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A Little Bit of Rio in L.A.'s Real Carnaval

February 28, 1987|ELLEN MELINKOFF

Experiencing Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro is one of those fantasies that makes a lot of wish lists, but few people manage to cross it off as a fete accompli.

Yes, yes, Rio is expecting 400,000 party-crazy visitors starting this weekend for its celebrated four-day pre-Lenten bash. And hundreds of thousands of Mardi Gras revelers will turn New Orleans' Canal Street into a living river. But those are always other people. We stay-at-homes will have to make do with Carnaval/Mardi Gras 87 at the Hollywood Palladium, which begins at 8 tonight. And, if tonight is anything like the Palladium high jinks of the last six years, it won't feel like making do at all.

The ballroom is alive with balloons, lights and confetti--but it is the samba music--relentless, hypnotic, addicting--that has been drawing almost 4,000 people a year for the past six years to this L.A. dance party.

An Eclectic Gathering

With very little advertising, they come. From Simi and Santa Ana, Santa Monica and San Dimas. Local Brazilian soccer teams show, but so do senior citizens, families who dance with smiling toddlers in their arms, ex-disco dandies, and (or so it seems) clones from all those California Cooler commercials. This eclectic group comes because they love to samba--or think they can samba--or don't care if they can't really samba.

Once the samba starts, it never stops. No 20-minute breaks between sets here. When it's time for one band to take a break, the next one moves in, musician by musician, over a five-minute period and when the transformation is complete, an announcement is made--all literally without skipping a beat. The bands are 10- to 15-man groups, heavy on the traditional percussion instruments.

Samba dancing--real samba dancing--is a lot like ballet: if you don't start by age 10, all is lost. The real samba dancers here are Brazilians and you'll recognize them immediately. They move their feet, their hips, their arms in a way we North American Johnnys-come-lately can only lamely approximate. But that doesn't seem to lessen the fun. This is one of those anything-goes times. And anything does.

Funny how many people get out there and do their good-old-rock 'n' roll gyrations, some even fox trot, to samba. No one seems to care. The only unthinkable movement on the dance floor is no movement at all.

All night long, conga lines snake around the dance floor, growing in length with every twist. It's hard to figure out how they start; they seem to spontaneously generate with a dozen people and suddenly other dancers, determined to be in on something, grab hold of the last waist.

Carnaval draws the most amazing array of people. People you can't imagine even knowing about such an event, much less going to it.

Dressed to Party

There are the expected wildies, people who love any excuse for a party and always dance and dress with abandon. Then there are always a few yuppies, dressed for the occasion in Ralph Lauren resort wear. And some older couples--he in a dark suit and tie, she in pearls and high heels--and they seem to love it.

Wondering what to wear? Well, if you're planning to enter the costume contest (a trip to Rio is the grand prize), only Las Vegas showgirl-type feather fantasies (for both sexes) will do. Otherwise, anything goes.

White pants and Hawaiian shirts and flowery sundresses are popular--they look appropriately tropical on the dance floor, but might look a little bit off-season if you plan to dine at Bernard's or Musso & Frank's beforehand.

Some people turn up in standard Halloween costumes: There's always a gorilla or two, a witch, a devil, several Draculas.

The best advice is dress casually and cool. It gets quite hot on the dance floor and sweaters are all wrong. The floor gets slippery, too, so pick the right shoes. And women will probably feel more relaxed if they either leave their purses at home or carry tiny ones across their shoulders or on their waists.

Carnaval is put on by Brazil USA Productions, a local travel agency owned by three spirited Brazilians determined to light the carnaval fire in Los Angeles.

Most of the musicians are Brazilian. This year, promoter Mario Massinelli has booked two bands, the Brazil Express and the Inner City School of Samba, plus featured performers Moacir Santos, tamborinist Carlos Carlinhos and percussionist Mayuto. And, gilding the lily, the Girls from Ipanema, a troupe of 12 dancers (some Brazilian, some North American) will also be performing.

Tickets are $20 each ($25 for a table), available at the Palladium (6215 Sunset Blvd.), through Ticketmaster or Brazil USA Productions (3540 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 303, (213) 738-5167).

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