that was all a lot of money — but when I saw, and experienced, the cheers and adulation of the tens of thousands of spectators, I had no doubt it was money well spent.

I danced to the music played by a band called Bateria, and central to their samba rhythms were the powerful beats of a surdo (a large cylindrical bass drum) and other kinds of drums accented by the shaking of small cymbals mounted in frames that all together produced a true cacophony of sounds.

When I looked up at the tens of thousands of spectators, their excitement was overwhelming. They were not just cheering but also dancing and singing, and my heart was filled with joy and a sense of unity between myself, fellow performers and the audience. The sense soon changed to ecstasy as we made our way along the avenue.

As I strutted my stuff along the route, though, my Afro wig started to dance to its own beat and was about to fall off. But as your team loses points for members’ costumes falling off before the finish line, I was soon concentrating as much on keeping it in place as on my dancing.

Then, finally, we got to the end of the route, marked by a concrete arch where many TV crews and photographers were gathered. Going under the arch, I staggered as I reached the goal then found myself in a crush of others who had just finished too. It was like rush hour on a Tokyo commuter train and, pouring sweat, I almost fainted.

When I at last managed to break free of the mob, I found my Japanese friends and we all asked each other, “Are you alright?” As one, it seemed, we all said we were fine — and that “It was amazing!”

Finally, by the time we got back to our hotel, it was 6 a.m. I was exhausted, but my friend Yamada was still full of beans.

“I was so moved that all the spectators were so excited to see us,” she said, adding that in Tokyo’s annual samba carnival people tend to be quiet even though they enjoy the parade.

For us, just being there and taking part in Carnaval was what it was really all about, and we didn’t care much about the competition results. However, we were still curious about the official results determined by the Liga Independente das Escolas de Samba do Rio de Janeiro (the Independent League of Schools of Samba of Rio de Janeiro).

Two days later, the organization declared this year’s champion to be Unidos da Tijuka — a huge delight to that troupe — whose theme had been “E Segredo!” (“It’s Secret!”) — and its supporters, because the last time it won was 74 years ago.

That school had performed on the first day, and it had been amazing to see the “secret” theme so precisely expressed. Its female dancers appeared to magically change their dresses in the blink of an eye as their partners briefly covered them with a wraparound cloth.

The five judges were clearly amazed, too, as they awarded Unidos da Tijuka 299.9 points out of a possible 300 — with a perfect 10 from every judge in each of six categories out of the 10 — including for their music and costumes.

My dance school, Mangueira, got a very creditable 297.6 points to put it in sixth position — and despite my wobbly wig, the sheer joy of taking part in that super spectacle was like nothing else I’d ever experienced or imagined.

They say Rio Carnaval began in the 1930s as a local festival, and now — eight decades on — it attracts hundreds of thousands of people from around the world every year. So what draws them to this samba spectacular? Simply, it’s the magia do samba (magic of samba) — but that magic fortunately remains one of life’s great segredos.

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