David Biller and Mauricio Savarese
RIO DE JANEIRO — Colorful floats and flamboyant dancers are delighting tens of thousands jammed into Rio de Janeiro's iconic Sambadrome, putting on a delayed Carnival celebration after the pandemic halted the dazzling displays.
Rio de Janeiro's top samba schools began strutting their stuff late Friday, which was the first evening of the two-night spectacle.
Ketula Melo, 38, a muse in the Imperatriz Leopoldinense school dressed as the Iemanja deity of Afro-Brazilian religions, was thrilled to be back at the Sambadrome.
"These two years were horrible. Now we can be happy again," Melo said as she was about to enter Friday night wearing a black and white costume made of shells that barely covered her body.
Rio's Sambadrome has been home to the parade since the 1980s, and is a symbol of Brazil's Carnival festivities. During the pandemic, it was a shelter for more than 400 homeless people and also served as a vaccination station.
Brazil confirmed its first cases of the coronavirus in mid-March 2020, just after that year's Carnival festivities came to an end. The 2021 edition was swiftly cancelled due to the rise of the delta variant. More than 663,000 people have died from COVID-19 in Brazil, the second highest of any country in the world, according to Our World in Data, an online research site.
Entire communities rally around the competing samba schools, whose shows are not only a source of pride but also employment since preparations require countless seamstresses, welders, costume designers and more. There are months of rehearsals for dancers and drummers, so participants can learn the tune and the lyrics for their school's song. The pandemic upended these samba schools' way of life for two years.
Sao Paulo also kicked off its Carnival parade Friday evening. Both cities' parades usually take place in February or March, but their mayors in January jointly announced they were postponing Carnival by two months due to concerns about the proliferation of the omicron variant.
The number of COVID-19 cases and deaths has plunged since then, and more than three-quarters of Brazilians are fully vaccinated, according to the country's health ministry. Local authorities have allowed soccer matches with full attendance since March.
Rio authorities said earlier this week those attending the parade would have to show proof of vaccination, but media reports showed that attendees had no trouble getting tickets or entering the Sambadrome without showing the required documents.
A seat in the bleachers cost about $50, and the most expensive seats can cost more than $1,260. Going out in one of the samba schools costs a lot for tourists, but it is often free for people who are involved with the parade all year round, like 66-year-old Juciara do Nascimento Santos. She was among the revelers starting this year's parade with the Imperatriz Leopoldinense samba school.
"We had to take care of ourselves during this time so we could be here today celebrating life," said Santos, who has paraded with Imperatriz Leopoldinense since 1984. This time she was in the section of the baianas, often reserved for the oldest women of each samba school. Many of these samba schools reported they lost many of their baianas to the virus.
For those unwilling to shell out for the price of admission, there were street parties across Rio — despite City Hall denying authorization for them to take place, citing insufficient time to prepare. Some organizers couldn't care less, arguing that celebrating Carnival wasn't contingent on authorities' consent, and partiers hit the streets in force.
Savarese reported from Sao Paulo.