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Carnival gets even hotter with Rio parades

world Updated: Feb 04, 2008 10:29 IST
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Brazil's carnival got fever-hot Sunday as near-nude dancers and floats bursting with imagination seared a path through Rio de Janeiro in the annual samba parades watched the world over.

The spectacular show was the highlight of the five-day pre-Lent celebrations that have gripped Brazil and turned its cities and towns into colorful street parties.

More than 50,000 people packed into stands in Rio to watch the procession, which was to last nearly to dawn.

Six dance schools, each with up to 5,000 members, marched and spun along the 700-meter (-yard) stretch of road, pouring high energy into routines that had been worked on for months, with all the dedication of athletes preparing for the Olympics.

Bodies and costumes were preened, and wide smiles were unfailing. This was, after all, the most important date on most Brazilians' calendars.

The other six groups competing -- for it is a competition, taken as seriously as soccer in this football-mad nation -- were to take their turn Monday night.

Sunday's entries were kicked off by the Sao Clemente school, which paid allegorical tribute to the "rediscovery of Brazil."

Its float featured a gigantic white parrot with moving wings, accompanied by a phalanx of costumed dancers and drum-beaters and huge swans, who entered under a sky aflame with fireworks.

Much attention, though, was turned to the last group scheduled to appear in the early hours of Monday.

The Unidos do Viradouro school caused a storm of controversy when it tried to enter a float that would have depicted a dancing Hitler alongside skeletal Holocaust victims, as a sort of warning against such atrocities being repeated.

A Jewish group successfully sued to have the display banned. But that triggered a debate in the media over censorship and bad taste in the parades, which have a social-political component often overlooked abroad.

The school has changed the float to now represent an ironic tribute to "freedom of expression."

More than 700,000 visitors were in Rio for the carnival, among them 200,000 foreigners.

Some were living it up in expensive Ipanema and Copacabana hotels, and going to exclusive balls.

But many others were more than happy to hit the "blocos" -- huge street parties where the garish and glamorous rub shoulders to loud samba rythms, among much drinking.

One 23-year-old German student, Maike Guschal, said carnival was no budget bash.

"After carnival, I won't have any money, so I'll have to head back to Germany," she said.

Rain for much of Sunday failed to dampen the enthusiasm, with many participants glad of the cooling effect as they shuffled along in sweaty crowds behind trucks blaring infectious music.

But just 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Rio, mudslides hit houses in Itaipava, an inland town used by many Rio residents wanting to escape the carnival madness, killing nine people.

In the neighboring state of Minas Gerais, a six-year-old girl and her teenage cousin were also killed when a carnival truck ran over them and 12 other people in the town of Sabara, police said.

The government has taken steps to tone down this year's carnival, with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva calling on the public "to have fun responsibly."

The sale of alcohol has been banned on federal roads, and nearly 20 million free condoms were being distributed. The northern city of Recife also overcame opposition by the Catholic Church to hand out morning-after pills.