Far from Carnival street fests, glitzy Rio Ball for elite

RIO DE JANEIRO — Women in elegant, long-flowing dresses saunter on the red carpet while men in tuxedos smile broadly and wave to hundreds of people who have lined up along Rio de Janeiro's Avenida Atlantica to have a look.

As the guests walk into the iconic Copacabana Palace Hotel, they are greeted with the rhythms of a Japanese drum ensemble and the sounds of ocean waves just across the street. Once inside, dozens of men and women in Japanese kimonos bow and say "good night."

Welcome to Rio's Ball, the highest of the high-end Carnival parties in the world capital of the bash.

"This event is for people who like to dress up, not just women but men too," said Andrea Natal, general director of the Copacabana Palace Hotel. "It's for people who don't want to deal with dirty bathrooms and who just want a little bit of luxury."

In stark contrast to the hundreds of hard-charging street parties across Rio that are open to anyone, the "Baile do Copa" bills itself as a fairytale event where the country's elite — superbly dressed, sometimes in line with the ball's theme and other times simply as standard jet-setters — can see and be seen in a hotel known for both opulence and a lengthy tradition of welcoming world leaders and stars.

It's the kind of event where if you have to ask the price, you probably don't belong. For those who are curious: single tickets range from $800 to $1,900, several times more than the average monthly minimum salary in Latin America's most populous nation.

"It's the dance of the wealthy in the most chic of hotels," said Haroldo Costa, a Carnival historian, adding that despite the high price tag, "every year there is a fight to get tickets."

The theme of this year's event was "Geishas," or Japanese artists who entertain with traditional music and dance. Picking that theme was a nod to the Japanese community in Brazil, the largest in the world outside of Japan.

Some 2 million Brazilians trace their ancestry back to Japan. Many arrived during the 20th century, and worked as poorly paid agricultural workers who labored on coffee plantations in southern Brazil.

Akemi Ono, a 48-year-old who was born in Rio to Japanese parents, said this year's theme would be a vehicle to teach Brazilians about Japanese traditions.

"It's a form of cultural exchange that wouldn't be possible without events like this," said Ono, who attended the dance dressed in a kimono.

Like any good Brazilian party, it starts late and doesn't end until the sun comes up — on the beach, naturally. While it officially began at 10 p.m. Saturday, most of the 1,400 people began pouring in around midnight. It was not expected to end until breakfast was served in the morning.

"It may be the first and last time, but I had to do this at least once in my life," said 67-year-old banker Cleusa Amaral.

In several halls of the hotel, pink and white fans, umbrellas and lanterns hung from the walls and ceiling. Waiters circulated with champagne, beer and any other spirits that guest could think of to ask for. Three halls were dedicated to huge spreads of food that included: myriad types of sushi rolls, shrimp, quinoa salads, grouper in Thai tangerine sauce and filet mignon.

John and Nancy Kennedy, Americans visiting Rio from Grand Rapids, Michigan, said they were impressed with a party that went "all out."

"I've never walked a red carpet before," said Nancy, laughing.

"It's not exactly something we do a lot of in the Midwest," added John.

Back outside the hotel, while guests walked in, Aline Soza looked on in awe.

"One year, I would really like to go," said Soza, a 35-year-old flight attendant. "It's very expensive, but I think it would be worth it."

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