Brazil's traditional carnival parades, those extravagant displays of flesh and fantasy set to a samba rhythm, were to hit their peak late Sunday with a glitzy show in Rio de Janeiro in front of a sold-out crowd.
Half of the city's 12 top samba schools were to unveil their colorful entries to stands packed with 50,000 people, and with a worldwide television audience looking on.
AdvertisementThe other six schools were to get their turn Monday night, when the parades were to conclude.
Excitement has been building ahead of the Rio event, which has come to symbolize Brazil's version of carnival, traditionally a pre-Lent period of indulgence taken to extremes by this South American nation.
The celebration, which has its roots in Christian rites brought over by Portuguese colonists, has melded with African traditions to become a joyful explosion of movement, music and lithe models.
Rio's parades are in fact a competition between the samba schools -- and one that is treated as seriously as any major sporting event.
Each group is judged on a set of criteria including the costumes, the success of the allegorical imagery chosen for the float, the composition and performance of the song accompanying it, the choreography of dancers, and, of course, the cheerleader who usually wears nothing more than feathers and a smile.
The schools try to outdo each other in realizing imaginative motifs.
But this year, one went too far. The Unidos do Viradouro group wanted to enter a float featuring a dancing Hitler atop a pile of skeletal Holocaust victims as a sort of warning against such atrocities.
A judge banned the display after a Jewish group took offense and sued for an injunction.
But the controversy has gone on, with a public debate being sparked over censorship and perceived bad taste -- and the school deciding to change the float to now be an ironic tribute to "freedom of expression".
Away from the official parades, street partying was also being taken to its limits.
Along Rio's Ipanema beach, a customary bash by the city's flourishing gay and transvestite community drew tens of thousands of people for an over-the-top costumed march.
Among the crowds were get-ups to set cameras clicking, including: a trio wearing watermelons as helmets, a duo of cross-dressers resembling black Barbara Cartlands, Snow White with stubble, and a Roman gladiator whose overlong feathers were decidedly not military issue.
There was also a bride in a see-through dress, and a swarm of mosquito men who delighted in poking their probiscises in the crowd and police escorts while waving a sign reading: "Free injections -- but only in the backside."
Tourists were delighted, including Air France flight attendant Maurice Lebrun, 32, who said of the good-natured circus going on around him: "This is the sort of stuff we've come looking for."
A 35-year-old Ipanema hairdresser wearing a black dress and gloves and packed-on white make-up for the occasion, said his goals for carnival 2008 were easy to define.
"I want to have lots of fun, and kiss a lot of mouths, and have a lot of safe sex with condoms," he said, giving his name as "Pandora."