RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) - Thousands of boisterous samba fans came together to watch the first night of Rio's Carnival parades Sunday, and all eyes are on a 7-year-old girl who is the youngest drum corps queen in memory.
Julia Lira, her toothy grin and quick footsteps splashed across media worldwide, will be in the spotlight as her Viradouro samba group struts its stuff just after midnight.
A judge ruled last week that the girl could take on the coveted Carnival role normally reserved for models and actresses. Children's welfare groups have complained, but the overwhelming response in Brazil has been a shrug and acceptance.
"I think its so cool and she obviously can dance," said 15-year-old Thuany Maia at the Sambadrome stadium, her face covered in glitter. She wore a shirt from her favorite samba group, Portela.
While the sweltering heat of Rio's summer has concerned some about Julia's ability to handle the 80-minute parade of nonstop dancing, Maia noted that Brazilians "are used to dancing in this from birth - Brazil is hot!"
The Uniao da Ilha samba group opened the night, introduced by a massive fireworks barrage and the first beats of a 500-strong drum line.
Carnival queens wearing black feather headdresses, the tiniest of sequined outfits clinging to their sculpted bodies, incited the crowd with frenetic samba moves.
But the real draw of the night was tiny Julia.
Julia's father, Marco Lira, who is also the president of the Viradouro samba group, has said repeatedly that he and his wife would be with the girl at all times and they would carefully watch to make sure she doesn't get too tired during the parade.
Carlos Nicodemos, director of the Rio de Janeiro state Council for the Defense of Children and Adolescents, two weeks ago asked a judge to keep the girl from dancing, arguing that "what we can't allow is putting a 7-year-old girl in a role that traditionally for Carnival has a very sexual focus."
But Martim de Almeida Sampaio, director of a Sao Paulo lawyers' organization, says the drum corps queen role is no longer reserved for sexy models.
Sampaio noted that singer Elza Soares, whose exact age is a mystery but believed to be 73, will serve as the drum corps "godmother" for the Mocidade samba group, which parades Monday.
"So, we can understand that sensual muses, who have always had prevalence at the front of the samba groups' drum corps, could be losing ground to both youth and experience," he wrote in a column published Saturday in the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper.
The Viradouro samba group has a history of controversial themes. A 2008 float portrayed Hitler amid a sea of naked mannequins representing Holocaust victims. A judge banned that float from being in the parade.
Nicodemos has also suggested that the samba group thrust Julia into her role to get extra attention.
As 12 top-tier Rio samba schools compete fiercely in the parades that are broadcast to millions of viewers nationwide, massive street parties continue to erupt across the city.
Tourism officials say almost 730,000 visitors arrived in Rio this year for the big party - a 5 percent increase over last year despite the world financial crisis.
It's the first Carnival since Rio was named as host to the 2016 Olympics, and officials have been working hard to show that the city, known for the drug-gang violence that pervades its slums, can safely host major events.
There have been few reports of violence during the party so far.
A 37-year-old Dutch tourist was shot by a robber as he tried to defend a Dutch woman he was with, police said. A spokesman for the Silvestre Hospital said Alexander Kors Johannes had been operated on and was in stable condition Sunday.
Brazil's business capital Sao Paulo held its parades the past two nights. Football star Ronaldo took part in the Gavioes da Fiel parade, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of his current team, Corinthians.
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