The Rio thing: samba lessons for free at a Lapa street party

by Rachel Youlton

Rio de Janeiro is renowned for its beaches, its bars and its effervescent carnival – but you haven't experienced Brazil until you attend a street party in Lapa, the city's bohemian hub

I’ll always look back on my time in Rio fondly. We met some fantastic people and lived, at least for a short while, in a hedonistic haze of cocktail consumption, frenzied football matches and trips up a hill to see the big guy – the Christ the Redeemer statue, the city's most famous landmark, standing with arms outstretched on Corcovado mountain. Then there was that fateful night that made me want to stay forever (or until the visa expired at least), the night of the Lapa street party.

We had been happy to stay put in the hostel bar when we first arrived in Rio. Our hostel of choice was Mellow Yellow, a lively five-storey place located in the Copacabana district, complete with accommodating staff, free breakfast, and capoeira demonstrations at the bar. Mellow Yellow receives a lot of word-of-mouth hype from fellow travellers, which I’m happy to say it more than lives up to. Tulio, the bartender, introduced us to the wonders of Brazil’s signature drink, the caipirinha, a potent mix of cachaça (cane spirit), lime, sugar and ice which is instantly addictive. In a good way, you understand; no one is attending AA meetings just yet.

By the time the weekend arrived, however, we were more than ready to ditch the hostel bar and embrace Rio’s nightlife – and the Lapa street party seemed an excellent place to start. Lapa is located in the centre of Rio de Janeiro and is the city’s bohemian hub, nestled among whitewashed and beautifully rendered colonial buildings. Compared to the brashness of Copacabana or Ipanema, this is an untouched and unspoilt part of Rio where the city’s history remains intact.

The Arcos da Lapa is the area’s most recognisable landmark, a striking aqueduct built in the mid-18th century which now serves as a bridge connecting the city with the uphill neighbourhood of Santa Theresa, Ronnie Biggs’ famous hideaway. Lapa sizzles at night. During the 1920s and 1930s, it was known as South America's Montmartre – and samba was an integral part of its character. However, a government clampdown on the more shady sides of Lapa life in the 1940s, along with the rise of beach culture and alternative styles of music, meant the area became increasingly run-down and unpopular. Today, samba is back in favour – as is Lapa.

Night-time sees the area around the Arcos da Lapa aqueduct overflowing with Brazilian residents from all walks of life, along with travellers – to wonderful effect. The neighbourhood has a reputation for being dangerous at times, and although we didn’t experience any trouble, I would say those planning a trip there at night should not take a camera, just in case. Nor should they take large amounts of cash; just enough for the evening's caipirinhas should be enough.

After a hostel transfer costing a very reasonable R$10, we arrived in Lapa. There is an exhilarating buzz in the air, and the promise that this is going to be one of those nights that you hope never ends. One person's experience at a Lapa street party is bound to be very different from another’s, as an eclectic mix of people collide. The streets are heaving with food and drink stalls and music blares out around you. Once we had picked a spot, my own evening was filled with trips to our favourite vendor and bizarre conversations with whoever was around... and then there was the dancing

The euphoric mood that filled the streets was, I think, the catalyst that made me ask an incredibly good-looking Brazilian couple, who had the moves, to teach me how to samba. There are samba schools in Rio, such as the Centro Cultural Carioca, that offer classes for beginners – but ever conscious of my slender budget, I decided to be thrifty and procure a lesson for free on the street.

I watched in awe as the couple performed a demonstration. They moved effortlessly with compelling style; they moved in ways I didn’t know people could! I then watched gormlessly as they tried to teach me the basics. My attempts were mediocre at best, but after a while my footwork was just about passable. I was feeling pretty pleased with myself until someone pointed out that I then had to learn to shake my hips and chest independently from one another, still in rhythm, while carrying out said footwork. It was then that I had to face the fact that I am not, nor ever will be, Brazilian – or, for that matter, a person with any hand-eye coordination.

The alcohol-fuelled dancing continued into the wee small hours – and as I suspected, the end of the night came and I didn’t want to leave. I made a vow, there and then, that I would hone my dancing skills in the coming months and be back to samba up a storm in time for next year’s carnaval, Brazil’s ultimate street party.