Swinging into battle: the fight to rejoin Rio's carnival elite

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The Independent US

For some, it may feel like one of the world's great levellers. Amid the sweatand soundof the flesh-filled Rio carnival, social barriers and inhibitions fall away in more ways than one.

For some, it may feel like one of the world's great levellers. Amid the sweatand soundof the flesh-filled Rio carnival, social barriers and inhibitions fall away in more ways than one.

But for those competing in Brazil's best samba schools, elitism is what it's all about.

Three years ago, the 3,000 heel-to-toe hip-swingers of the Vila Isabel samba school were competing in the parade's premier division. They lost and were moved to a lower class. The boys and girls of the poor northern suburb want their top spot back. "We suffered an injustice when we were relegated ... But we hope to rise again this year," said Vila Isabel's 40-year-old samba-singing president, Evandro Luiz do Nascimento.

Rio de Janeiro's samba schools are organised into six leagues which compete over four days. The winning school gains a place in the Carnival's main parade, which kicks off officially today. With that comes a chance to bask in the media limelight, and lucrative sponsorship deals are swift to follow.

Vila Isabel's budget for the carnival is about 700,000 reais (£125,000), but this is one-third that of some of the more wealthy samba schools, said Mr Nascimento.

This year, the town council of Parati, 120 miles south of Rio, came to Vila Isabel's rescue with financial backing for their attempt to regain its place at the top. In return the school will sing in praise of Parati's "paradise of natural riches", when it performs one of its enredos, or custom-written samba songs.

The drummers and dancers of Vila Isabel have been rehearsing for weeks in a huge hangar and in the streets that twist and turn beneath the shadow of the huge Maracana soccer stadium. "I've been playing 18 years here. I adore it," said Birajara Ribiro, 55, who plays the squeaky guica drum in one of the baterias, or percussion bands.

The district is named after Princess Isabel, daughter of Brazil's last Portuguese emperor, who ended slavery in Brazil, and who was the inspiration behind the school's parade theme which won it the Carnival crown in 1988. Across Rio, similar preparations are taking place. Each school has a theme based on an aspect of Brazilian history or life. Satire is part of the tradition, too. On Sunday, a 12ft Uncle Sam, built by the Sao Clemente samba school, will make his way down the Sambodromo runway, his trousers around his ankles and his outstretched fingers smeared with ink. "Uncle Sam will reflect the frictions between the United States and Brazil," said Roberto Gomez, from Sao Clemente.

For the boys and girls of the Vila Isabel the focus remains local. "Everyone sings here ... We have deep roots in the community," said Mr Nascimento, pointing to the heaving crowd at the rehearsal. And it seems the lure of community crosses social boundaries.

Amelia Cristina, a Federal tax office worker, lives in stylish Ipanema but says she prefers to parade with the community in which she grew up. "It's much better than supporting a football team because you play for the samba school and can help it win," she said. Perhaps, it seems, competition can be a great leveller after all.

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