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I have a confession. As well as being a Samba-holic, I also have a lifelong passion for all things Scandinavian. So imagine my squeals of delight when I was invited to be an international judge for Helsinki’s Samba Carnaval 2017!

Just how serious are these Finns about Samba? Well consider this. Out of a population of 5.5million, there are 7 active Samba Schools around Finland and a Federation to promote it as a community past time. Compare that to Australia, with a population nudging 24 million. Australian Samba Schools? ZERO!

Finland, I’m impressed!

The first ever Finnish Carnival happened in 1991 in Turku but since 1993 it has been held in Helsinki as part of Helsinki week. This year was also significant as Finland celebrates its 100 years of independence from Sweden.

The Samba gods smiled upon me as I was greeted in Helsinki by glorious blue skies and an unbelievable 20 degrees, very much like the weather I had just left behind in “wintery” Brisbane. Full of excitement and expectation I headed to the opening party, to meet my fellow judges and see the costume competition the night before the parade.

As is tradition in Brazil, the start of Carnival was marked with the arrival of King Momo, a symbol of wealth and prosperity; in this case the Brazilian Ambassador to Finland. The vibe in the Apollo Club was amazing, filled with eager Finnish Sambistas and special guests from other European Samba schools, such as London School of Samba. An all female percussion group from Carioca Samba School got the party started, and welcomed the flag bearers from União de Roseira before the costume competition commenced to reveal the themes of the four competing Samba Schools.

Império do Papagaio (Helsinki) – Summer of Love

An explosion of colour with a 70s psychedelic Guru.

União de Roseira (Tampere) – Viva Las Roseiras

Celebrating their 30th anniversary Vegas style and you can’t do Vegas without an Elvis… this school had a Samba Elvis!

Samba Tropical (Seinäjoki) – Samba for the Sámi people

Representing the indigenous people of the north (known as Laplanders) the colour themes were green (nature), blue (water), red (fire) and yellow (sun).

Samba el Gambo (Kokkola) – the history of Sauna!

A symbol of Finland and an essential part of the Finnish identity, the simple ritual of sauna was celebrated through Samba.


As I left the venue through the dusky bright northern night I wondered…. “But can they Samba?”.

The next day, crowds gathered in the centre of Helsinki in Senate Square, on the steps of the impressively stark Helsinki Cathedral. This was the marshalling point for all Samba Schools before the parade continued along the Esplanadi, the beautiful cobble stoned avenue through the centre of Helsinki. But before the parade started, one couple who met in the Bateria (drum section) of União de Roseira) decided to tie the knot, showing complete commitment to their Samba School’s theme by providing a Vegas style wedding complete with a Samba Elvis!

Lasting a couple of hours, my role as judge was to assess the dancers in various sections (known as “alas”), to score and provide feedback on their performances. Structured on the same principles as a Brazilian Samba parade, the Samba school members had individual roles such as Porte Bandeira (flag bearers) or were part of different sections such as Commisão de Frente (lead commission); each working together to display a cohesive theme.

I furiously made notes and danced when I could!

My whole experience was enlightening. I loved the fact that the Carnival (Carnaval) tradition; something so quintessentially Brazilian, has provided the Finns an avenue for community engagement, creativity, commentary on social issues, and pride in their own traditions. But as always, travel puts everything into perspective and you look at what you do at home in a completely new light.

“Eu dança Samba” (I dance Samba)


“Eu Samba” (I Samba)

When I first introduce someone to the world of Samba, I explain the difference between these two statements and now I can totally see how significant they are.

The first refers to dancing of technical steps. Movements that have names, are broken down into components, transferred in a class setting and these days watched and replicated from Youtube videos.

The second is referring to the feeling you get from Samba music and the movement it invokes you to produce, either through cultural understanding or by emotional connection.

Having to put a value, a score or grading on someone dancing Samba requires us to tap into the sentiments of technicality and precision. But for me what was much more rewarding was to observe and celebrate the people that were really ‘Samba-ing’, lost to the music and exploding with joy and playfulness.

After all, it’s not Samba unless it makes you SMILE!

About the author: Cathy Barker has been learning, dancing and engaging with Brazilian Samba culture for over 20 years during which time she has been a director of Brazil Central Zouk Lambada and Roda de Samba, danced in Rio Carnaval, Notting Hill Carnival and Sydney’s Mardi Gras, as well as Rio Rhythmics Boundary St Carnaval Parade. She currently teaches Samba at Rio Rhythmics Latin Dance Academy in West End, Brisbane.


If you would like to see how Samba makes you feel, come and explore our 6 wk Samba Starter course. For more information call 07 3844 1824 or email

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