Want to strut your samba at Carnival? Go online!

International hip-shakers meet the mouse-clickers this week at Brazil's biggest dance party of the year.

The samba beat at Rio's famous Carnival will have an international sound to it this year thanks to the Internet.

Poles, Finns, Argentines, and Japanese are to shake their hips in "Unidos do Mundo," an Internet-based samba school that will become the first-ever international samba group to parade in Rio's legendary Carnival.

Rio's elaborate and raucous parade familiar has been run by Brazil's top samba schools since the 1920s. This traditionally Brazilian form of expression - and access to join in the party - is now available to foreign afficionados too. Netizens from Krakow, Rome, or Tokyo can download the virtual school's own song (each school has an anthem), learn it, and be ready to belt it out like Ethel Merman when they boogie down the boulevards.

The unprecedented appearance of the Internet school (www.worldsamba.org) in the upcoming Rio Carnival is particularly fitting given the massive surge in interest in the Internet in Brazil. Thousands of people sign up to use the Web every day, and the country's hugely popular samba schools are taking advantage.

One of those traveling from around the world is Krzysztof Armatys. And he is beside himself with anticipation.

"I am afraid I can't express (how I feel)," says the middle-aged Pole. "It's like an ... unexpected date with the most beautiful woman in the world."

The Internet has forged lots of unusual alliances over the last few years but "Unidos do Mundo," or World United is certainly living up to its name. Since a Long Beach systems analyst named David de Hilster created a samba Web page in 1995 dedicated to putting international samba fans in touch with each other, the samba community has taken off and now has members on all five continents.

"These people ... took the seed from Rio but it grew in foreign soil, where the soil was fertile," said Felipe Fereira, one of the group's founders. "It really took off with the Internet."

All the top schools now have web sites with pictures of Carnival costumes, online shops selling merchandise and even detailed glossaries of samba terms. Many of the costume designers have email addresses and participants can now order their extravagant costumes online without even going for a fitting.

The role of the Internet in the creation and development of the Unidos do Mundo has been crucial. Mr. De Hilster's world samba concept only developed after samba lovers came across his home page.

Having discovered they share an unusual passion, the friends of Brazil kept in contact via email but as with any online flirtation they tired of the anonymity of a computer screen and decided to take the relationship a step further. They discussed getting together for a world samba convention but distance and money meant they could only manage regional gatherings in Europe or the United States.

Brazil, however, continued to beckon and with the nation about to celebrate the 500th anniversary of its discovery by the Portuguese, de Hilster suggested it would be the perfect moment for the schools to meet up in Rio.

He put the word out over the Internet, and a Brazilian named Alessandra Pirotelli who had emailed him since meeting on a discussion forum two years before offered to run the Rio end of things. Before long, there were 300 confirmed participants from 13 different countries.

Most are scheduled to arrive in Rio this week. In the days afterwards they will take lessons in samba arts and history from Brazilian experts.

Then on March 11, one week after the 14 top samba schools parade in front of judges who score them on categories that include costumes, song, floats and overall togetherness, the winner and four runners-up will return for the Parade of Champions. The Unidos do Mundo will be with them, one of only three schools given special dispensation to parade alongside samba's crme de la crme.

It can't come quick enough for people like Armatys. "I don't need any logical reason [for doing this]," he said. "This is a real love. Samba is my life."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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