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Closing down the Paralympics

Warwick alumni Jill Forgham (nee Wykes, BA Renaissance History 1977-80) and her husband Neil Forgham (BA Economics 1976-79) were lucky enough to be part of the recent Paralympics closing ceremony. Here they talk about how they went from samba school in west London to the Olympic Park.

To fulfil a long-held ambition to parade in the Notting Hill Carnival, my husband Neil and I joined a samba school in London 6 years ago, and have since had great fun dressing up in ridiculous costumes from Brazil (luckily not too skimpy) and and parading through the streets of West London, singing (in Portuguese) and dancing in front of appreciative crowds. We had joined Paraiso School of Samba, which prides itself on being 'a little bit of Rio in London' and year after year we won 'best samba band' and 'best large adult band' in the Carnival competition, as the bar for float and costume design and song and dance routine was raised ever higher.

The Rio de Janeiro 2016 Flag Handover casting committee approached our samba school back in May; they needed to find 300 samba dancers urgently to be involved in Brazil's part of the closing ceremony of both the Olympics and the Paralympics, at the end of each evening.

Our samba school (together with other Brazilian groups from all over the UK) were invited to audition and that was exciting enough in itself. We spent a Sunday afternoon in May in deepest Lewisham being photographed, measured from head to toe and filmed dancing (a la Fame Academy), it was terrifying but a fantastic experience. The Rio team hugged us all at the end and said we were amazing, they had no idea it would be so easy to find great people and some of us cried and then went to a pub to have champagne.

The better dancers were not surprisingly all picked for the Olympics and had to wear those ridiculous light bulbs on their heads and indeed the Brazilian section of the closing ceremony was all rather odd, we were not too upset to have been passed over. The casting director told us later they had inadvertently recruited a number of divas and prima-donnas and several had walked out during rehearsals because they did not want to wear an unflattering white boiler suit, or hang around for hours on end waiting for their bit.

Then Neil (and several of our chums from samba class) got the call for the Paralympics closing ceremony and I then heard that I was on Standby reserve list, d'oh! Huge excitement in the Forgham household - Neil went to some very intensive rehearsals on a disused wharf in Deptford over the summer and I stayed home and kept my fingers crossed someone would break their ankle. I booked some days off work just in case, so that I would be available for rehearsals. Then exactly one week before the ceremony I got the call, I was in! I had two evenings in Deptford and then rehearsals moved up a gear and switched to the disused Ford factory in Dagenham where there was a life-sized model of the Olympic stadium. My supervisor at work was kind enough to let me attend the full day rehearsals, even though we were very short-staffed, I can never thank her enough. I got fitted with my wig and tried to learn the routine in time. It involved a lot of jumping up and down on boxes and waving them in the air while dancing manically.

The Brazilian choreographers said we were the best group they had ever worked with; the most positive, co-operative and friendly and we all got a certificate for taking part and a Rio 2016 ceremonies Tshirt. We even got to keep our jolly tropical costumes (including the wig).

The actual day of the performance was surreal, we were in the stadium complex from noon onwards and were doing our rehearsal on a stage next to Coldplay et al doing theirs on the neighbouring stage, with Rhianna zooming over our heads on a wire. The overall highlight for me was running back onto the pitch at the end of the night for the amazing fireworks and being hugged by athletes from all over the world.

Neil was spotted by many friends and relatives on the TV and made a brief appearance on the big screen over the stadium on the night. He has since found his photo reproduced in the London edition of the Brazilian Post newspaper (lots of copies freely available in Harlesden, in Brazilian cafes), and even on the London2012 official Paralympics website!

It was just an all-round amazing experience from start to finish and I feel so lucky to have been part of it, so that Neil and I could experience it together, he would never have been able to explain it adequately to me. Truly a summer like no other!

Closing ceremony 1

Closing ceremony 2

Closing ceremony 3