Page last updated at 14:21 GMT, Monday, 15 February 2010

Cheers and tears as Rio Carnival girl queen steps out

Julia Lira backstage at the Sambadrome

By Gary Duffy
BBC News, Rio de Janiero

The Rio Carnival has many stars but much of the attention this year was on one of its youngest performers, Julia Lira. Her father Marco is president of the Viradouro samba school, which chose the seven-year-old to be queen of its drum section, with both parents viewing it as a great opportunity.

A child welfare group in Rio raised objections saying the role had too much of a "sexual focus" for someone so young.

But after being given details of the costume she was to wear, a judge allowed the young drum queen to participate in the parade, and to dance her way into a little of carnival history.

She is not going to arrive naked; she is a seven-year-old child
Jorge Souza
Viradouro samba school

At one point the attention from the cameras was a little too much for her, but she is reported to have recovered her composure to return a short time later.

As he waited to go into the Sambadrome, the director of the drums section for Viradouro, Jorge Souza, had no doubts about Julia's starring role.

"Carnival is about innovation," he told the BBC News website. "We are not born with knowledge, we need to learn. So I think it is something valid, we are not disrespecting anything.

"People are claiming that because she is to lead a drum battery of 300 people, a majority of whom are men, it is too much for her.

"But this actually doesn't mean anything. She is with 300 people around her to protect her."

He dismissed the criticism that the role was too sexual for a young girl.

The Academicos do Salgueiro samba school
The Sambodrome will see 12 samba schools parade over two nights

"It doesn't mean anything - what counts is her costume.

"She is a queen of the drum section that is coming well dressed and discreet.

"She is not going to arrive naked; she is a child, a seven-year-old child."

For all the controversy surrounding Julia, there seemed to plenty of examples of boys and girls around her age dancing in the carnival parade.

And the controversy itself did not distract the thousands taking part in the celebrations or the more than 60,000 watching from the stands.

The heatwave which has left Rio one of the hottest places in the world this week also failed to diminish the energy of those taking part in the parade.

Among those watching this year's event was the pop star Madonna who was a guest of Rio's Governor, Sergio Cabral.

Peaceful event

Making your way along the 700m of the purpose-built Sambadrome takes more than an hour, and along the way judges mark each school for everything from their musical and dancing skills to the quality of costumes.

For carnival is not just a spectacle but a contest, with winners and losers.

It also appears divided in some other respects.

Far from the more exclusive hospitality boxes some 4,000 of the city's poorest citizens sit for free in what is known as "sector zero".

There they have a view across the Canal do Mangue, a small river that is so heavily polluted that it froths and continually gives off a powerful stench.

With no sense of irony at all, an advertising hoarding promoting the state and local governments and the state run oil company Petrobras runs along a wall at this spot.

The Beija Flor samba school
The Beija-Flor samba school's tribute to Brasilia raised a few eyebrows

Such a foul mess would be an issue in any city, but to leave it untreated, year after year, alongside your most prestigious event seems an odd kind of promotion, except of course it would not be something that the tourists are expected to see.

The other irony of the first night of carnival was the tribute by the samba school Beija-Flor to mark 50 years of the Brazilian capital, Brasilia.

This was remarkably generous given that Rio had its capital status taken from it in 1960 to make way for the new pretender.

But it was also an uncomfortable moment, as the Governor of Brasilia, Jose Roberto Arruda, was jailed only last week accused of corruption.

He was reportedly due to join the carnival parade, but was, as they say, unavoidably detained.

This was the first carnival since Rio was chosen to stage the 2016 Olympic Games, and officials are keen to point to evidence that the city can stage such major events without incident.

Madonna and Rio's Governor Sergio Cabral
Madonna and Rio's governor watched at the Sambadrome

And indeed it was largely peaceful, even with 700,000 visitors said to be in the city, although a Dutch tourist was reported to have been shot and injured during a robbery.

But across Rio in the last few days there has been a party atmosphere with neighbourhood or "block" parties going from strength to strength.

It sometimes seemed that every street - and even occasionally the metro - was moving to the beat of carnival.

And the celebrations aren't over yet - another six samba schools are due to parade on Monday night.

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