My time in Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte flew by and I am way behind on sharing my journey! The people and the places I have been visiting have been extraordinary. I thought I would share a bit about one of the places in Rio that completely stole my heart… in a big way. I had the privilege of meeting Yolanda Demetrio and her students in the Rio favela Rocinha. Favelas are the stacked shanties of Brazil – urban pockets of extreme poverty with substandard living conditions. More than 25% of Rio’s population call them home, but they don’t even have addresses and rarely receive public services. Residents face discrimination and exploitation, making it challenging to find any work outside the favela. Simply put, they are the forgotten ones.
Upon entering the favela you feel like you have entered another world. The narrow streets wind up the hills through a beehive of activity. The sights, smells and sounds overwhelm your senses. As Yolanda later tells me, favelas don’t sleep. They are alive with action 24/7. What you see from the street is just a fraction of the life that lives down each nook and cranny off of the main drag. Rocinha is one of Rio’s largest favelas with an estimated 200,000 people living in an area of less than one square mile.
I came here to visit Espaco Aberto (meaning OpenAir), a dance studio founded by Yolanda Demetrio. With no address to be found, we ask a local who directs us to the studio which is tucked behind a door and up a long stairwell. As we enter, we are greeted by a packed room of smiles and giggles from the young dancers and breads and juice from a few of the moms. To say we were warmly welcomed is an understatement.
Yolanda spent some time telling Rodrigo (my translator and a professional dancer) and I her life story. Just like her young dancers, she grew up in poverty, although her housing project was surrounded by a wealthy neighborhood. She said she benefited from that neighborhood integration because, aspiring for a better life, she followed the lead of her wealthier friends at school and participated in the same activities as they did. It was through dance and her other extracurricular activities that her teachers saw her as a leader and encouraged her to go to a university. She seized every opportunity in front of her, and upon graduating, dance took her across the world. She speaks fondly of a handful of caring souls that gave her the helping hand she needed to survive.
Ultimately, she was compelled to return to Rio to be that caring soul in the lives of the next generation of young people. And what a difference she has made. She has no funding for the dance program, so everyone in the community chips in whatever they can each month. This place is run on blood, sweat and tears. To Yolanda, the program is about integration, creation, and socialization. She sees dance as a pathway. Within these bleak conditions, dance offers the kids hope, confidence, discipline and something in their life that it is all theirs.
It was clear that they had set up the room for a performance. So after I talk with Yolanda, she organizes the students, who range from 4 years old to young adults in their twenties, to perform. In this little make-shift room turned dance studio, they dance for me for me for 45 minutes. From traditional Brazilian, to hip hop, to ballet, they danced! The conditions are far less from ideal for a dance performance – there is no stage, it is hot and humid, noise from the street funnels in the windows over the music, the floor is made of slick tiles, and there is far too little room to move – but it makes no difference. They dance their hearts out, smiling at me the entire time.
After their performance, I have the opportunity to sit down and talk with the dancers. I tell them how beautiful their performance was and how I impressed I was with how hard they have worked. More smiles. They tell me how challenging it is to come to dance class given the many struggles they deal with in their daily lives. When I ask them why they come to dance, they tell me things like: my body needs to move; dance is freedom; dance makes everything else go away.
Through our conversation, Yolanda becomes aware that my translator, Rodrigo, is a professional dancer with the Deborah Colker Dance Company. The company is known throughout the world, but especially in Rio as Deborah Colker choreographed the opening ceremonies of the 2016 Rio Olympics. Without hesitation, Yolanda asks Rodrigo if he will dance for them. Although he is not prepared for this impromptu request, Rodrigo obliges. The students are in awe.
After some rousing applause, she calls back one young girl, Luciana*, who has tears running down her face. She is overcome with emotion. She tells us that she has never seen anything as beautiful as Rodrigo dancing. Today has been a dream for her. We learn that Luciana has been struggling lately. She is a very bright girl and received a scholarship to attend a private school, and although she is getting good grades, the kids at school are bullying her because she comes from the favela. Yolanda tells us that Luciana has lost her confidence and wants to leave the school. Yolanda puts her arms around Luciana and in a firm but nurturing way gives her a much needed pep talk. She tells her to remain strong, and to keep her head high when she dances and in life. Yolanda knows that Luciana’s future depends on her staying in the private school. Rodrigo gives her some special encouragement as well and she hangs on his every word, smiling with tears.
Before we leave, I strike up a conversation with the oldest of the dancers who speaks a little English. She was beaming with enthusiasm throughout our visit. I told her that she reminded me of one of our dancers at COCA in the United States and that her English was very good. “Really?!?” she says completely flattered. She tells me how much she loves Hip Hop, and that “dance is her life.” She explains how challenging it is to dance because has a 2 year-old son, but she will make whatever sacrifices she needs to in order to dance. I then pull out my phone and show her a YouTube video of COCA’s Hip Hop Crew. She squeals with excitement at their every move.
I don’t know that I can adequately convey how moved I was by my visit to this little dance studio hidden in the forgotten hills of Rio. It was only later that day as
Yolanda walked me and Rodrigo around the favela, that I came to fully understand what this visit meant – to both me and the students. Yolanda took us down one dark, narrow path after another showing us homes, tiny stores tucked in the walls, and the busy underground world that sees little sunlight. She showed us one building in shambles and explains that this used to be their dance studio but in the midst of gang fighting a while back, a grenade of sorts was thrown in the building, destroying most of it and making it too unstable for use. Hearing the gun violence get closer, she had evacuated the kids just 10 minutes before that grenade exploded.
As we walked and talked, Yolanda informed me that the kids have been buzzing for weeks about my visit, giddy with excitement. Apparently, they had stayed until 1:00am the night before cleaning the studio and setting it up for the performance so that it would be perfect for my visit. And, when we were a few minutes late, they became worried that I wasn’t coming. At first I chuckled when I heard this, never thinking that my visit mattered to anyone. But then I realized what a big deal it was. Rarely does someone from the “outside” visits these kids. Rarely do they ever have an audience to perform for. They felt important today. Their dance mattered to someone. And, to have a professional dancer come and dance in their studio!?! Well, let’s just say it was a good day for all of us.
Yolanda thanked me profusely for visiting them today. I assured her that the pleasure was all mine. Yolanda and the students of Espaco Aberto dance studio are some of the most inspiring people I have ever met. I plan to stay connected and hope I can find ways help these beautiful young dancers keep dancing and find their open air.
*Not using Luciana’s real name here.