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BRAZIL: Changing Lives Through the Power of Dance

Mario Osava

FORTALEZA, Brazil, Sep 7 2009 (IPS) - "My family’s lives changed," said Maria Erilma da Silva, a mother of three girls and a teenage boy, listing a whole series of transformations, from changes in eating and personal hygiene habits to "the security of knowing where my daughters are" and even an end to her husband’s frequent drinking binges.

Young dancers Credit: Courtesy of Mila Petrillo

Young dancers Credit: Courtesy of Mila Petrillo

Maria, whose family lives in Fortaleza, in the northeastern Brazilian state of Ceará, attributes these changes to the School of Dance and Social Integration for Children and Adolescents (EDISCA), where her three daughters have been attending classes for over three years.

All three have learned how to properly use a fork and knife and stopped eating all their meals with a spoon. They have also picked up the habit of brushing their teeth after every meal – although Raquel, 12, sometimes forgets.

But the most welcome change of all, reported Maria, is that their father has finally stopped drinking every day, "even though he had already fallen off his bike and cut himself over the eye," she added.

Katiana, the miracle of dance

"My mother gave birth to 19 children, and eight of them survived. In my house, nobody had a real childhood. My only toy was a doll from the garbage dump, with no head or arms," recalls Katiana Pena Morais. Her family moved from the countryside to Bom Jardim when the neighbourhood was first developing, and where her mother complained that "things are even worse here."

Katiana is living proof that money invested in overcoming poverty is paid back many times over. With an EDISCA stipend of 50 dollars a month, she was able to expand her family’s house from a single room shared by 10 people and a "tin bathroom" to five rooms.

Katiana has helped support her family since the age of seven, when she was a contortionist in the neighbourhood’s circus school, while her brothers and sisters scavenged for recyclable trash.

She began to attend EDISCA at the age of nine, overcoming numerous obstacles: her mother’s opposition, hunger, and a long commute. She cried when she had to miss class because she could not afford the fare for the hour-and-a-half bus ride. She began to receive assistance from the school to cover transportation costs, but used the money to help feed her family.

After two years of dance classes, she participated in the performance of "Jangurussu", a work about poor people who make a living as garbage pickers in a dump. Several years later, she was accepted into the school’s dance company, which came with the life-changing monthly stipend, and eventually became a fully paid dance instructor.

As a teenager, she was given a helping hand by EDISCA director Dora Andrade, who took her to live in her own house for a year and a half.

Today, aged 26 and pregnant, Katiana teaches dance to roughly 100 girls and boys at the state-run Bom Jardim Cultural Centre. She has managed to get many of them accepted at EDISCA, which she left two years ago "with great sadness" because she felt "the need to do something for the people with no opportunities" in her home neighbourhood.

Her current work is shared with Silvana Marques, another dancer trained at EDISCA. Diana Pinheiro, the administrator of the cultural centre – an imposing high-rise building in a neighbourhood of makeshift dwellings – calls Katiana and Silvana "two gems." Thanks to "the influence of EDISCA," she said, they have made dance the most popular of the 11 activities offered at the centre.

"Whenever he went out drinking, you knew you were in for a show," said one of her daughters, 15-year-old Rafaela. One time, while he was drunk, he thought he was Superman and climbed to the top of a water tank, then fell off and twisted his ankle, recalled Maria, who works as a kitchen assistant in a school cafeteria.

The father, Francisco Gomes Martins, confesses that he quit drinking "for the sake of my daughters" when they started attending EDISCA. "I made my mind up on the spur of the moment, just like I quit smoking, once and for all, without going through any kind of withdrawal," he said, although he admits he still has a beer now and then. Francisco does inspection work for the city government, although he is currently facing the threat of losing his job.

"I am filled with pride because my daughters are in EDISCA. Dance is a wonderful thing," he declared, although his wife says he was opposed to his daughters’ participation at first. But seeing them dance in the performance "Urbes favela" moved him to tears. Now he insists that they attend class regularly, and even allows them to travel, but "only with EDISCA."

You can feel the influence of EDISCA throughout the neighbourhood of Bom Jardim, where the family lives in a large half-constructed house, even though the school itself is located on the other side of the city, more than an hour away by bus.


Bom Jardim, home to some 200,000 people, is one of Fortaleza's poorest and most violent neighbourhoods. At the southwestern tip of the metropolitan area, with long streets set out in an orderly grid, the signs of poverty are everywhere: cracked cement or none at all; an abundance of houses that are only half-built; and the makeshift architecture typical of areas that have only recently been occupied, as a result of the exodus from the countryside.

Bom Jardim is also the largest source of EDISCA students, according to Katiana Pena, who was trained as a dance instructor at the school. Today, Katiana teaches dance classes at the Bom Jardim Cultural Centre, a tall, modern building that stands out starkly in the neighbourhood, and is attended by more than 800 girls and boys.

Founded in 1991 and directed by Dora Andrade, EDISCA is a non-governmental organisation that caters exclusively to children and adolescents from poor neighbourhoods. It has close to 400 regular students, all of whom also attend public primary or secondary schools – a requirement for taking classes there.

By offering the children of the poor access to ballet, formerly taught almost exclusively to the daughters of wealthy families, "we broke a paradigm," said Andrade. EDISCA specialises in modern dance, but classical ballet technique is the foundation of the training offered there, she explained.

What began as an educational project, in which the training of dancers and dance teachers emerged spontaneously, eventually expanded into the social services area, and now provides 1,500 families with medical, dental, psychological and nutritional services.

As it evolved, the dance school also expanded into other disciplines, including singing, theatre and visual arts, as well as new educational functions, such as tutoring and English and computer classes.

Soon it also became necessary to provide food for the students, under the guidance of nutritionists, because many of them were undernourished and had poor eating habits. Dance is a physical language, and it is essential for dancers to be in excellent physical condition and practice good hygiene, such as regularly brushing their teeth, commented Andrade.

Another cost that the school was obliged to take on was that of subsidising transportation, because the children who go there live in the distant outskirts of the city and often cannot afford the bus fare to get there.

EDISCA students attend the school for four and a half years, on average. Very few drop out, which means that only around 50 children between the ages of seven and twelve are admitted each year, although the demand for enrolment is ten times greater. There are long waiting lists to get in, which means the school is forced to carry out a frustratingly limited selection process, based on the criteria of social need and aptitude.

"I learned to eat vegetables here," said Tatiane Gama, 26, whose life story is a reflection of the history of EDISCA itself. She was one of the students in the very first intake, when the school first opened, and remains there today. She began dance lessons at the age of eight, then went on to become a member of the EDISCA dance company, and finally became a teacher there at the age of 18.

The dance elite

When the students reach the end of secondary school at the age of 16 or 17, they are no longer able to attend classes at EDISCA and are pressured by their parents to go out and look for jobs. This fact led the school to create a dance company, made up of the most talented dancers, who are paid a monthly stipend of around 100 reals (50 dollars), explained Gama.

Fighting inequality in education

Jamila de Oliveira Lopez has personally experienced the marked imbalance between public and private schools, a contributing factor to social inequality in Brazil. As one of the recipients of the scholarships offered to EDISCA students by a number of private schools in Fortaleza, she transferred to Farias Brito High School, one of the city’s most competitive and costly schools, in 2007.

Jamila was struck by the "world of difference between the realities and behaviours" in public and private schools. Some of the subjects offered at the private school were not even taught at the public school she attended. The young dancer, now 17, said her goal is to study journalism, in order to be "up to date" and to "express herself through words as well."

But Jamila, held up as an example, is an exception. She was always one of the top students in her class, even though she had to study in the kitchen, because she shared a room with her two sisters in their home in an extremely violent neighbourhood. Last year she won a computer as a prize for being the most diligent student at EDISCA.

Espaço Aberto (Open Space) School, which began a scholarship programme in 2003 because of its "inherent social commitment," now has 10 scholarship students from EDISCA, reported its director, Murilo Martins. Four years ago, a groups of students were caught teasing one of the scholarship students for being poor, and the school took advantage of the incident to promote a discussion on discrimination.

Chemistry teacher Helder Filgueiras said he once found a high school scholarship student crying because she had never taken chemistry classes before and was convinced she was "incapable of learning." A long discussion restored her self-esteem and she successfully passed the course, he recounted.

At Nossa Senhora das Graças School, a private Catholic school with around 2,000 students in all and 15 from EDISCA, in addition to the usual initial adaptation problems, the scholarship students "arrived with no knowledge of English whatsoever," commented Rosa Cavalcanti, a guidance counsellor.

Cavalcanti and Martins stressed the force of will of these scholarship students as the key factor in helping them overcome the gaps in their previous education. They greatly appreciate the "unique opportunity" of being able to study at a school they could never afford, noted Aparecida Raposa, the coordinator at Admirável Mundo School.

The number of members varies over time, but there are usually around 40 young dancers in this semi-professional dance troupe, who continue to receive ongoing training. The company has given highly acclaimed performances of a number of works choreographed by Dora Andrade, sometimes in conjunction with her brother, Gilano Andrade.

The first work in their repertoire, which premiered in 1995, was "Jangurussu", based on the lives of hundreds of families who survive by scavenging for food and sellable materials in a huge garbage dump in Fortaleza. A number of other works are social critiques, including "Koi-Guera", which deals with genocide perpetrated against indigenous people, and "Urbes Favela", about life in the favelas or slums.

"Mobilis", a work that premiered in 2003, is more abstract, described as "a choreographic exploration of movement." Up until last year, a total of 188,380 spectators had attended the 260 performances given in Brazil and abroad.

Performing with the EDISCA dance company "made it possible for me to visit France, Italy, Germany, Austria and the United States," as well as many cities throughout Brazil, "an opportunity that other schools wouldn’t have given me," said Gama, who now teaches in a number of other institutions in addition to EDISCA.

EDISCA has produced the "most successful" instructors at Fortaleza’s ballet academies, she added, citing a number of examples, including one former male student who has created his own dance company and developed into a talented and successful choreographer.

The owners of the city’s dance academies recognise the advantages of hiring her former schoolmates, added Gama, thanks to their discipline, their reliability, and the knowledge they have acquired by taking part in performances in big theatres in Brazil and abroad.

Other outcomes

EDISCA’s overriding goal, however, is not to train dancers, but rather to offer a high-quality "interdimensional" education that combines reason, emotion, willpower and self-improvement through art, preparing students for life and creating opportunities, stressed Andrade.

Erika Dayane, 27, studied theatre and choral singing during the 11 years she spent at EDISCA. She did not specialise in dance and never formed part of the dance company, but she left the school with a broader training that serves her well today as a community therapist at the Psychosocial Care Centre (CAPS), a local government mental health services agency.

"I am a mixture, an artist and a therapist," commented Dayane, who is an activist in the local Community Mental Health Movement as well as working for CAPS in the Bom Jardim neighbourhood. She explained that she uses art "to awaken the will to live and the dormant creativity" in individuals who suffer from depression and drug addiction, are victims of violence, or simply suffer the effects of living in extreme poverty.

"My goal is to break with the hospitalisation and medication model through art. Many patients no longer need doctors after practising dance and singing," she said. With the salary she currently earns, she contributes to her family’s living expenses and is also paying for her own university studies in occupational therapy, although it will take her a considerable time to earn her degree, since she can only afford to take a few courses at a time.

In Bom Jardim, EDISCA’s influence is also reflected in the leadership of its former students in the neighbourhood’s schools and cultural activities. One example is Ana Maria Marques, 23, a former secondary school student leader who now struggles to support herself and her young son as an organic crafts instructor and a facilitator of other cultural projects.

EDISCA alumni also made up the majority of the young people who created the Casa de Cultura (House of Culture), later replaced by Nosso Espaço (Our Space), which offers theatre, dance, crafts, a library and university prep courses for local children and adolescents.

Encouraging formal schooling is another of the dance school’s missions. A number of its former students have graduated from or are currently attending university, something extremely rare in the neighbourhoods where they live. Tatiane Gama is studying physical education, while Daniele Monteiro, 21, who attended EDISCA for 12 years and now works there as an administrative assistant, is studying journalism.

In the future, many more youngsters from Bom Jardim and similar neighbourhoods will have access to university educations thanks to a programme through which some of the top private schools in Fortaleza provide scholarships to selected EDISCA students. In 2008, 49 of these scholarships were awarded.

The performances by the school’s dance company are a major learning process in themselves. For "Urbes Favela", for example, all of the students participated in research on the slum neighbourhoods of Fortaleza, including the media’s portrayal of them and the hopes and dreams of local residents, in addition to workshops on stage direction, design, music, video, make-up and other areas of theatrical production.

Despite its admirable social and educational outcomes, EDISCA continues to face financial difficulties, even though it has had its own headquarters specially designed for its activities since 1999. The school has been forced to cancel classes on Fridays and is carrying out a campaign to seek individual donations as a means of overcoming the financial crisis.

** The photographs in this article are used with the permission of the photographer, Mila Petrillo. They are taken from her book "Arte de Transformação", published by ANDI, SESC SP and Fondo Nacional de Cultura, which features 600 photographs taken over the course of 14 years of 52 projects involving social transformation through the arts.

" This article forms part of the "Art Is the Best Education" series of reports. The project that gave rise to this effort was the winner of the AVINA Investigative Journalism scholarship. The logos must be published with the reports. The AVINA Foundation and Casa Daros, its local partner in the Art and Society category, are not responsible for the ideas, opinions or other aspects of the content. ".
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