RIO DE JANEIRO – Swatting aside fears over the Zika virus, the glittering dancers of the Rio Carnival samba championship began the first of their all-night parades Sunday in front of adoring fans.
After a fortnight of street parties, thousands of gallons of beer, and the day and night sound of music through Brazil’s most iconic city, the really serious Carnival fun began in a swirl of drumming and feather headdresses.
There was an electric atmosphere in Rio’s purpose-built dancing stadium, the Sambadrome, with about 70,000 people cheering and dancing in the stands as the 12 elite samba ensembles, known as schools, began to compete.
After an opening ceremony that looked forward to Rio’s hosting of the Summer Olympics this August with a huge model of the Olympic torch, the first school, Estacio de Sa, began to strut its stuff.
The parade contest, which goes all Sunday night and then again all Monday night, is the climax of the annual Rio Carnival, possibly the world’s biggest party, with some 5 million people, including 1 million tourists, estimated to take part.
This year, Rio’s fiesta has been overshadowed by the Zika virus, painful recession, battles over the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff and a corruption scandal reaching into the heart of the political and business elite.
But participants and fans alike said a little repellent and a lot of samba will cure anything.
“Despite the problems in our country, our people can’t lose their love of partying. And whatever happens in our country, it’s still the country of samba,” said Luanny Victoria, 19, who was taking part in the Uniao da Ilha school, dressed in a skimpy golden outfit with vast green feather wings.
“People have to put those problems aside, at least for the three days of Carnival,” she said.
Also at the Sambadrome, Ketleen Oliveira Silva, 25, said that she had carefully protected herself before coming to the open air event. She is 8 months pregnant and therefore, in theory, vulnerable to Zika-carrying mosquito, which is believed to be responsible for a rash of babies born with serious brain damage and abnormally small heads.
“I even put repellent on my makeup,” she said. “I’m ready for the fiesta.”
Brazilians might be better known as passionate soccer supporters, but there’s no less excitement at the Sambadrome where fans are vehement in their allegiance to a particular school.
For all their perfect choreography and literally dazzling costumes, the samba schools rely on the enthusiasm of amateur performers. Each school is rooted in a specific neighborhood, many of them deeply impoverished favelas, where there may not be proper sanitation but music is king.
Schools like Beija-Flor, Salgueiro or Mangueira that make it to the Sunday and Monday night parades are the cream of more than 100 ensembles across the city. Each gets about an hour to parade through the Sambadrome, with a themed set of costumes and floats that are not only lavishly decorated but often have moving parts, so that they, too, seem alive.
But hard economic times have had fallout in the usually happy world of samba too.
Funding for the hugely expensive samba school extravaganzas, whose floats and costumes for thousands of dancers and musicians take a year to prepare, has dropped significantly.
The productions in Rio are expected to be less over the top this year, while in 48 Brazilian cities, the Carnival was canceled altogether.
Given its economic and political woes, Brazil hardly needed another crisis. But the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which carries the Zika virus, gatecrashed the party anyway.
Adding to the fear of mosquito-transmitted infections are unconfirmed reports that the virus may also be spread through contact with human saliva and blood.
Earlier this week, U.S. health officials confirmed the first case of sexually-transmitted Zika, involving a person who had traveled to Venezuela and infected a sexual partner in Texas upon return
To fight back, Brazilian authorities have sent out the army and municipal health workers across the country to tackle potential mosquito breeding sites and to educate the public.
The Sambadrome was subjected to fumigation ahead of the Carnival and similar fumigating teams will be deployed throughout the city before the Olympics start in exactly six months.
With Brazil in the epicenter of a regional surge in Zika infections, many — especially expectant mothers — are spooked.
Sales of repellant are up sharply, manufacturers, say, with one, Osler, reporting an 800 percent increase in the December 2015-January 2016 period, year on year.