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The making of Rio's Carnaval floats

Will a storied samba school regain past greatness with this year's float?

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — In a dusty, stifling warehouse near this city’s old port, glittery chunks of mirror are glued onto platforms that will hold dancers, colorful leg bands go on statues of scandalously clad women, a final coat of spray paint settles onto a float.

Workers are putting the final touches on five floats that tell the story of Rio de Janeiro’s oldest samba school, Estacio de Sa. The samba schools — organizations with loyal followings often based in poor neighborhoods — are at the heart of Rio's Carnaval.

Each year the schools concoct original samba songs and build elaborate floats. School members, some in elaborate costume, parade for judges at the city's packed samba stadium for four nights during Carnaval. Select samba schools compete for the top prize.

Next year, Estacio de Sa hopes to be part of that elite group, known as the “Grupo Especial.” But they'll have to earn it Saturday, when they parade as part of the second-tier “Grupo de Accesso,” or Access Group.

The competition among samba schools is fierce. The teams (which are called schools, but are really teams) that win each league (which are called groups, but are really leagues) switch places with the losers of the higher group for the following year. From the Special Group, it goes to the Access Group, and then Group A, B, C and so forth.

The Estacio de Sa school has a storied past, founded in 1928 as Deixa Falar about the time modern samba came into being. The school has since gone through mergers and name changes and as Estacio de Sa — the name of the neighborhood where the school is located — it won the overall championship in 1992. Early this decade it fell into the Access Group. It triumphantly returned to the Special Group in 2006, but was quickly demoted the next year.

“We went to the moon, and then were sent back to earth again,” said Claudio Luis Rodrigues Paulino, who was one of the many sweat-drenched community members working in the warehouse on Thursday.

For members and fans of the school, the 2007 loss stung badly. In the neighborhood, lachrymose glands went into overdrive.

“I saw it on television,” said Andre Pereira, 39, a lifetime fan of the school. “I started to cry. We dedicate ourselves to the school. We give ourselves over to the school, with all our soul.”