RIO DE JANEIRO _ For 28 years, Gilma Cardoso Ferreira has saved for months before each Carnival to pay for the frilly, full-skirted outfit that transforms her, for one evening, from a retired public servant into one of the respected grande dames of Rio's winningest samba group.
This year, however, Carnival almost didn't happen for Ferreira and thousands of others who put on one of the world's most spectacular shows: two nights of lavish parades that begin Sunday in Rio's Sambadrome stadium and are watched by millions in Brazil and abroad.
A fire in early February ripped through warehouses where three elite samba groups were preparing for Carnival, incinerating more than 8,000 feather and glitter costumes and many of the massive, meticulously decorated floats.
Portela, Ferreira's group, had 3,255 outfits entirely or partly destroyed, including the headgear of her costume. Many were left wondering whether Portela, a traditional samba powerhouse that has not missed a parade in its 84-year history, would be able to put on a show at all.
Once the shock passed, however, it became clear that the 2011 Carnival would be marked more than ever by the festival's quintessential ability to bring hope and happiness, even if fleeting, to those who have little. It also steeled samba group members' fierce allegiances in a city where fans are as devoted to their groups as they are to their soccer teams.
"We know we can't win," said Ferreira, who at 62 years old parades in the section of "bahianas," the matrons who carry the group's traditions. "But we're going to be gorgeous, and the people will see that and they will judge us on our strength and our determination."
She was referring to the top-tier samba competition, in which groups vie fiercely to have their performance judged the best. There's no cash prize for first place, only a trophy and coveted bragging rights that last a year until the next Carnival. Portela has won the samba competition 21 times, more than any group, most recently when it shared the title in 1984.
But this year the contest's governing body decided there was no way Portela, Academicos do Grande Rio and Uniao da Ilha do Governador could recover from the fire in time, so they will not be judged. That means they don't risk being relegated to the second-tier samba competition, the fate of each year's last-place finisher.
It also means Portela will be competing only for pride Sunday night _ and to celebrate its comeback from disaster.
Portela's 300-strong drum section, the beating heart of any samba group, plans to go silent for a few seconds in the middle of the parade, then explode again into raucous sound to symbolize the group's near-death in the fire and rebirth from ashes, said Nilo Sergio, the group's percussion leader.
Police have concluded their investigation and found the fire was accidental.
Nevertheless, it wiped out months of work by the residents of Madureira, Portela's working-class home base, and dealt a devastating blow to the neighborhood's seamstresses, construction workers and salesgirls who leave behind their workaday lives once a year when they take on their glamorous Carnival alter egos in the Sambadrome.
Bianca Monteiro, 22, recalled how she cried in February when she saw on TV the thick smoke rising from the warehouses.
Now in her fifth year as one of the "passistas," the fit young dancers who showcase the group's best samba dancing skills, Monteiro feared the worst for Portela, where her father helps keep the 4,000 performers moving along in harmony and six other relatives also parade.
"We're all blue-blooded to the core," Monteiro said, a reference the group's blue and white colors.
Yet weeks after the fire, at the last rehearsal before parade night, here she was practicing her steps, her feet a blur in shiny blue, 6-inch (15-centimeter) platform heels with wraparound straps reaching to her knees.
As soon as the flames were out, hundreds of people from Portela's home base, in the poor neighborhood of Madureira, mobilized to remake what was lost. The community center put aside classes and health services for the past few weeks to focus entirely on rebuilding the costumes.
For the past month, everyone who was able to do so pitched in, from relatives of group members to students in the canceled classes, even dentists who work out of the community center, said Val Carvalho, head of Portela's social projects.
Their work made it possible for the show to go on.
"Everyone contributed in whatever way they could: They glued parts of the costumes, swept the floor or just bought food and drinks for the others," Carvalho said. "The fire only took our costumes, not our love for Portela."