Rio Carnival sizzles despite fire damage last month

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Strutting in a rainbow of glittering colors, Rio's samba groups opened two days of Carnival parades with a dazzling show that included a rousing welcome for one of the elite bands that lost most of their elaborate costumes and floats in a fire last month.

The Portela group made a dramatic entrance into the throbbing Sambadrome stadium late yesterday, its 300-strong percussion section abruptly quieting its thundering drums and crouching down in a moment of silence for its losses in the fire.

With silence descending over the crowd for a few seconds, the drummers leaped back up with a raucous beat as Portela's thousands of members marched on to the cheers and applause of fans.

"Our community looks beautiful tonight," Portela president Nilo Figueredo said. "It is really a community of warriors."

The fire in early February ripped through warehouses where Portela and two other elite samba groups were preparing for Carnival, incinerating more than 8,000 feather and glitter costumes and many of the big, meticulously decorated floats.

Portela had 3,255 outfits destroyed or severely damaged. Many wondered whether the group, which has not missed a parade in its 84-year history, would be able to put on a show at all. The two nights of lavish parades that began Sunday are watched by millions in Brazil and abroad.

Once the shock passed, however, it became clear the 2011 Carnival would be marked more than ever by the festival's quintessential ability to bring hope and happiness, even if fleeting, to those who have little. It also steeled samba group members' fierce allegiances in a city where fans are as devoted to their groups as they are to their soccer teams.

"We're ready and we're strong — no one is sitting here sad, thinking of what we lost," one member, Maria Alice Alves, clad in a metallic silver and blue outfit, said before Portela marched in.

Some longtime members admitted to being a bit anxious about making an entrance that could be marred by what was lost in the fire.

"Our objective is always perfection," said Alessandro Meireles, a 30-year-old who has been a member of Portela's percussion section for a decade. "Even if we can't win, we're going to put on the show people expect of us."

He was referring to the top-tier samba competition, in which groups vie fiercely to have their performance judged the best. There's no cash prize for first place, only a trophy and the bragging rights that last a year until the next Carnival. Portela has won the samba competition 21 times, more than any group, most recently when it shared the title in 1984.

But this year the contest's governing body decided there was no way Portela, Academicos do Grande Rio and Uniao da Ilha do Governador could recover from the fire in time, so they will not be judged. That means they don't risk being relegated to the second-tier samba competition, the fate of each year's last-place finisher.

It also meant Portela was competing only for pride Sunday night — and celebrating its comeback from disaster.

Police have concluded their investigation and found the fire was accidental.

Nevertheless, it wiped out months of work by the residents of Madureira, Portela's working-class home base, and dealt a devastating blow to the neighborhood's seamstresses, construction workers and salesgirls who leave behind their workaday lives once a year when they take on their glamorous Carnival alter egos in the Sambadrome.

Bianca Monteiro, 22, recalled how she cried in February when she saw on TV the thick smoke rising from the warehouses.

Now in her fifth year as one of the "passistas," the fit young dancers who showcase the group's best samba dancing skills, Monteiro feared the worst for Portela, where her father helps keep the 4,000 performers moving along in harmony and six other relatives also parade.

"We're all blue-blooded to the core," Monteiro said, a reference the group's blue and white colors.

As soon as the flames were out, hundreds of people from Portela's home base, in the poor neighborhood of Madureira, mobilized to remake what was lost. The community center put aside classes and health services for the past few weeks to focus entirely on rebuilding the costumes.

For the past month, everyone who was able to do so pitched in, from relatives of group members to students in the canceled classes, even dentists who work out of the community center, said Val Carvalho, head of Portela's social projects.

Their work made it possible for the show to go on.

"Everyone contributed in whatever way they could: They glued parts of the costumes, swept the floor or just bought food and drinks for the others," Carvalho said. "The fire only took our costumes, not our love for Portela."

To sisters Viviane and Geisy Alvarado, who got to the bleachers early for a good spot up front, Portela had already won.

"They could be out there in T-shirts," said Geisy Alvarado, 23. "They're gorgeous."

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