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Rio carnival a riot of fantasy

Dancers parade with Mangueira samba school.

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Rio Carnival

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (Reuters) -- Brazilians forgot their troubles on Sunday night as Rio de Janeiro's annual Carnaval exploded into an extravaganza of flesh, fantasy and unrelenting drumming and dancing, as the parade of Samba schools lasted almost to dawn.

At least 70,000 people packed the Sambodromo, a wide avenue lined with viewing stands and bleachers, and millions more watched on television across the Latin American nation and the world as seven schools marched along the route for more than hour each, hoping to win the champion's crown.

Seven more will parade on Monday night.

Dancers in plumed headdresses and minuscule bikinis, or dressed up in elaborate costumes as insects, flowers, Arab sheiks or Roman Centurions, gyrated.

A political scandal that has the government on the defensive, endemic street violence and a host of other problems afflicting the country were swept aside as those who were not able to get seats for the main show joined beer-fueled street parties and parades throughout the famed seaside city.

In the Sambodromo, especially popular was the Aprichosos de Pilares school, which honored Xuxa, a beloved presenter of children's shows on television, and the controversial Academicos de Grande Rio, which promoted safe sex and condoms.

Each school has a theme which it develops in an allegorical performance, complete with fantastic floats.

"I just love Xuxa so much; she is a great woman, so I wanted to dance for her," said Talita, a dancer on a float as she stood glistening with sweat at the end of her parade. The 18-year-old law student from southern Santa Catarina state said it was her first time in the Carnival parade, but she would be back next year.

Xuxa took her place atop a glittering float
Xuxa took her place atop a glittering float

Xuxa herself arrived by helicopter to take her place as the school's queen atop a glittering float.

Each school has as many as 4,000 participants, marshaled by anxious looking officials, and includes a drum corps of at least 300 percussionists.

They are marked on a number of points, including music, costumes, their precision and their all-round enthusiasm.

The Grande Rio performance was eagerly awaited.

Designed by top "carnavalesco" or choreographer Joaosinho Trinta, it ran into criticism before Carnival from the Roman Catholic church because of its theme promoting condom use. Censors also objected to one its floats, which featured a huge model of a couple enjoying a tryst in a Kama Sutra position.

They were modestly covered with a gold cloth on the orders of authorities.

Some of the dancers were dressed in sadomasochistic gear, their performance leaving little to the imagination.

One of the most spectacular floats was that of Salgueira. Its theme was developing ethanol as an alternative fuel, but it was anything but boring. The float featured a complete go-cart track, with riders driving carts around it.

Dancers kiss during the Grande Rio samba school parade.
Dancers kiss during the Grande Rio samba school parade.

Sao Clemente, which opened the parade, had a float with a model of Uncle Sam with his trousers around his ankles and his genitals exposed -- a comment on strains between Brazil and the United States.

Among the dancers in Grande Rio was Keiko Lee, a Japanese woman who moved to Sao Paulo from the United States last year. Costumed as a yellow, gold and orange flower, she panted with fatigue at the end the parade but said it was thrilling.

"There's a lot of waiting to start, but the second you are in the Sambodromo, your adrenaline surges and you feel you have to dance for your school," she said. "It's hard work. I think I lost 10 kilograms (22 pounds)."

The samba schools are based in local communities and function like social clubs, with members working all year round to plan their presentation, construct the floats and make the costumes. All have ranks of eager supporters, like soccer teams. In recent years, however, it has become popular for richer Brazilians and some foreigners to pay a fee of anything from $100 upwards to join the school for the parade.

It helps the schools to finance the opulent display, but critics say it is part of the commercialization that is taking Carnival away from its roots.

A dancer from the Sao Clemente samba school.
A dancer from the Sao Clemente samba school.

Big companies also lavish sponsorship on Carnival, especially beer companies, and they host parties in plush VIP boxes with models, TV stars and other celebrities as special guests. Brahma beer seemed to have won those stakes with top model Gisele appearing in its box. She delighted the crowd with a shimmy of samba dancing.

There with her was Phillipe Haagensen, one of the stars of the Oscar-nominated Brazilian movie "City of God."

The pre-Lenten festival officially opened on Friday and runs through till Wednesday morning. The highlights are the Sunday and Monday nights in the Sambodromo.

Rio authorities estimated 400,000 tourists were in town, including 80,000 foreigners, earning the city more than $140 million. That includes passengers on the luxury liner Queen Mary 2 , which is moored in Guanbara Bay.

More than 3,000 police were on duty in the Sambodromo area.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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