Brazil casts economic woes aside for epic party

RIO DE JANEIRO - Brazil's economy is sputtering, the country's biggest firm is mired in corruption allegations and the football team is still recovering from last year's World Cup humiliation at German hands.

But none of that will matter - at least for a moment - for 200 million Brazilians who will embark on five days of non-stop partying Friday with the official opening of this year's Carnival.

Party central is Rio de Janeiro, home of samba. From the fanciest parts of town to the outlying slums, hundreds of dancing teams, their choreographers and massed ranks of helpers have been putting the finishing touches to giant allegorical floats and glittering, skimpy costumes with bold headdresses.

They are eagerly awaiting the mid-morning moment Friday when Rio's Mayor Eduardo Paes hands the keys of the city to Carnival "King", Rei Momo, who will symbolically take charge of the city for the duration of the festivities.

Street parties known as blocos have for days already been making their cacophonous presence felt as they provide a deafening hors d'oeuvre to the real thing, culminating in the weekend parades by the 12 top samba schools at Rio's sambadrome, where a crowd of some 70,000 will see the elite battle it out for the title of champions Sunday night.

Portela Samba-School leads the list of most successful schools with 21 titles to 18 for Mangueira, while last year's honors went to Unidos da Tijuca.

Warrior women

A theme this year is the Brazilian woman.

"The Brazilian woman is a warrior - a woman who gets up at 5:30 in the morning and looks after the kids. I am proud to represent the Brazilian woman and also Mangueira woman," top dancer Daniela Suares told AFP, her body resplendent in sparkling sequins and tassels.

The top groups have up to 5,000 members parading in the firm belief they will land the title. Founded in 1928, Suares' Mangueira is one of Rio's oldest and most loved samba schools.

Choreography is hugely important as the group's movement will be a factor in the jury's choice of champion. Nine other criteria include the choice of music, the performance of the standard-bearers and also the drum queens - the dancers chosen to embody their group's rhythm and beauty as she performs at the head of hundreds of percussionists along the sambadrome's 700-meter (765-yard) dance piste.

Some of those taking part are not so much known for their dancing prowess as their general athleticism and with the parade coming on the eve of the Rio Masters tennis event, Spanish tennis champion Rafael Nadal will also get the chance to strut his stuff before he looks to defend his title.

Stress buster

The carnival has expanded over time, as Rio residents use the season to dance their cares away and cast off the stresses of daily life.

Alcohol, not least Rio's renowned caipirinha tipple, will underpin a raucously flirtatious atmosphere as revelers forget about an economy set to register zero growth this year, political uncertainty and a huge corruption scandal at oil giant Petrobras.

In a touch of gallows humour, one carnival mask on sale bears the likeness of the now ex-Petrobras CEO, Graca Foster, who resigned last week.

"Brazilians prepare for Carnival for 361 days, then there are four days when the country casts off the stress accumulated over the year," dancer and choreographer Carlinho de Jesus told Globo television.

The occasion is a huge money-earner for the tourist industry, with around a million visitors due to flock to the city and splurge some $500 million - although hotels are projected to only hit 78 per cent capacity as some visitors prefer to seek out various couch-surfing solutions.

This year, the festivities will extend beyond Carnival's official end as Rio celebrates its 450th anniversary on March 1.