Rio de Janeiro - Rio's Carnival burst into top gear on Sunday, adding a sultry yet competitive edge to the event as elite samba schools compete for the champions' title at the fabled Sambadrome.
More than 70 000 people, including foreign tourists who paid hundreds of dollars for a close-up view, watched as dancers and drummers turned the arena into a polychrome blur of sensuality and joy.
A dozen Special Group schools, each consisting of several thousand scantily-clad dancers and drummers, are chasing the prestigious title while soccer-style relegation lies in store for the tailenders.
The Sambadrome, designed by Brazilian modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer and located in the heart of the iconic city, is celebrating its 30th anniversary.
As the schools entered the arena to strut their stuff, the parade ground along the famed 720 meter Sabucai Avenue shook to the pounding samba beat.
“When I turned into the avenue the ground literally shook,” said Carnival 'sovereign' King Momo, who on Friday declared the festivities open and ordered joy by decree.
“The sheer energy was impressive - it's a very happy night,” he told AFP.
After two days of street parties drawing well over a million people, the elite group of dancers sashayed towards the Sambadrome.
First to go was the Imperio de Tijuca group, their thousands of glamorous dancers flaunting toned and lithe bodies, parading atop and around magnificently decorated floats.
“Vai tremer, o chao vai tremer (it will tremble, the ground will tremble)” ran one of the group's lyrics.
Given that Samba came to Rio via predominantly African immigrants from northern Bahia state, another lyric, “uniting races in faith and hope” was highly symbolic in a country colonized by the Portuguese in the 16th century but where roughly half are black or mixed race.
Tijuca's muse, Cinti Barbosa, led the dancers dressed as an African warrior queen.
In a nod to Brazil's motto, Order and Progress, one float consisted of a giant train, A Train Called Progress.
That progress was put in question by recent protests against expenditures for the World Cup - which kicks off June 12 - that have seen thousands marching in outrage at corruption and shoddy public.
But Carnival has provided the perfect excuse to let off steam, and most if not all revelers say now is a time to party, not protest.
Another group, Sao Clemente, injected dashes of Afroreggae and funk as it embarked on its campaign to show off the history of the favelas, Rio's slum districts, in song and dance.
One of its floats bore along a statue of late missionary Mother Teresa.
In all, six of the 12 elite schools were to dance through until dawn before the remainder parade on Monday night.
Earlier, there were still some vestiges of public protest as five people, wearing masks, clad in prison garb and “chained” together by fake handcuffs and shackles, held their own mini-parade to protest a recent political corruption scandal.
Several key figures in the ruling Workers Party were sentenced to jail terms last year, but have generally benefited from a lenient semi-open regime and party members have been 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 people's pockets,” grumbled Neidr, a woman in her 50s, watching the group limp along.
Nearby, a man hidden behind a black mask with the word “reporter” emblazoned on his back held a cardboard television “camera” on his shoulder with a big white papier-mache dove perched on the front.
A homemade 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.
One sour note saw military police use tear gas Saturday to disperse a group of cleaners demanding better pay and work conditions.
A group of cleaners demonstrated outside city hall on Sunday as trash piled up high in the streets. - AFP