In a rough neighborhood, dance becomes a way to escape daily violence and see beauty, but also a picture of protest and independence.
RIO DE JANEIRO —
The young ballet students walked into the room with red paint — simulated blood stains — smeared all over their leotards.
It was a macabre costume for girls as young as 7 and 8, performing before the mayor and governor.
To understand why their beloved ballet teacher, Daiana Ferreira de Oliveira, put them in those outfits, it helps to go back to a formative day of her own childhood.
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Oliveira was 6 or 7 when her mother first brought her and her two sisters from their home in an impoverished neighborhood in northern Rio de Janeiro to the majestic Municipal Theater downtown for a production of “Swan Lake.”
The family stood out: a black single mother who made a living cleaning homes, guiding her gobsmacked daughters through crowds of mostly white theatergoers and across the gilded entrance of one of the city’s architectural gems for their first ballet.
Her mother, Rosali Ferreira dos Santos, had developed a fascination with art after tagging along with her bosses to art galleries and the theater. She came to see such outings — to a concert, an opera or a play — as essential for her daughters, whenever she could find free or discounted tickets.
“My mother said we needed to have culture,” Oliveira, 29, said. “For her it wasn’t a matter of being rich or poor.”
Oliveira said she could have lived without the opera, recalling being horrified at “all those people screaming at each other.”
But dance dazzled her.
“An anesthetic,” she called it. “For people like us, there were no shrinks.”
Rapture and despair
Since moving to Rio de Janeiro, I have been fascinated — and often startled — by the split-screen reality of this megacity.
I grew up in Colombia, where, as in much of South America, stark inequality is so institutionalized it is easy to become inured to it. But the way splendor and poverty coexist here in Rio makes for a head-snapping contrast.
A dayslong gun battle that locks down tens of thousands at home does not get in the way of an enormous musical festival a few miles away. From the thronged beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana, it is easy to forget that a severe surge in violence in the city prompted the governor in February to plead for, and get, a military intervention.
In the city’s dizzying spectrum between rapture and despair, Manguinhos, the neighborhood where Oliveira grew up, leans solidly toward the latter.
It is among the patchwork of districts known as favelas, which were settled by squatters decades ago. Traffickers from the powerful drug gang Comando Vermelho, or Red Command, have held sway in the area for many years, wielding more authority than the police.
It is the kind of place where residents don’t expect homicides will be investigated, never mind solved. Drugs are sold in the open, laid out on tables. Garbage is disposed of by burning small piles at a time on sidewalks.
A sliver of hope
When Oliveira earned her degree in physical education in 2012, the situation in Brazil was starting to look up.
The country’s economy had been growing at a healthy clip for a decade. Education opportunities for the poor were expanding. Grand plans were drawn up to establish a permanent police presence in, and deliver basic services to, the favelas, as the country prepared for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.
One of the tangible signs of change was a state-financed library in Manguinhos, where Oliveira began offering free classical ballet lessons in 2014.
She said she tried to be warm but firm toward her students, warning them about unplanned pregnancies and urging them not to date drug traffickers.
“There is no set destiny,” she would tell the girls and young women. “Just because you were born in a favela does not mean your life needs to play out a certain way. You don’t need to end up working as maids.”
The message resonated with Danice Sales, one of her first students, who went on to study Italian literature.
“It was an escape from reality,” said Sales, 29. “I went through very hard things in my life and the only thing that allowed me to avoid going on medication and sinking into a deep depression was ballet.”
A turn for the worse
By 2014, optimism gave way to dread as Brazil’s economy began contracting and a giant corruption investigation exposed a systemic pattern of kickbacks among the country’s political and business leaders. State officials in Rio de Janeiro began shutting down government employment centers and initiatives that had been inaugurated during the boom years.
Among those on the chopping block was the library in Manguinhos, which prompted Oliveira to take her students to protests in 2015.
She and other community activists persuaded the mayor’s office to help pay the bills by repeatedly raising an uncomfortable question: “How can a country hosting the Olympics shut down libraries?”
But a few months after the Games wrapped up, the library and scores of government programs closed. Oliveira fumed for a few days. Then she came up with a plan.
A padlock and diplomacy
With the help of a locksmith who refused to charge her, Oliveira broke into the abandoned library, cleaned it up and installed her own padlock.
Next, a bit of favela diplomacy was in order. Oliveira sought out a leader of the Red Command and asked him to spare the library from the ransacking that befell other shuttered government buildings. The trafficker, who respected what she was doing, agreed.
Even as violence worsened, and unemployment grew, dozens of parents continued to bring their daughters, and a few sons, to Oliveira’s classes.
“It was a way for them to understand the outside world, a world that does not exist here,” said Tatiane Ribeiro Barboza, 40, who has two daughters in the troupe. But the main draw was exposing them to Oliveira. “They see a woman who has no weaknesses,” she said.
Giovana Xavier, an education professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, said role models in communities like Manguinhos can have a transformative effect on youth.
“A big challenge is building positive references about what it means to be black,” Xavier said. “The prevailing notions you see in the media are generally limited to criminality, in the case of men, and hypersexualization, in the case of women.”
Isabelle Sande, 15, one of the dance students in Manguinhos, said ballet has made her disciplined and politically minded. She was eager, for instance, to participate in a performance about feminism.
“It’s a taboo subject in the favela,” she said. “But this is the beginning of a path to assert yourself, to gain consciousness.”
A photo-op for the ages
This year, word spread around Manguinhos that the library would reopen and that the building would be renamed to honor Marielle Franco, a black City Council member who was assassinated in March.
Oliveira was less than elated by the news. The library had opened during an election year and now it would be reopening during another one. Politicians always seemed eager to use photos of her troupe during campaigns, she complained, but did nothing to support her after an election.
So when Oliveira was asked to prepare a special choreography for the reopening ceremony, which would be attended by Rio de Janeiro Governor Luiz Fernando Pezão and Mayor Marcelo Crivella, she decided to give them a photo opportunity to remember.
“I reflected on all that has been taken from us, the violations, the violence, not just physical but psychological,” she said. “Each day it feels like we die a little because each day something is taken from us, be it a book or a plate of food.”
She did not tell officials about the choreography she had planned.
So, flanked by a gaggle of photographers, the mayor and governor looked ashen when the young dancers streamed into the room, with the red splashes of paint on their costumes, and laid on the floor, playing dead.
Pointing her finger angrily, Oliveira shouted at the officials.
“We are not votes!” she exclaimed. “If the library closes after the election, we will be back here and we will stay put.”
When she was done, she asked the dancers to rise.
“You are not dead,” she told them. “This was just a way of noting that every day here, we’ve been bleeding.”