5 Best Dance Carnivals in the World to See Before You Die
It may not be the hottest month of the year for some cultures, but for many, February marks the beginning of one of the most important month-long events in the Christian calendar – the carnival. Characterised by exuberant street parades, lively dancing, historical re-enactments and huge banquets, it's little wonder that many countries begin preparing for these annual events at least six months in advance. There are many theories as to the origins of the modern day carnival. Some believe that the ritualistic events were established as a precedent to Lent – an excuse to indulge and party before observing forty days of fasting and abstinence. But, not all carnivals have religious connotations. In fact, many have evolved to become must-see exhibitions of the native traditions, food and dance that define world cultures. Wondering where to head to first? Let us introduce you to five of the world's top carnivals to see before you kick the bucket!
Notting Hill Carnival
Established in 1966, the Notting Hill Carnival was originally a spin-off of the annual Trinidad Carnival, which brought together the city's many Caribbean citizens in an annual celebration of their heritage and freedom. The unofficial “weekend warm-up” typically begins on Friday afternoon, with static sound systems and event stages set up in Hyde Park and other communal areas for soca, reggae and pop concerts. Street vendors begin setting up shop on the streets surrounding the main route, transforming the area into one big, open-air food market selling everything from jerk chicken to Brazilian bolos (pies). Sunday is Children's Day, marked by several successive pantomime float parades, puppet shows and street dancing. Monday is geared toward adult revellers, featuring scantily clad women in exuberant headgear writhing and wining their way down the parade route, along with calypso drummers, samba bands and exotic floats. The traditional 'Carnival de Mas' (Masquerade Carnival) follows the main route, and is a colourful reminder of the event's Trinidadian roots.
New Orleans Mardi Gras
A traditional celebration of New Orleans' cultural diversity, Mardi Gras brings together Hispanic, Amerindian, African and Creole cultures in what can only be described as a melting pot of dance and entertainment. Mardi Gras usually begins after Twelfth Night on Epiphany (January 6th), kicking off with an extravagant masquerade ball. In accordance with Creole tradition, a large “King's Cake” is baked especially for the occasion, and a small locket or gold bean hidden inside. The cake is then served to those in attendance, and whomever should find the bean is then crowned King or Queen of the Carnival.
Mardi Gras parades occur almost nightly during the two weeks prior to Ash Wednesday. Carnival krewes in tribal garb and period dress parade through the streets on decorated floats tossing inexpensive toys, doubloons (wooden dollar coins), plastic beads and sweets out to revellers. Parades along Bourbon Street and the French Quarter are a little more risqué compared to other areas of the city, with many dancers and krewes emulating the skimpy attire and “wining” synonymous with Caribbean and Brazilian carnivals. On Mardi Gras Day, most revellers adorn fancy masks and colourful outfits in preparation for the day's festivities, which include the famed Zulu and Rex parade, as well as concerts, dancing and masquerade parties.
Trinidad and Tobago Carnival
Republic of Trinidad and Tobago
Carnival in Trinidad and Tobago is an historic affair, and one which has evolved considerably from the upper class celebrations of the 17th Century. Back then, French and British settlers would congregate at lavish balls and banquets, while their slaves were cooped up in barrack yards with little to no food. Deprived of any real entertainment, the slaves organised their own extravagant parties, for which they would prepare by painting themselves white and sewing fancy costumes made from rags or sheets. The dawn celebration “J'Ouvert”, traditionally held at 4 am on day one of the festival marks the 'dark ages' of slavery, with revellers dressing as demons and monsters and dancing around fires.
When slavery was abolished on the islands in 1838, the slaves took to the streets with their annual celebrations, holding soca concerts, magnificent parades and limbo dancing competitions. Such competitions have now become an integral part of the carnival, and many revellers daub themselves with oil and paint to take part in remembrance of those who fought for freedom during the Port of Spain struggles. As the sun rises, swathes of percussionists in costumes, known as the “Pretty Mas”, descend upon the streets, followed by crowds of skimpily clad dancers “wining” and gyrating to the frenzied calypso beats. Day two sees the festival reach its frenetic climax, with further dance demonstrations, soca concerts and the annual Panorama competition for the coveted award of “Masquerade Band of the Year”.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Established as they are, few of the aforementioned carnivals can hold a candle to the annual festivals held in South America. From Colombia's Barranquilla Carnaval, famed for its energetic dance competitions and lively street parties, to the iconic devil dance performed on the eve of Oruro Carnaval, these huge annual gatherings have set a precedent for other 'spin-off' festivals around the globe. Undoubtedly the most famous of them all, the annual Rio de Janeiro Carnaval garners in excess of 8 million people to the city each year to witness the four-day spectacle, traditionally held two weeks prior to Lent.
Famed for its extravagant street processions of inflatable floats and scantily clad women, Rio Carnival has been compared to the likes of Disney World Florida for the sheer size of its theatrical outdoor parades. Many of these are held within the Sambadrome, which also plays host to the annual Samba school float competition and the crowning of the Carnival Queen. Numerous street festivals (“bolos”) are held in and around the centre of Rio, including the “Cord Bola Preta” (“Black Ball”) however the official parade follows a mapped out route over the course of three days owing to the sheer number of entries into the competition. There can be as many as 4,000 people performing as part of one co-operative, including floatees, the “bateria” (drumming band) and additional female Samba dancers - all vying to be crowned Rio's Carnival Queen.
Carnevale de Venezia
Few carnivals are are as spectacular or mysterious as the annual Carnevale di Venezia, Italy. Traditionally an Orthodox celebration, the Carnival de Venice was originally established during the 15th Century as a precedent to Lent, marked by feasting, decadence and dancing that culminates on Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras). Balls held during the festival are among the most lavish in Europe, and although many are off limits to tourists, its possible to witness the spectacle for yourself at the annual Doge's Ball (Il Ballo del Doge) for the princely sum of $1900 (€1470). The masquerade ball is one of the highlights of the year for Venetian socialites, whom don period dress and masks in honour of the occasion. Venetian masks still play an important part in proceedings today, worn for both court dances, and the annual competition “La Maschera Più Bella” ("The Most Beautiful Mask"). Judged by fashion icons from around the globe, it's widely considered one of Italy's most prestigious national competitions!