Raising the Bar for Youngsters in Rio’s Slums

Associated Press Writer

The clatter of police helicopters and crackle of a gunfight between drug gangs isn’t unusual in the Cidade Alta slum, nicknamed the “Gaza strip” for its endemic violence.

More striking is the ballet music that wafts softly from an old two-story house soon after the shooting ends. Dozens of young people are inside eager for a chance to escape the lure of drug trafficking and other crimes.

The dance program is sponsored by Acao Comunitaria do Brasil -- Brazilian Community Action -- a privately financed group that has been active in Rio’s shantytowns for almost 40 years.

There are also classes in percussion, reggae, rap music and a variety of African-Brazilian dance, although ballet is the center’s showpiece -- some dancers have even joined the Municipal Theater ballet corps, one of Brazil’s most prestigious.


Over the last four years, the center has gradually expanded its focus from basic education to the arts. A key was hiring local teachers to tutor teens and twentysomethings in dance and music, handicrafts and related activities like stage lighting, set design, drawing, electrical wiring and hairdressing -- all potential livelihoods for career-hungry youngsters.

From Monday to Saturday, about 500 students flock to the ACB house every day for classes, rehearsals and workshops. Their output -- from dolls and recycled paper to T-shirts and postcards -- is sold at cultural centers and the city’s hotels.

Those who have gone on to the Municipal Theater are a source of pride for the center.

“Gisele, Natalia, Rebeca -- they all went to the Municipal Theater ballet,” said Michele Cristina Costa, 26, a graduate of the ballet course herself and its current teacher. “Three! And all in only three years.”

Twelve other dancers are being tested for spots in the troupe, she says.

Acao Comunitaria do Brasil hopes to raise standards and goals for youngsters in Rio’s 600 or so slums, which are often run as private fiefdoms by drug gangs.

“We showed them that dancing can be a respectable career,” said Casemiro Moreira, coordinator of the program in Cidade Alta. “And those less inclined to arts learned there’s a lot of jobs supporting art they can learn quickly and earn a living.”

Standouts become part of “excellence teams” at the center and get scholarships of up to 80 reals, or about $27, a month. That’s about a third of what many poor workers earn on Brazil’s monthly minimum wage of 260 reals ($93).


The teams now have 40 members, and 40 others are awaiting grants. “We hope we can get them enrolled next year, as soon as we get funds to pay for the grants,” Moreira said.

Dance is a natural attraction. Brazilians love to dance, from samba to the acrobatic capoeira, a graceful martial art brought to the country by African slaves.

The 42 young people now getting instruction in street dance, ballet, an ancient Angolan dance called Kina Mutembua and various African-Brazilian styles learned many basics outside on their own.

Their skills are being polished by Firmino Pitanga, who learned capoeira when he was 8 and worked in the 1970s under New York University choreography professor Clyde Morgan as part of the Contemporary Dance group.


“Capoeira here in Cidade Alta has become an art close to perfection,” Pitanga said. “But for those joining us, dance gives a possibility to get out of violence.”

One of his students, Alexandre Silva, 29, agrees.

“In this place, I found a way of life. I now strongly believe in dance as my way of personal realization -- it used to be just a dream,” said Silva, a leader of the center’s “Action and Street Dance” team.

Under Pitanga’s direction, the group rehearses almost daily in a yard behind the offices, protected by high white walls as they prepare for performances in the city’s theaters.


Rehearsals offer a catharsis for those excluded from the life of affluent, seaside Rio down below the shantytowns in the hills.

In one dance choreographed by Pitanga, the students stretch out their arms and point, chanting in a hoarse accusation: “Your home might be creating one more delinquent.” Then they rhythmically stomp and execute flips and pirouettes representing police brutality and domestic violence.

The group also acts out historical events, like the execution of runaway slave leader Zumbi dos Palmares by his Portuguese captors in the early 17th century.

“Representing violence is not hard for them, because they live feeling violence,” Pitanga said.


According to official figures, an average of eight people die violently every day in Rio de Janeiro, many of them in the slums.

“One learns how to deal with violence,” said Silva, the group leader. “First lesson is not walking on the streets after 7 p.m. This is the deadline to be back at home.”