Brazil's annual Carnival is to burst upon Rio de Janeiro this weekend, sending the 2016 Olympic host city into a euphoric frenzy of street parties, parades -- and a touch of controversy.(AFP) -
Brazil's annual Carnival is to burst upon Rio de Janeiro this weekend, sending the 2016 Olympic host city into a euphoric frenzy of street parties, parades - and a touch of controversy.
The extravagant four-day event, running from Saturday to next Tuesday, has pumped up its celebrity quotient this year with US entertainers Madonna and Alicia Keys in town to watch. Paris Hilton is also expected.
The performers catching most of the attention, though, will be the lithe Brazilian dancing queens who lead each of the samba schools competing in the parades, especially the top-notch entries Sunday and Monday nights.
Traditionally statuesque, leggy and nearly naked adults, the queens this time will have a new member whose addition has outraged rights groups: a seven-year-old girl.
The youngster, Julia Lira, is the daughter of one of the samba school chiefs.
The school, Viradouro, has promised she would not be dressed provocatively, but that has not reassured critics.
"We're not against children taking part in Carnival, but we're against them in that position, which promotes a sexual image of children and teenagers," said Carlos Nicodemus, the president of the Council for the Defense of the Rights of the Child, told Epoca magazine last weekend.
Although Rio's samba schools usually plumb mythology and festive stereotypes for their imagery, some actively court controversy to get an edge over rivals.
Viradouro, in particular, likes to skirt with questionable taste. In 2008 it tried to roll out a float depicting a Hitler dancing on Holocaust victims but was blocked by a Jewish group's lawsuit. In protest against what it called "censorship," it changed the float so all on board wore gags over their mouths.
The same year, another school, Sao Clemente, was demoted out of the top league after its dancing queen somehow lost her only piece of apparel - a 3.5-centimeter (1.4-inch) piece of glitter - leaving her completely naked.
The quest for provocation and titillation underlines just how important the parades, and Carnival itself, are in Brazil.
"The stress doesn't end until the parade is over," the artistic director of the Uniao da Ilha school, Rosa Magalhaes, told AFP.
She was working in Samba City, a Rio facility that houses an army of costumers and designers from all the schools, each of which spends up to four million dollars and deploys 3,000-5,000 dancing "extras" to put on its show.
The parades themselves take place in the Sambodrome, a stadium-like runway seating judges, VIPs and thousands of ticket-buying members of the public.
Away from those stands, the bawdy, raucous, lubricious nature of Carnival's free street parties take over.
In a nod to sexual responsibility, Brazilian national and municipal authorities are reportedly to distribute 70 million condoms throughout the country during the festivities to curb the risk of HIV infections.