RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Two 40-something drum queens stole the show at Rio de Janeiro's Sambadrome on Tuesday, dancing in little more than feathers and high heels in the annual Carnival parades where youth is usually king.
On the second and final night of parades that are both a huge tourist draw and serious competition between poor Rio communities, a drum queen making a comeback at the relatively ripe age of 44 captured Brazilians' imagination.
"This for me is a sacred place," said the buxom Luma de Oliveira, a model, who danced Samba non-stop for 80 minutes in front of about 70,000 spectators for the Portela school.
A star performer for the school since the age of 16, Oliveira's comeback after three years' absence has been followed hungrily by the Brazilian media always eager for a story line about the near-naked drum queens.
The other "veteran" was Luiza Brunet, 46, who led the hundreds-strong drumming troupe for the Imperatriz Leopoldinense school.
While they win no points officially, the queens are in some ways the stars of the show, given large spaces in the parades to show off their rapid-fire Samba moves and stunning figures.
A debutante queen called Valesca "Big Bum" Santos threatened to steal Oliveira's thunder on Tuesday. A singer and dancer from the world of funk music that draws thousands to drug and drink-fueled parties in Rio's slums, her participation had been frowned upon by some Samba purists.
"It was marvelous. Funk and Samba have a lot in common," Santos said.
Each school's performance is scrutinized intensely, with problems such as gaps in parades, a lack of harmony or float break-downs costing marks from the 40 judges.
Some schools had disappointing parades, partly a result of the global economic crisis that has caused many private sponsors to withdraw their backing and jacked up the price of imported materials.
"We fought with difficulty," said Max Lopes, the "carnavalesco," or director, of the Porto da Pedra school, which paraded with a broken first float and limped over the finish line only just inside the allowed time.
"I recycled material from 10 years ago."
On the streets of Rio and other Brazilian cities, crowds of revelers flocked to neighborhood parties for a last day of fancy dress, drinking and dancing as the pre-Lent festival of excess wound down.
In the colonial-era town of Sao Luiz do Paraitinga between Sao Paulo and Rio, crowds packed into a cobbled square on Monday night among pastel-colored houses and partied under the glow of bare light bulbs.
Carnival bands in the town are barred by a local law from playing Samba. Crowds instead celebrate to the sound of marchinhas, a festive genre with Portuguese origins.
"Nobody belongs to anybody, but everyone belongs to everyone," the crowd sang as the party headed into the small hours.
Many other Brazilians were breathing a sigh of relief at the approaching end of the revelry. Every year, thousands of people who can't stand Carnival leave big cities to escape noise, litter and hedonism generated by the celebrations.
On the popular Orkut social networking site, a group of self-described Carnival haters with nearly 14,000 members was looking forward to Wednesday.
"People, a countdown to the end of this crap!" a user identified as Alexandre wrote on Tuesday.
Additional reporting by Maria-Pia Palermo and Pedro Fonseca in Rio de Janeiro; Peter Murphy in Sao Luiz do Paraitinga; Editing by Patricia Zengerle