Updated: Monday, 03 March 2014 06:31 | By Agence France-Presse

Serious samba stuff as Rio elite schools open duel

After two days of heady street parties, Rio's Carnival added a sultry yet competitive edge Sunday as the city's elite samba schools readied to dance off at the famed Sambadrome.


Serious samba stuff as Rio elite schools open duel

A reveler of the Aguia de Ouro samba school performs during the second night of carnival parade at the Sambadrome in Sao Paulo, Brazil on March 2, 2014 - by Nelson Almeida

A dozen of the best schools, each consisting of several thousand scantily-clad dancers and drummers, were going up against each other in the elite category at Rio's famed Sambadrome before a packed crowd of 70,000 people.

The Sambadrome, right in the heart of the city and designed by Brazilian modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer, is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

Since the Carnival officially opened on Friday, when King Momo "decreed" five days of non-stop joyful song and dance, hundreds of street parties known as blocos have been pounding out a samba beat.

But Sunday night sees the event step up a collective gear as the samba schools sway through to the Sambadrome, with their glamorous dancers, flaunting toned and lithe bodies, parading atop and around magnificently decorated floats.

- World Cup in 3 months -

This year's Carnival takes place three months before Brazil hosts its first World Cup since 1950 amid early anticipation of a sixth world title.

But Rio residents, known as Cariocas, are also keenly aware that the cost of staging the event -- some $11 billion -- has drained the public purse in a country where shoddy public services need a massive overhaul.

There have been demonstrations on and off since June, in a country where mass political protest is rare, against the cost of the event and also that of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, which will be South America's first.

More than a million people demonstrated nationwide in June during the Confederations Cup -- a World Cup dress rehearsal that Brazil won.

Protests in recent weeks have been far smaller but some have ended in violence.

As darkness fell in the early evening, the streets of the central part of town home to the Sambadrome were filling up with revelers keen to catch a glimpse of the huge parade of elite schools that will last until dawn.

Not all were in party mood, however.

Five people, wearing masks, clad in prison garb and "chained" together by fake handcuffs and shackles, were holding their own mini-parade in protest at a recent political corruption scandal.

Several key figures in the ruling Workers Party were sentenced to jail terms last year, but most have benefited from a lenient semi-open regime and party members have been busy raising cash to pay their fines.

"It's ridiculous. The people never learn. The party people are paying out, but the people already paid to fill these these people's pockets," grumbled Neidr, a woman in her 50s, as she watched the group limp along.

Nearby, a man hidden behind a black mask with the word "reporter" emblazoned on his back held a television "camera" made out of cardboard boxes on his shoulder with a big white papier-mache dove perched on the front.

On the side of the camera, a banner read: "Yesterday, I made the news. Today, I am the news. Homage to Santiago," a reference to cameraman Santiago Andrade, who died last month after being struck by a flare during a February 6 protest in Rio.

But on the whole, protest voices have died down for the Carnival as some four million Cariocas concentrate on the world's largest street party, dating back to the early 18th century, in typically hedonistic fashion.

There have been occasional sour notes, such as military police using tear gas Saturday to disperse a group of cleaners demanding better pay and work conditions.

A group demonstrated outside city hall Sunday as trash piled up high in the streets.

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