Queen City Nerve

Charlotte's Cultural Pulse

Local Carnival Party Celebrates a Decade of Authentic Brazilian Fun
Ten nights in Rio

By Courtney Mihocik

February 20, 2019

Performers at a past Night in Rio event. (Photo by Edwin Davila)

We all need a night to let loose, Carnival is just the perfect time to do it.

While the pre-Lent celebration of Carnival, sometimes spelled Carnaval, is observed in countries ranging from Spain to the Netherlands, it’s biggest in in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. The celebration of culture, history and dance draws tourists from around the world for a parade featuring thousands of dancers, performers and vocalists snaking down the Sambadrome.

For 10 years, Charlotte’s been celebrating its own version of Carnival called A Night in Rio, thanks to organizers Iya Silva and Tony Arreaza.

A performer at A Night in Rio. (Photo by Edwin Davila)

Though Silva and Arreaza tell different stories about how the celebration originally started, what we know is that A Night in Rio has kept its home at Neighborhood Theatre for 10 years, last year even featuring its own line of dancers weaving its way down North Davidson Street.

In addition to dance and celebration, A Night in Rio also includes authentic foods and treats from a Brazilian baker in Charlotte. Participants should look for empanadas, pastilles and other light pastry appetizers that showcase the country’s rich culinary tradition.

Silva, a lifelong dancer professionally trained in Brazilian styles, met Tony Arreaza, cultural events director for Latin American Coalition in Charlotte, in 2009 and the two have worked together to organize the event ever since.

Arreaza became interested in Brazil during his honeymoon with his wife, Ailen. After falling in love with the culture, food and music of the country, he knew he had to throw a Brazilian Carnival event back home. He had already been heading up the long-running Latin-American Festival, so zooming in the lens for a more directly focused celebration was a logical next step.

Silva had celebrated Carnival with her dance company in California since the mid-1990s, even earning the title of Queen of Carnival in San Francisco’s Carnival Ball in 2003. Throughout her career, she has also flown to Brazil multiple times to participate in Carnival and train professionally. When she moved to Charlotte in 2008, she wanted to organize a Carnival event to continue the tradition.

Arreaza’s expertise in organizing events coupled with Silva’s understanding of Carnival and Brazilian culture made their meeting kismet.

Arreaza has taken measures to ensure that the event is authentically Brazilian, inviting Brazilian musicians and dance companies trained in choreography like capoeira and samba. He even formed a Brazilian advisory group to help him keep A Night in Rio real.

“[Silva] helped me find Brazilian people and I formed a community advisory of Brazilians, because I wanted it to be real authentic,” Arreaza said.

Without authenticity, Silva explained, the Brazilian community of Charlotte would be hesitant to come. One friend told her that they had stopped attending events billed as “Brazilian Carnival” because hosts would play a couple Brazilian songs and switch to a broader range of Latin music.

Since its inception in 2009, A Night in Rio has grown into a enormous and diverse celebration of Carnival and Brazilian dance and music. Before Silva and Arreaza brought A Night in Rio to Charlotte, visibility was low for the city’s burgeoning Brazilian community.

“I feel like this event put their culture on the map,” Arreaza stated.

Performers spill out onto the street at A Night in Rio 2018. (Photo by Edwin Davila)

Not only has his attention to authenticity attracted homesick Brazilian immigrants, but all types of people who have come to love the annual party at Neighborhood Theatre.

“The beautiful thing, out of all the events that I organize, A Night in Rio is the one that is more diverse,” Arreaza said. “You’ll see Brazilians, but you see Caucasians, African-Americans, Latinos. It’s beautiful.”

While the Brazilian culture remains the focal point, it’s important to Arreaza that the community joins the celebration as a way to learn more about the city’s diverse population and revel in a night of festive music and dance.

“This event, it’s a bridge between the general Latinos, Mexicans, Central Americans, South Americans, to the general public in Charlotte,” he said.

The dancers, albeit not completely Brazilian, work in the time leading up to the event to be able to properly showcase the culture through samba dance. Silva, who is no longer an organizer but attends every year, sees the respect that the dancers have toward Brazilian culture through their performances.

“I’m really proud of the dancers today. They’re putting in a lot of commitment. They understand the history, the passion, the culture and they’re respecting it, and they’re putting a lot of energy and time in it,” she stated. “Every year they get better and better and better.”

One of A Night in Rio’s most popular attractions is the capoeira performance, an impressive Afro-Brazilian dance consisting of martial arts and acrobatics. Performers with the International Capoeira School in Charlotte pull off mesmerizing flips and kicks, simulating a choreographed battle among dancers.

Capoeira dancers. (Photo by Edwin Davila)

The intense performance is just one of many ways A Night in Rio reflects the high energy and all-day fun of the main event in Rio de Janeiro.

“The energy always needs to be high, because it’s Carnival, you don’t want to put people to sleep,” Silva said. And she’s not one to tire easily. Silva is used to dancing in companies that would perform for five hours, switching between 70 different styles of dance choreographed to a live band.

While A Night in Rio doesn’t require samba dancers to perform that long, the energy remains high, Arreaza said. The feather-clad dancers can be seen in their intricately beaded two-piece costumes and heels, sashaying and grooving in dance lines that last year led out the doors of Neighborhood Theatre and onto East 36th and North Davidson streets.

“It’s very energetic in a way that the dancers are really colorful, in authentic costume they either brought from Brazil or they made their own costume,” Arreaza said. “They’re very passionate about it and I think when you are seeing a show and you see people with that much passion, you get that energy.”

That energy is contagious, Arreaza and Silva agreed. Those who think they just came to watch can’t help but be swept up in a whirl of passion, and often begin dancing and celebration. It’s a great way to get all of your vices out of your system before the 40 days of Lent begin.

“Do all your craziness,” Silva said with a bright smile. “Fall in love with somebody. It’s for Carnival time. People get drunk, they do everything that’s crazy right before they have to do Lent.”

Last year was the first year the celebration spilled out into the streets of NoDa for a parade. It was difficult to get the neighborhood to agree to it, Arreaza said, and will not be possible for this year’s event. But things will surely only get hotter with all that energy contained inside. There will also still be a mini-parade around the theater.
Arreaza hopes to one day move the event to an outdoor space — but he’s not sure of the plausibility.

“I would love to outgrow it and do it in an outdoor space, because we got the people, the problem is that we still want to do it in February because that’s when they celebrate Carnival,” he explained. “So doing it in an outdoor location in February is a no-no.”

Regardless of where it ends up, and regardless of whether you’re looking for a taste of home or want to learn about an unfamiliar culture, the best way to get a taste of Brazilian Carnival is to spend one night getting lost in Rio.

A Night in Rio: 10th Annual Brazilian Carnaval Experience is on Feb. 23, 7 p.m. at Neighborhood Theatre, 511 E. 36th St. Tickets are $15. 

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