RIO DE JANEIRO – Rio's Carnival celebrations reached their peak on Sunday with the start of the sumptuous parades at the city's hallowed Sambadrome – a riotous frenzy of skin, sweat, sequins and music.
The joyous street parties have given way to the highly anticipated parades at the Sambadrome, otherwise known as the "temple of Samba" with a capacity of 72,500, where a new champion of the annual celebration will be named.
Seven of the city's top samba schools sent allegorical floats and hundreds of lavishly costumed singers, dancers and musicians down a specially designed parade route, to the cheers of the tens of thousands of spectators.
The first to parade was the Renascer samba school from the western Rio de Janeiro district of Jacarepagua, making its first appearance in the elite group of 13 samba schools vying for the title of Carnival champion.
As a theme, Renascer chose to showcase the life and work of Brazilian artist Romero Britto, a Recife-born painter and sculptor viewed as an icon of world pop culture.
The schools competing for the title are judged on choreography, music, dancing and creativity.
Brazil, a racially diverse country of 191 million people, has come to a standstill for the pre-Lent bacchanalian Carnival festival, its most popular holiday.
Preparations for the Sambadrome parades start months in advance, as each samba school mobilises thousands of supporters who must create the various parts of the school's display.
Those parades have a special meaning for residents of Rio's impoverished shanty towns, or favelas, for whom samba – a dance which African slaves brought to this country – stirs passions as strong as soccer.
Favela residents are often members of a local samba school and are deeply involved with the performance and preparation of costumes.
It turns the spotlight on the amazing artistic talent, creative genius and zest for life found in those predominantly black shantytowns which often lack running water, electricity and sewage systems.
The spectacular parades take place in the renovated Sambadrome, originally designed 30 years ago by famed Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.
The arena, which reopened last Sunday after a nine-month makeover, now has a boosted capacity, elevators, and access ramps for the handicapped.
Sambadrome seats cost between US$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.
The Rio Carnival, billed as "the greatest show on Earth", generates 250,000 jobs and revenues of $640 million for hotels, bars and restaurants, according to state estimates.
The cream of Brazil's society and its most famous stars were to attend Sunday's Sambadrome events. Big-name companies invite luminaries, including foreign celebrities, to their skyboxes to promote their brands.
Carnival is celebrated with equal gusto in other cities and towns, including Sao Paulo, Brazil's economic capital and Latin America's most populous city, and the northeastern city of Salvador, the heart of rich Afro-Brazilian culture. -- AFP