The Beija Flor samba group won its tenth carnival championship on Wednesday, taking home top honors for a performance in which thousands of costumed drummers and dancers celebrated Brazil's African roots.

The last group to perform at Rio's annual samba parade, Beija Flor wowed a capacity crowd in the Sambadromo stadium in the wee hours on Tuesday with a show featuring a giant gilded hummingbird, leaping impalas and dancers in elephant and giraffe suits.

The group earned a near-perfect 399.3 points out of a possible 400 to edge Grande Rio and Mangueira, which is considered Rio's most traditional. Beija Flor, which means hummingbird, had won for three consecutive years until 2006, when it managed only fifth place.

Although it's the highlight of carnival's party atmosphere, Rio's Samba parade is also a hard-fought competition in which the city's top-tier samba groups practice year-round and spend as much as US$1 million (euro760,000) to mount lavish 80-minute parades. A win brings a trophy, possible sponsorships and bragging rights — but no cash.

A panel of 40 judges examines everything from music, lyrics and crowd response to how smoothly each group travels the length of the 700-meter (770-yard) stadium.

Like in Brazil's soccer leagues, the two lowest-scoring outfits will drop to the second division. Meanwhile the champion of the lower tier wins promotion to the first division, which next year will only feature 12 groups.

The top six schools strut their stuff one more time Saturday night in the Champion's parade.

At Beija Flor headquarters in the poor suburb of Nilopolis, thousands of people cheered the win but already had their sights on 2008.

"In reality we never stop working," said Beija Flor's carnival director Laila, who goes by one name. "As soon as one carnival finishes we start working on the next."

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