Carnival call for a dancing queen

HER face is Japanese. But the lean, muscular body and the exuberant handshake are anything but demure or doll-like.

Add a little music - maybe a lambada, frevo or samba - and Yuri Sato defies her name, features and culture. She becomes Brazilian.

When she adjusts the dazzling headdress and rearranges the tangle of beads that spill over the glittery bikini, she strikes a resemblance to those long-legged, beguiling creatures on the travel posters, the ladies who invite you to Rio.

Once a year, however, the 29-year-old dancer/choreographer honours her roots. ''My mother, grandmother and I put on kimonos and go to the annual Japanese festival in Sao Paulo.'' Other than eating sushi and listening to Japanese (her fluency is lousy), she grew up speaking Portuguese and living like the natives in Brazil. Only when her Japan-born grandmother got upset and sputtered in Japanese, was she reminded of her ancestors.

''My looks used to get in the way, especially at home,'' explained the dancer. ''I had to convince people I was Brazilian in my heart. It used to bother me. But not anymore. I just dance and let them judge for themselves.'' One afternoon recently, she sipped blackberry tea and stood out against the tables of matrons in the Mandarin lounge in her fire-engine red mini-skirt and matching suede jacket. Her waist-length mane nearly hide the leather trim on her shoulders.

The founder of Brazil-Asia dance company came here three years ago on holiday. And after several weeks, she returned home to pack up, close her gym and kiss her parents goodbye. Although she misses the family and the warmth of the Brazilian people, she is a woman with a mission.

''I am convinced that 1993 will be my year. I can feel it.'' Like any artist struggling to establish herself and her group, Brazil-Asia, she juggles several jobs. During the business week she sells advertising space and subscriptions for a new action-travel magazine.

On occasion, she fills in for aerobic teachers. Teaching classes is a convenient way to use her degree in physical education. But in the evening her seven years of classical music training and dance lessons get pressed into service when Brazil-Asia rehearses. She regrets there is little time to practise karate.

''I have nine dancers on-call. But I need only five to do the show. With the exception of two English women, they're all Brazilian.'' She pointed to the colour shots in her portfolio. ''This photo,'' she beamed, pointing to her troupe of four women and one man, he in a feather headdress, is my favourite. He comes in tonight from Brazil.'' When Brazil-Asia debuts on Monday for a two-week engagement for the Brazilian Carnival at the Omni Hongkong Hotel, she will put her conviction and heart on the dance floor.

''What is great about Hongkong is they don't care about your CV or your experience. They only want to see your act and how you dance.

''Until there are more Brazilian musicians here, I have to use musical tapes, ones I buy from Brazil. What I really need is a samba school.'' A stereotype more difficult to change is the one she continually faces: the sleazy image of nudity and lewdness associated with a Brazilian floor show.

''The images that appear on magazine covers or newspapers don't tell the whole story,'' she said, referring to photos of carnival in Rio.

''Those people aren't professional dancers. They just move their bodies for money. There is so much poverty, that young people from the country will come to the city for work.

''They're promised US$1,000 (HK$7,800) and in my country, that is a lot. Then they realise it costs double that amount just to live. So they will do anything.

''Those images are the ones the cameras go after.'' The Brazilian Carnival at Omni Hongkong Hotel, continues until March 14, at Gripps Restaurant and Bar. Yuri Sato and Brazil-Asia appear nightly and during luncheon matinee shows.