RIO DE JANEIRO – Bubbles, feathers and glitter swirled on the first night of parades in Rio's Carnival, as the city's samba schools battled it out for top honors in what many bill as the world's largest party.
Brazilian celebrities and slum dwellers danced side by side as some samba schools put on brave faces amid the world financial crisis, replacing cash with creativity and enthusiasm.
"Carnival is our Thanksgiving," said Renato Teixeira, a 25-year-old construction worker attending the parades. "As long as we have a good showing in general, Rio's samba schools have accomplished a lot."
The first night of parades lasted from Sunday into early Monday morning.
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At least four schools paraded with little special attention: It seemed most judges and television commentators were awaiting the appearance of the reigning champion Beija-Flor school. The school has won five of the last six titles and was not due to parade until just before dawn.
Local media have reported on financially strapped samba schools scaling back their productions, incorporating plastic bottle and other recyclables into floats.
"They say this is the year of the Carnival in crisis, but the party that lives inside us all has no price," said Miqueas Cherry, 30, a seamstress who helped create costumes for the Grande Rio samba school.
The $2.5 million samba-school parades are the centerpiece of the world's largest Carnival bash — and schools compete fiercely to dominate the show.
Taking place over two nights, the parades feature the top 12 samba schools competing in front of 80,000 spectators at the Sambadrome stadium. The winning school earns bragging rights and massive attention from the local news media.
Hundreds of informal, around-the-clock street parties — celebrations that many describe as the soul of Brazil's Carnival — hummed along outside the stadium Sunday, with the largest gathering attracting more than a half-million people.
Samba schools also staged early parades Sunday in Sao Paulo, a business-oriented city that some Brazilians say is too straight-laced to throw a proper party.
But Swiss tourist Christoph Fischer, 42, seemed to appreciate the milder version of events, noting that in contrast to the anything-goes chaos of Rio's pre-Lent bash, "Carnival in Sao Paulo is very organized."
Fernando Angelo Reis, 35, a nurse from Sao Paulo, acknowledged that the city's celebrations lacked the exuberance of those in Rio, or even those in the cities of Salvador and Recife.
But "even though Carnival might be a little better in Rio, I wouldn't trade it for Carnival in Sao Paulo because of security issues," Reis said.
In Rio last week, armed men with guns and grenades invaded youth hostels, tying up scores of foreign tourists and robbing them.
Police have since reinforced patrols in tourist areas.