February 18, 2009 / 3:49 PM / 9 years ago

Life not all a Carnival for Rio's drum queens

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - For 18-year-old Raissa de Oliveira, there are only two seasons in a year -- Carnival, and the rest.

<p>Rayssa Oliveira, drum queen of the Beija-Flor samba school, dances on the second night of parades by the top samba groups in Rio de Janeiro's Sambadrome February 5, 2008. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes</p>

For most of the year, the pretty, diminutive teenager is a journalism student from a rough part of town. In the weeks leading up Brazil’s annual festival of Bacchanalia, she becomes a cross between a pin-up girl and a star athlete as the drum queen of one of Rio’s top Samba schools.

The schedule is exhausting -- gym workouts, endless media demands, and late-night “ensaios”, or rehearsals, for the big competition parade through the Sambadrome -- and it shows as Oliveira enters the room in her family’s small apartment.

Wearing a baggy T-shirt, sniffling and constantly yawning, she is unrecognizable from the drum queen who wowed thousands of fans at a Sambadrome practice on Sunday with a blur of Samba moves and a costume that left little to the imagination.

“When Carnival is over, I have to confess that something is missing,” she said. “I have to get up early and go to sleep really late. I have to divide myself in 10. But it’s really good, cool and lovely.”

As she spoke, a drumming band pounded out a Samba beat from underneath her apartment -- just down the road from her Samba school Beija-Flor’s training ground -- underlining that there really is no escape from Carnival at this time of year.

Chosen for their looks, Samba skills and charisma, the job of a drum queen is to dance non-stop in front of hundreds of drummers, wearing little more than a minuscule costume, a feathered headdress and high heels.

Traditionally the most beautiful woman in a community, these days most queens are actresses or models chosen by Samba schools to get maximum publicity in the run-up to the three-day Carnival, which this year starts on Saturday.

“‘BIG BUM’ SANTOS”

Every year the top drum queens are pampered by their Samba schools and drooled over by the media, with reporters following them into gyms and restaurants to document their work-out, diet, and even plastic-surgery secrets.

“I can’t eat any fat, sugar or salt, and I go to the gym for at least an hour every day,” said 24-year-old Juliane Almeida, who is making her debut as the queen of the Viradouro school.

An unofficial competition always rages over which queen will be the “muse” of the Carnival.

This year, a former Miss Brazil has been winning headlines as has the selection by the Porto da Pedra school of Valesca “Big Bum” Santos, a singer of the “funk” music that rocks Rio’s slums and who used to work at a gas station.

The younger generation is not having it all its own way, though, as two schools chose women over 40 -- a breakthrough for Carnival drum queens.

At 18, Oliveira is the youngest queen but already a veteran, having been crowned by reigning champions Beija-Flor at the precocious age of 12. As a local talent, she is also a throwback to the age before soap opera stars and models started to move in on the queen roles.

She said she started out by dancing around the house, before parading for the first time with Beija-Flor at the age of seven. For any foreigner who has despaired of achieving the apparently natural Samba fluidity of Brazilians, the good news is that even the drum queens still take lessons.

“I have had lessons since I was a child and never stopped. When you have lessons, you perfect yourself and learn a lot more,” Oliveira said.

Editing by Kieran Murray

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