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RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Luxuriant floats, one topped by Parisian cancan dancers and others showering hundreds of be-feathered dancers with water, rolled on Monday as Rio de Janeiro's Carnival parades burst into life.
A golden Queen Cleopatra bathing in milk, a female dancer pushing the limits of Carnival tolerance, and the high-kicking Moulin Rouge troupe kept 70,000 spectators in Rio's Sambadrome buzzing through to dawn.
Behind the scenes, next to a putrid canal and out of sight of the throng, the near perfect symmetry and order of the parades seemed a world away as the Samba schools frantically prepared for their annual coming-out show.
Stewards dressed in bow ties scampered here and there fixing last-minute wardrobe malfunctions and trying to hold back the tide of Brazilian tardiness and high spirits.
Enterprising vendors from nearby slums dangled ice boxes full of beer over a wall for nervous performers seeking a drop of Dutch courage.
Like a scene from Alice in Wonderland, performers dressed as 19th century nobles, wide-skirted "Baiana" dancers, and musical notes mingled as they sought their starting positions, practiced their lines or enjoyed a last-minute cigarette.
"People who have never paraded don't understand they need to be here in front instead of chatting," fumed 47-year-old Malucia Camacho, who was in charge of a "wing" of about 80 costumed dancers for the Mocidade Samba school.
"It's not a lack of practice, it's because they like turning up late and don't like to work. They are undisciplined," she added, before bustling off to chide a group of nobles.
Nearby, a musical note relieved himself against a wall.
The nationally televised annual parades featuring up to 5,000 dancers each and near-naked Carnival queens is a serious competition for the top Samba schools, judged on choreography, atmosphere, organization, and singing among other points.
A disorganized wing or a faulty float can cost a school the tile and bragging rights over the next year. The remaining six top schools were due to parade late on Monday.
"A bit of my wing broke and my costume is too tight," said Daniella Cremer, a raven-haired 25-year-old model and dancer, about half an hour before being winched by a crane on to the front of one of Mocidade's floats.
"If something falls off, I'll just keep going to the end."
Last year a school was famously disqualified when a tiny strip of material, called a "tapa-sexo", covering its top dancer's crotch fell off.
A Mocidade dancer, Dani Sperle, may have taken the record for the smallest tapa-sexo on display in the Sambadrome on Monday with a 3 cm (one inch) wisp of material, Brazilian media breathlessly reported. She appeared at the preparation area bare-breasted wearing just a headdress, necklace and boots.
Other omens were not looking good for Mocidade. During the last-minute preparations, its main parade designer was run over and injured by one of the floats, which also briefly caught fire.
Undeterred, 57-year-old steward Francisco Dos Santos drew on a cigarette and reflected on the importance of a good result.
"We're going to go out there with enthusiasm in our blood and get this title. We've deserved it for a long time," he said.
Moments later, fireworks boomed and Mocidade was on the move, parading past a still noisy crowd at around 3 a.m., including Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Its parade went smoothly, but others suffered mishaps. A dancer in the French-themed parade with cancan performers from Paris' Moulin Rouge fell over and an electrical fault left its Eiffel Tower in the dark. That parade was also invaded by a bemused-looking Labrador dog.
But the problems went unnoticed by a group of bare-chested Californians dancing with Brazilians cheering wildly for reigning champion Beija-Flor, who used 18,000 liters (4,750 gallons) of water in its parade to tell the history of bathing.
"It's so full of life," said Brenton Sullivan, a 24-year-old from Los Angeles. "There's a sense of pride, that's what I can feel, and everyone embraces it."
Editing by Kieran Murray