Carioca: A Rio Local, An Exercise, A Dessert Or A Dance?

I was speaking to my partner about how Brazilians born in Rio are called cariocas, and he told me that in France (he is French) this is a dance! I went on searching on Google and to my surprise, there are several other meanings to the word carioca.

The word carioca comes from the Tupi word karai’oka, which means house of the white man. In the United States, it is also known as an exercise for the hips as well as a song and a dance. In the Philippines, carioca can also be a popular rice and coconut dessert.

I was so fascinated about this whole world of different meanings, I spent quite some time researching. I actually found a couple more ways that the word carioca is used and I will share them at the end of the article.

Carioca: A Rio Local, the official use (in Brazil, at least)

Contrary to what some people think, Carioca is not the name of a city and it is also not a Spanish word.

The word carioca is actually originally from the Tupi language – one of the languages spoken by the natives before the Portuguese arrived in Brazil – and it means house of the white man.

The Portuguese that settled in Rio de Janeiro soon adopted the demonym to identify themselves when speaking to the native tribes.

Therefore, the word carioca is used to refer to those who are born in the city of Rio de Janeiro. The Cariocas are known for their lifestyle, which can be nonchalant, and about enjoying the moment.

Cariocas have a laid back approach to life and commitments, so being late to appointments or going out to be with friends every day of the week is not uncommon.

Some people also get the word Karaoke (or Kareoke) confused with carioca. Karaoke is actually a Japanese word that comes from the fusion of two words meaning “empty” and “orchestra”, so you there is the melody without a singer (so you can shout I Will Survive from the top of your lungs without Gloria Gaynor interrupting you).

Carioca: the exercise

Here is where I started to get surprised. In the United States (and maybe in other parts of the world as well?), carioca is a popular exercise where you move your hips as well as cross back and forth your legs.

This usage of the word is not common in Brazil, although a few people might refer to the agility exercise as carioca.

However, in Brazil it is mostly known as Samba exercise. This makes more sense to Brazilians, as when you see the activity being performed, it does indeed look like the basic samba dance steps.

The Carioca drill is used as pre-training in several sports, such as basketball and soccer, and is also called kareoka. There are a few variations of the exercise and it is supposed to help increasing agility and coordination.

For those of you curious on what the dynamic exercise carioca looks like, I posted a video that shows it in three different ways:

Three ways of doing the carioca drill

Carioca: the music and dance

Well, to my surprise, the exercise is not the only type of “Carioca” you can find out there. My partner had alerted me that carioca is also called a dance outside of Brazil. He even showed me this youtube video of a French movie that adapts the English version of the song.

When researching, I found that it is originally an American song called “Carioca” from a 1933 movie called Flying Down To Rio, starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

It was their first time dancing together in a movie, and perhaps that’s why it eternalized the word Carioca as a song and a dance.

When I watched the video clip of the part of the movie where the music is played, I noticed this is a style of ballroom dance. However, we do not have a ballroom dance style called Carioca, but we do have a similar one which is called Samba de Gafieira, which is the Samba steps adapted to be danced by a couple in ballroom dance style.

Below is the iconic scene from the movie Flying Down To Rio. Apparently, dancing with only their foreheads touching was quite the buzz back in the 30’s!

Flying Down to Rio – 1933

The song named “Carioca” is also featured in the comedy from the 70’s, Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) as well as having a French version presented on the also French comedy Fear City: A Family-Style Comedy (1994).

Carioca: the dessert

One of the meanings that honestly surprised me the most was this one. I found out that Carioca is also a Filipino dessert! Made of coconut milk and rice flour, these deep-fried dumplings just sound delicious!

Apparently, it is quite easy to find them being sold as street food throughout the Philippines. I have found that this dessert has quite some name variations, such as tungi-tungi, Karioka, Carioca, and Karyoka.

Street food in Philippines – Karioka

I have searched for the origins of the word in the Philippines, but couldn’t find the actual root of the word.

Either this is a word assimilated from the Brazilian Portuguese, maybe from back when the Portuguese were still exploring Asia and Africa or this is just a happy coincidence that they have a word that sounds the same as ours, but with radically different meanings.

I would honestly love to try this dessert! Actually, I will try this dessert. I will make a point of adding Philipines to my bucket list and to look for it on the street vendors over there. It does look like something that would go very well in Brazilian cuisine, so I am a bit gutted we didn’t think about this first, lol.

Unfortunately, I have not seen this being sold in Brazil, at least not readily available, although it is likely you would find it in Filipino restaurants in Brazil as the ingredients are easy to find.

In case you are curious about how to prepare this dessert, I found this website that looks like they know their way around Filipino food!

Carioca: other meanings

The more I researched, the more I found about the word carioca. So many meanings and uses, it really made me appreciate how big the world is and how different the meaning of a word can be according to your culture and background.

For example, I found that Carioca is also a card game in Chile, although I am not sure how they came up with this name. Maybe there was this one random Carioca traveling through Chile that just happened to invent the game, who knows.

The goal is to be the player with the fewest points after six rounds of play. You can check the rules for this game here. This looks a very simple and fast game to play, perfect for when you are on the plane on your way to Rio to meet the Cariocas!

Other meanings I found were brands. Carioca was the name of a few brands selling the most different types of products, ranging from pens to swimwear. There were also several dance studios with the word Carioca on the name, which actually makes me think that might be one of the reasons why this word is associated with it being a dance style.

Lastly, you might have also thought about the Disney character Jose Carioca, the green parrot that befriends Donald Duck on his trip to Brazil in the movie The Three Caballeros (1944), which means The Three Knights, although Caballeros is a Spanish word and in Brazil, we speak Portuguese, but I will let this one slide just because I like this movie so much.

Jose Carioca – called in Brazil only as Zé Carioca in a Disney parade

Doing this exercise of researching a word that for me always had just one meaning – a local to the Rio de Janeiro city – was quite enlightening.

I actually learned so much about what comes to people’s minds when they think about Brazil or specifically about Cariocas.

Being a Carioca myself, I was really pleased to see that most, if not all the mentions to the word were quite positive, so it warms my heart a little bit knowing that the image from Cariocas out there in the world is that good. Like Rio. S2

You might be interested in a few other posts we have about Rio de Janeiro:


Hi, I am Ana, the creator of this blog. I am Brazilian and currently live outside of Brazil. I love traveling, eating and learning about new cultures. I hope the contents of my blog can help you with those things as well!

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