Every year at carnival time in Brazil, one woman stands out from the thousands of others as they samba for adoring crowds and millions of TV viewers.
She is the rainha da bateria, or queen of the percussion section, one of the most coveted roles in any carnival "school." Typically the queen chosen is a glamorous and scantily clad bombshell.
But this year the Viradouro samba school has picked Julia Lira, a third-grader who likes watching soap operas and singing along to Beyoncé. And that is drawing criticism from some children's rights groups.
“We are in favor of children taking part in carnival,” says Carlos Nicodemus, the head of the Rio de Janeiro state council for the defense of children and adolescents. "But the role of the queen of the bateria is a highly eroticized one and we here in Rio are in the midst of a campaign to combat the sexual abuse and exploitation of children. In society today, the sexualization of children comes at an ever earlier age and is more and more common. I don’t think she should be allowed to parade.”
Mr. Nicodemus asked a judge to stop Lira from participating in the parade, saying she is too young for such a sexualized role. The judge is to rule before Viradouro walks into the Sambadrome shortly after midnight on Sunday night.
Viradouro is one of 12 samba schools who will compete Sunday and Monday for the hotly contested top prize. Each school has up to a dozen enormous floats and around 4,000 to 5,000 extravagantly costumed dancers divided into sections.
Viradouro has rejected any criticism of its decision to pick Lira as the percussion queen.
Lira is a “beautiful, pure, and delicate child” who would not be asked to fulfill the same flirtatious role of traditional queens, says Edson Pereira, the man in charge of the school’s carnival presentation.
Children vital to carnival
Many sambistas defend Lira’s presence and say children are vital to samba’s future. Indeed, one 12-year-old served as a carnival queen in 2003 and schools made entirely of children take part in the official parade of champions. No Brazilian party is complete without a precocious kid playing it up for the adults with some shuffled samba moves.
Lira’s parents are said to be shielding their daughter from the media attention and have said they don’t mind if a judge gives her the go ahead or not.
One thing, though, is certain. If young Júlia does make it onto the avenue fronting the pounding drums and massed tambourines, she will have big shoes to fill.
Viradouro’s two previous rainhas were Juliana Pães, one of Brazil’s biggest soap opera stars and a woman voted one of People’s 100 Most Beautiful People, and Luma de Oliveira, a former exotic dancer.