Image: Sabrina Sato
Andre Penner  /  AP
Brazilian comedian Sabrina Sato performs during the parade of Gavioes da Fiel samba school in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Sunday.
By
updated 3/6/2011 11:57:52 AM ET 2011-03-06T16:57:52

For 28 years, Gilma Cardoso Ferreira has saved for months before each Carnival to pay for the frilly, full-skirted outfit that transforms her, for one evening, from a retired public servant into one of the respected grande dames of Rio's winningest samba group.

This year, however, Carnival almost didn't happen for Ferreira and thousands of others who put on one of the world's most spectacular shows: two nights of lavish parades that begin Sunday in Rio's Sambadrome stadium and are watched by millions in Brazil and abroad.

A fire in early February ripped through warehouses where three elite samba groups were preparing for Carnival, incinerating more than 8,000 feather and glitter costumes and many of the massive, meticulously decorated floats.

    1. Castaway's parents thought they would never see him again

      The father of Pacific castaway Jose Salvador Alvarenga said he was told his long-lost son vanished on a fishing trip but he didn’t have the heart to break the news to his ailing wife.

    2. Scotland legalizes same-sex marriage
    3. Weapons deal strengthened Assad: US intel chief
    4. Outcry over the fate of Sochi's stray dogs
    5. Olympic construction leaves Sochi residents in the cold

Portela, Ferreira's group, had 3,255 outfits entirely or partly destroyed, including the headgear of her costume. Many were left wondering whether Portela, a traditional samba powerhouse that has not missed a parade in its 84-year history, would be able to put on a show at all.

Once the shock passed, however, it became clear that the 2011 Carnival would be marked more than ever by the festival's quintessential ability to bring hope and happiness, even if fleeting, to those who have little. It also steeled samba group members' fierce allegiances in a city where fans are as devoted to their groups as they are to their soccer teams.

"We know we can't win," said Ferreira, who at 62 years old parades in the section of "bahianas," the matrons who carry the group's traditions. "But we're going to be gorgeous, and the people will see that and they will judge us on our strength and our determination."

She was referring to the top-tier samba competition, in which groups vie fiercely to have their performance judged the best. There's no cash prize for first place, only a trophy and coveted bragging rights that last a year until the next Carnival. Portela has won the samba competition 21 times, more than any group, most recently when it shared the title in 1984.

But this year the contest's governing body decided there was no way Portela, Academicos do Grande Rio and Uniao da Ilha do Governador could recover from the fire in time, so they will not be judged. That means they don't risk being relegated to the second-tier samba competition, the fate of each year's last-place finisher.

It also means Portela will be competing only for pride Sunday night — and to celebrate its comeback from disaster.

Portela's 300-strong drum section, the beating heart of any samba group, plans to go silent for a few seconds in the middle of the parade, then explode again into raucous sound to symbolize the group's near-death in the fire and rebirth from ashes, said Nilo Sergio, the group's percussion leader.

Police have concluded their investigation and found the fire was accidental.

Nevertheless, it wiped out months of work by the residents of Madureira, Portela's working-class home base, and dealt a devastating blow to the neighborhood's seamstresses, construction workers and salesgirls who leave behind their workaday lives once a year when they take on their glamorous Carnival alter egos in the Sambadrome.

Bianca Monteiro, 22, recalled how she cried in February when she saw on TV the thick smoke rising from the warehouses.

Now in her fifth year as one of the "passistas," the fit young dancers who showcase the group's best samba dancing skills, Monteiro feared the worst for Portela, where her father helps keep the 4,000 performers moving along in harmony and six other relatives also parade.

"We're all blue-blooded to the core," Monteiro said, a reference the group's blue and white colors.

Yet weeks after the fire, at the last rehearsal before parade night, here she was practicing her steps, her feet a blur in shiny blue, 6-inch (15-centimeter) platform heels with wraparound straps reaching to her knees.

As soon as the flames were out, hundreds of people from Portela's home base, in the poor neighborhood of Madureira, mobilized to remake what was lost. The community center put aside classes and health services for the past few weeks to focus entirely on rebuilding the costumes.

For the past month, everyone who was able to do so pitched in, from relatives of group members to students in the canceled classes, even dentists who work out of the community center, said Val Carvalho, head of Portela's social projects.

Their work made it possible for the show to go on.

"Everyone contributed in whatever way they could: They glued parts of the costumes, swept the floor or just bought food and drinks for the others," Carvalho said. "The fire only took our costumes, not our love for Portela."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Carnival around the world

loading photos...
  1. Binche, Belgium

    The Gilles of Binche take part in the Carnival parade in Binche, Belgium. The Binche carnival, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage event, is the biggest and the liveliest annual event in Belgium. (Francois Lenoir / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. New Orleans

    Rex, the King of Carnival, rides in the Krewe of Rex as he arrives at Canal St. along St. Charles Ave. Tuesday on Mardi Gras day in New Orleans. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. New Orleans

    Lee Chance laughs as he shows off his collection of beads that he caught during the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club parade Tuesday on Mardi Gras day in New Orleans. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Rio de Janeiro

    Revelers of the Salgueiro samba school participate in the second night of the annual Carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro's Sambadrome on March 7. (Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Port of Spain

    A masquerader from the band "What I Saw" presented by Robert Lakhan poses on the stage on Carnival at Queen's Park Savannah in Port of Spain on March 7. (Andrea De Silva / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Rio de Janeiro

    Revelers dressed as clowns participate in a carnival parade in Sesimbra village on March 7. The clown parade in Sesimbra village became a tradition after a world record for the biggest clown march was set in 2004. (Jose Manuel Ribeiro / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Rio de Janeiro

    Revelers of the Porto da Pedra samba school participate in the second night of the annual Carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro's Sambadrome on March 7. (Sergio Moraes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Rio de Janeiro

    Brazilian pop singer Roberto Carlos waves from atop a float of the Beija-flor samba school on the second night of the annual Carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro's Sambadrome on March 7. (Ricardo Moraes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Sao Luis do Paraitinga, Brazil

    Revelers kiss on a street during the Carnival of Sao Luis do Paraitinga, 106 miles from Sao Paulo, Brazil, on March 7. The event is part of the ongoing Carnival celebrations taking place across the country. (Nacho Doce / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Rio de Janeiro

    Revelers of the Salgueiro samba school participate in the second night of the annual Carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro's Sambadrome. (Sergio Moraes / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Rio de Janeiro

    Revelers of Uniao da Ilha samba school perform at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro on March 7. Uniao da Ilha lost fancy dresses and floats in a fire that took place three weeks ago. (Vanderlei Almeida / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Rio de Janeiro

    Members of Uniao da Ilha participate at the Carnival Rio 2011 parade at the sambodromo in Rio de Janeiro on March 7. More than 3,000 drummers and dancers ferried into Rio‘s Sambadrome, the massive stadium where the samba schools compete, wearing costumes and lavish outfits. (Antonio Lacerda / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Rio de Janeiro

    Members of Uniao da Ilha Samba school parade at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, on Monday. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Rio de Janeiro

    Members of Uniao da Ilha Samba school parade during Carnival celebrations at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Monday, March 7. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Rio de Janeiro

    A reveler of Uniao da Ilha Samba school performs at the Sambadrome on Monday. (Vanderlei Almeida / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Rio de Janeiro

    Dancers perform on their Imperatriz Leopoldinense samba school float during a carnival parade at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro on March 6. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Barranquilla, Colombia

    Revelers perform during carnival celebrations in Barranquilla, Colombia. In 2003, UNESCO declared Barranquilla's carnival as a "Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity." (Fernando Vergara / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Rio de Janeiro

    Imperatriz Leopoldinense dancers perform during their carnival parade at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro on March 6. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

    A fire breather performs during a carnival parade in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, on March 6. (Erika Santelices / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Port of Spain, Trinidad

    A girl participates in the Red Cross Children's Carnival competition at Queen's Park Savannah in Port of Spain, Trinidad, on Feb. 26. (Andrea De Silva / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Venice

    Latvian-born artist Kathrina Asfardi performs with her flying piano at the Fenice theater in Venice, Italy, late on March 5, during the "Cavalchina," a historic annual Venetian carnival ball. (Andrea Pattaro / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Duesseldorf, Germany

    A carnival reveller celebrates the traditional Rose Monday carnival parade in the western German city of Duesseldorf on March 7. The Rose Monday parades in Cologne, Mainz and Duesseldorf are the highlight of the German street carnival season. (Ina Fassbender / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Paraty, Brazil

    A woman dances amid orange smoke during the 'Bloco da Lama', or Mud Block carnival parade in Paraty, Brazil, March 5. (Rodrigo Abd / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Venice

    A horse is brought into the Fenice theater in Venice late on March 5, at the start of the "Cavalchina". (Andrea Pattaro / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Venice

    People dressed in carnival costumes pose in San Marco square in Venice on March 5, during the annual Venice Carnival. (Andrea Pattaro / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Recife, Brazil

    An aerial view of millions of revellers during the "Galo da Madrugada" (Rooster of the Morning) parade in Recife, in the northern coastal state of Pernambuco, Brazil, March 5. (Stringer/brazil / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Limassol, Cyprus

    People dance through the street during a traditional parade to mark the end of the carnival period in southern port city of Limassol, Cyprus, on March 6. (Petros Karadjias / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Evolene, Switzerland

    "Empailles" (Straw man) wearing a costume made of a jute bag stuffed with straw and scary mask walk through the streets of Evolene during a traditional carnival procession on March 6. "Empailles" along with "Peluche" who wear costumes made of animal skins and masks invade the streets of the village and scare residents with their broomsticks or their bells during carnival. (Fabrice Coffrini / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Oruro, Bolivia

    A dancer performs during Carnival celebrations in Oruro, Bolivia, March 5. (Juan Karita / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Torres Vedras, Portugal

    Carnival revelers look at a float depicting Portugal's Prime Minister Jose Socrates, left, and Spain's Jose Zapatero, threatened by an "IMF beast" during the parade on the streets of Torres Vedras on March 6. Torres Vedras village carnival organization devoted 2011 carnival to the subject "The Jungle". (Jose Manuel Ribeiro / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Prague, Czech Republic

    A girl in a costume is pictured during the Malostranky carnival parade in Prague, Czech Republic, March 5. (Filip Singer / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Baranquilla, Colombia

    A reveler performs during Carnival festivities in Baranquilla, Colombia, on March 5. The Carnival of Barranquilla was declared to be a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO in 2003. (Joaquin Sarmiento / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Rio de Janeiro

    People dance during a "Ceu na Terra" street parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, March 5. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Sao Paulo, Brazil

    Revellers of the Vai-Vai samba school dance atop a float during the opening night of parades at the Sambadrome, as part of Carnival celebrations in Sao Paulo on March 5. (Mauricio Lima / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Lucerne, Switzerland

    Carnival goers celebrate the opening of the festivities in Lucerne on March 3. For five days the traditional carnival will be celebrated in the city of Lucerne. (Sigi Tischler / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Rio de Janeiro

    Revelers perform during the 'Mameludicos Euforicos' street carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro on March 3. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Venice, Italy

    People dressed in carnival costumes pose in San Marco square in Venice on Feb. 27 during the annual Venice Carnival. (Andrea Pattaro / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Canary Islands

    A nominee for Queen of the Santa Cruz carnival shows off her outfit to a jury at Santa Cruz de Tenerife on the Spanish Canary island of Tenerife on March 2. (Desiree Martin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Jacmel, Haiti

    Women dressed in party attire prepare to participate in a parade during carnival weekend in Jacmel, Haiti, on Feb. 27. This year's celebration was met with mixed emotion as the memory of the 2010 earthquake, which forced the cancellation of last year's event, loomed large. (Allison Shelley / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Viareggio, Italy

    A giant carnival float called ReXpubblica showing a mask of Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi during the annual carnival of Viareggio on Feb. 20. (Fabio Muzzi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  41. Oruro, Bolivia

    Women from Orinoca town, where Bolivia's President Evo Morales was born, join in celebrations in the Anata Andina (Andean carnival) in Oruro on March 3. Hundreds of ethnic groups from Oruro province participated in the carnival. (David Mercado / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  42. Nice, France

    The Queen of Nice's float takes part in a parade at the 127th Nice carnival in Nice on Feb. 19. The 127th edition of the carnival, celebrating the "Mediteranean King," runs until March 8. (Sebastien Nogier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  43. New Orleans

    Young girls and their dogs parade through the French Quarter during the Krewe of Barkus Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans on Feb. 27. The parade of dogs and their owners, a twist on the Krewe of Bacchus, benefits animal welfare organizations. (Gerald Herbert / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  44. Lucerne, Switzerland

    A carnival goer celebrates the opening of the carnival in Lucerne, Switzerland, on March 3. (Sigi Tischler / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  45. Viareggio, Italy

    A float depicting United States President Barack Obama with his hat topped off by a man masked as al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden, titled "Barack-Adabra and the Great Circus of the Fleas," is shown at the traditional Viareggio carnival parade in Viareggio, Italy, on Feb. 20. (Paolo Lazzeroni / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  46. Montevideo, Uruguay

    Members of group Cuareim 1080 participate in a parade to inaugurate the Carnival of Uruguay, in center Montevideo, Uruguay, on Jan. 27. The Carnival in Uruguay is one of the longest in the world, with more than 80 days of celebration, generally occurring in January through mid March, with celebrations in Montevideo being the largest and brightiest. (Ivan Franco / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  47. Bremen, Germany

    A dressed up participant stands on the market square during the 26th Samba Carnival in Bremen, Germany, on Feb. 26. Samba groups from all over Germany take part in the street carnival. (Carmen Jaspersen / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  48. Rio de Janeiro

    A dancer of Uniao da Ilha samba school performs while parading during carnival celebrations Monday at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (Felipe Dana / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  49. New Orleans

    Revelers reach out for items thrown by riders on a float in the Rex parade Tuesday on Mardi Gras day in New Orleans. (Patrick Semansky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  1. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  2. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  3. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

  4. Editor's note:
    This image contains graphic content that some viewers may find disturbing.

    Click to view the image, or use the buttons above to navigate away.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments