Published February 10, 2013
It's a life of stark contrast: By day, Diana Prado is a supervisor at an insurance company's drably lit call center cramped with blue cubicles. But when night falls, she dazzles as a scantily clad samba school dancer in over-the-top performances glittery enough for a Hollywood musical.
Like many samba dancers, or "passistas" as they're known in Portuguese, the 26-year-old splits her time between the feathers, body paint and shrunken bikinis of Carnival and the workaday office reality of headsets and cubicles.
Though passistas are unquestionably the star attractions of the world's most iconic Carnival celebrations now under way in Rio de Janeiro, they're not on the payroll of the samba schools they represent. So when they aren't rehearsing or tending to their sculptural figures, many passistas work as secretaries, store clerks or maids.
"I get up, run to dance class, come to work, go to rehearsal and fall into bed," Prado said at her office, looking every inch the career woman in olive slacks, demure beige sweater and dark framed glasses. Her fingernails, acrylic appliques in shimmering gold glitter that produce rapid-fire clicks as she types, are the only visible clue as to her double life.
"In the run-up to Carnival, it's pretty chaotic. I don't sleep much at all from September through now," she said.
The several-times-weekly rehearsals begin in the late evening and often drag into the wee morning hours, and there are parties and other events that she and other passistas do on the side. Then there's her rigorous and time-consuming beauty regime of workouts, diets, hair removal, manicures and hair extensions and treatments. Prado estimates that looking her flashbulb-ready best costs her at least $150 a month.
Nathalia Araujo, a passista for the storied Portela school, says that between her 9-to-5 telemarketing job and her responsibilities at the samba school, there are days during Carnival season that she doesn't get any shuteye at all.
"I can only stop by my house to take a quick shower before coming to work," said the 20-year-old, who's been dancing samba since she was 12. "You have to be in constant motion."
To successfully navigate these two worlds, it helps to have an understanding boss.
Prado said her employer, the head of a dental insurance provider, knows she is a samba dancer and allows her to work flexible hours.
"I know that we have to let things slide at this time of the year so that she can realize her dream," said Eliseo Santos, co-owner of the Sempre Odonto insurance company.
"She's good about trying to put in all her hours, but when she can't, we kind of look the other way," he said with a wink.
The 15 employees who work under Prado also know about her other profession. It would be a difficult thing to hide, she said with a laugh: She often comes into the office carrying oversize feather headdresses or applies her fake lashes and extravagant glitter makeup in the restroom there before rushing off to rehearsals.
Prado insists her double life doesn't detract from her authority as boss, and her staff agrees.
"We see how determined she is, how she busts her butt to get everything done, and it's really admirable," said saleswoman Ana Lucia Oliveira. "I'm from Rio and grew up with Carnival, loving Carnival, so it's amazing to be this close to someone who lives Carnival every day."
Prado made her Carnival debut at age 19, after auditioning for a spot with the Sao Clemente samba school, one of the dozen top-tier schools that compete for the coveted title of the year's best in two all-night-long parades Sunday and Monday at the city's iconic Sambadrome.
At first, she said, her moves were amateurish compared with other passistas, even though like other Rio natives she had grown up dancing the samba.
"I didn't know how to do anything — how to put on makeup, how to do my hair — and I was so embarrassed the first time I had to perform in my costume," she said, referring to the passistas' itsy-bitsy bikinis, which generally are kitted out with feathers, a generous sprinkling of sequins and towering platform heels. "I just broke down crying the first time."
"Even today, after seven Carnivals, the hardest part for me is separating my own personality from that of the character of the passista, who is super bubbly and sexy and engages with everyone," Prado said at a rehearsal, where her fancy footwork and sensuous hip-shaking mesmerized a pack of photographers. "I'm not naturally that outgoing."
The samba schools aren't all dancers. Each has a variety of sections, among them a powerful percussion wing and a group of so-called "Baianas," older women in bouffant white dresses who spin gently rather than dance the punishing samba.
But it's the passistas who incarnate the soul of Carnival, said Milton Cunha, a longtime samba school organizer and Carnival expert.
"The passistas are the holders of the secret of Carnival," he said. "They're maintaining the traditions of samba that came over from Africa on the slave ships."
Cunha said the fleeting days of Carnival are the payoff for the passistas' year-around dedication.
"They are goddesses for three days a year, and the rest of the year they are bank tellers, work on assembly lines, or are cleaning ladies," Cunha said. "Then they come on stage with their feathers, with their rhinestones and they're true goddesses."
While they don't earn a salary, passistas for top samba schools like Portela or Sao Clemente can make a living by performing at events and parties. Some dancers travel for six months a year, touring abroad or performing on cruise ships. Prado said such work can net about 5,000 reais, or $2,500 a month, an enviable sum in a country where the minimum monthly wage is under $400.
But being the center of attention is not without its price, Prado said.
"There's a lot of prejudice still. Because we dance in bikinis, there's still a lot of confusion with people thinking we can be paid to do more than just dance, and sometimes we get unwanted propositions," she said.
Prado said she had recently broken up with her long-term boyfriend over just that issue. "He just couldn't stand it that I was a passista. He wanted me to choose between samba and him, and so I did."
Like other physically demanding jobs, a passista career is generally short. One of Brazil's most famous Carnival queens, Luiza Brunet, retired this year at age 50, but most passistas don't last beyond their early 30s, Prado said.
"I always had it very clear in my head that I didn't want to be just a passista," Prado said. So, after having dropped out of college at age 19 to dance, she is going back to school to do a two-year degree in human resources later this year.
"It's amazing while it lasts, but it takes its toll on your body," Prado added. She has chronic knee problems and plans on retiring before her 30th birthday.
"It'll be sad," she said. "But I'll always know that I was part of Carnival. And that's something I'll never lose."