Queens and Geishas Samba at Rio Carnival

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Brazil's carnival parades got off to a majestic start on Sunday night as dancers dressed as monarchs, courtiers and even roast pheasants at a royal feast shimmied their way through Rio de Janeiro's Sambadrome.

Honoring the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the Portuguese royal family in Brazil, which made Rio an imperial capital, the 4,200-member Sao Clemente samba group's lavish floats represented the riches and cultural heritage brought to the former colony by the Portuguese.

Beauty queens wearing little more than plumed headdresses gyrated on top of giant floats as singers chanted "The kingdom has moved, my Rio has bloomed" to the beat of samba drums.

As Viviane Castro, a 25-year-old model and dancer, was preparing to step onto the parade strip, an assistant was gluing a tiny piece of glitter between her legs -- her only vestment for the night aside from high-heeled shoes. "I feel super carefree about being nude. The carnival is a lot of joy. You just don't think about other stuff," she said.

One float represented an imperial dinner where meals and even cutlery danced. "I flew all the way from Australia and it's fantastic, awesome. You have to know the song though. Next time I'll learn it by heart," said Grace Kelly, 34, from Sydney, out of breath after more than an hour of nonstop samba.

Although the street parties where revelers drink and dance day and night are the heart of Rio's carnival, the extravaganza in the Sambadrome stadium on Sunday and Monday nights is the highlight of the celebrations.

Each of the 12 samba groups marches for about 75 minutes, marked by judges in a competition for the champions' crown.

Homage to foreign influence in the melting pot of races that is Brazil continued when the second samba school, Porto da Pedra, marched as geishas to commemorate 100 years since the first Japanese immigrants arrived.