Rio's famed parades crown Carnival partying

RIO DE JANEIRO, March 6, 2011 (AFP) - Rio's two nights of famously extravagant Carnival parades began late Sunday in a burst of fireworks and to the cheers of festival goers who have been partying on the streets for days.

A reveller of Rio de Janeiro's Portela samba school performs at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro on March 6, 2011. AFP

The processions, featuring near-naked dancing queens, spectacularly imaginative floats and thousands of extras, were being held Sunday and Monday before a stadium crowd of 70,000 and an international broadcast audience.

In fact a competition, the parades are put on by Rio's top dozen samba schools, each of which have worked for months to ready shows costing up to five million dollars.

Three of the schools will be dancing after having lost many of their costumes in a warehouse fire a month ago. They have been working around the clock to re-do their props in time.

"We had to start from scratch and re-do in a month the work of a year. The only thing that didn't burn was the dancers' determination to go into the parade," said Cae Rodrigues, artistic director for one of the schools which will parade Monday, Grande Rio.

The winning samba school, judged on choreography, music, dancing and creativity, is regarded as triumphantly as any champion football team.

The whole contest itself reinforces the iconic image of Brazil as a sexy, multi-cultural society with a fervent party spirit.

Seats at the Sambodrome stadium to watch the official parades cost between $50 and several thousand dollars, depending on whether one sits on packed benches in the open or in air-conditioned VIP boxes stocked with champagne.

Celebrities in Rio to watch the spectacle included top Brazilian model Gisele Bundchen and her husband, US football player Tom Brady, as well as British actor Jude Law, US singer Will.I.Am from the Black Eyed Peas and Canadian actress Pamela Anderson.

The millions who have already been packing Rio's streets since Carnival started here late Friday have been diving wholeheartedly into the festivities despite light rain Saturday and threateningly gray skies Sunday.

Free neighborhood dance parades known as "blocos" have been raising decibel levels around the city. The biggest of them all, the Bloco da Bola Preta, gathered up to two million people in Rio's center on Saturday, filling it with a motley crowd in all manner of garb -- or, in many cases, little at all.

"Everybody is mixing here. There's no class differences. None. Everybody is here with the same plan, to have fun," said one young woman sporting Elton John-style oversized yellow sunglasses and a bouffant Afro wig.

Nearly 800,000 tourists, Brazilian and foreign, were taking part in the extravaganza alongside most of Rio's population of six million.

Some 50,000 police have been deployed throughout Rio de Janeiro state to clamp down on crime.

Several visiting foreigners told AFP they felt reasonably safe thanks to the increased police presence, and because of the general prosperity Brazil is enjoying that has pushed back some of its worst poverty.

Still, "you don't carry a handbag, or wear a watch -- or carry a camera, which is really frustrating, because you really want to take pictures of everything, the partying, the landscape," said Victoire Guerlay, a 22-year-old French student.

Guerlay said she was spending around $130 a day, a relatively low amount for her budget, because she was staying with friends.

But others in the city were finding Rio's prices a little higher than expected.

"We're staying in what could be best described as a homeless shelter, for $100 a night each," said Brett, a 24-year-old US consultant on vacation with two buddies. He declined to give his last name.

In exclusive parties for Brazil's wealthy, costs and personal security ranked low as concerns.

At the most exclusive of them all, a masquerade ball at the luxury Copocabana Palace Hotel late Saturday, jewelry-bedecked guests who paid between $800 and $1,300 for their tickets quaffed champagnes and cocktails to the early hours.

Inside the various sumptuously decorated rooms, they partied to classic samba rhythms -- accompanied by some of the dancing queens, who were warming up for their more public shows about to take place.

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