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Child samba queen sparks carnival controversy

By Rafael Romo, CNN
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7-year-old samba queen
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Seven-year-old picked for key samba role sparks national debate in Brazil
  • She will be a drum corps queen -- a job normally for scantily clad models
  • Her father who runs samba schools says she was picked for her talent
  • A court wants to know how late she will be dancing and what she will be wearing

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (CNN) -- Like any girl her age, Julia Lira likes playing with her friends and siblings but one of her passions has put her center stage in a Brazilian national debate.

The rambunctious second-grader who lives in Rio de Janeiro, also likes school and sleeping late. What makes the seven-year-old different is the costumes she likes to wear and her upcoming performance in Brazil's carnival season.

We found her wearing a glittery, samba queen, light purple outfit including a puffy mini skirt and a minuscule top. She was also wearing make up and her long hair was neatly coiffed.

But that's just the beginning. Julia definitely stands out when she starts dancing.

"My daughter has always loved to dance. She has always danced at home, but I never imagined she would get to this level," says her 41-year-old mother Monica Lira, who says the girl has been dancing samba and other genres like jazz since she was three.

While playing a game of tag with her friends and siblings, Julia Lira seems completely unaware that she is in the spotlight of a national controversy.

She has been named drum corps queen for a performance during the upcoming carnival celebrations in Rio de Janeiro.

The role of drums corps queen is normally given to scantily clad, often surgically-enhanced models whose job it is to engage dozens of drummers by incorporating sensual moves into their dancing.

Who in the world would have their daughter participate in a parade if they knew that she would be seen as something sensual?
--Marco Lira, Julia's father
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That's why many in Brazil are questioning the reasons for giving such a role to a seven-year-old girl.

When I ask Julia about whether she's excited about participating in carnival as a drums corps queen, she gives me a short and simple answer.

"I like samba. I like dancing," she says, shyly smiling and looking away at her mother who's encouraging her to say more about her love for the rhythm associated with Brazilian culture around the world.

Sexual exploitation of children is a problem in Brazil and many here say allowing the girl to dance during carnival sends the wrong message.

But the girl's father, 45-year-old Marco Lira, says people have the wrong idea about what her daughter is supposed to be doing.

He says the only thing that will be on display when his daughter dances in front of a contingent of drummers is her talent.

"My daughter is seven years old. I ask you, who in the world would have their daughter participate in a parade if they knew that she would be seen as something sensual?" he said.

Marco Lira also happens to be the president of Viradouro School of Samba. His daughter has been attending the school since she was three-years old and is not the only child dancing there to the rhythm of samba.

Joice Hurtado, the school's public relations director, says she sees nothing wrong with the girl participating in the carnival celebrations and denies that Julia's role will have any displays of sensuality.

"I think there is no sense for something like that because she's just a little girl who likes to dance and her parents think there's no problem with that and they'll be with her all the time," Hurtado says.

On the recommendation of children's rights groups a family court in Rio de Janeiro has agreed to look into the case.

According to local media, Judge Ivonne Ferreira Caetano is asking questions about the girl's role in the parade and the kind of costume she will be wearing -- even though costumes are normally a closely guarded secret for samba schools participating in the contests.

He also wants to know how late into the night Julia will be performing, the Brazilian media reported. Her parents say her samba school's performance is scheduled to start just after midnight.

On that question of timing, we waited until midnight for the interview with her. By 3 a.m. she was yawning but about to take the stage for a performance.

And once on stage she transformed into a very competent performer with a level of talent for dancing that rivals the older and voluptuous members of her samba school.

Her stage presence was also impressive, blowing kisses at the crowd and bowing at the end of songs.

All this happened under the watchful eye of her mother, who was standing offstage, just a few steps away, right next to the girl's father.