Brazil slum ballet school taps resilience to survive pandemic

·3 min read

Against a backdrop of jumbled shacks seemingly piled atop each other, the dancers run in place with studied movements, then collapse to the floor in steady succession.

This is a rehearsal at the Ballet of Paraisopolis, one of the biggest favelas in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The dance school is just returning from a four-month hiatus for the coronavirus pandemic, which has left Brazil with the second-highest death toll worldwide, after the United States: nearly 130,000 people killed.

Covid-19 has hit hard in the favelas -- poor, overcrowded neighborhoods that often lack clean running water, sanitation infrastructure or basic health care.

But although the virus is still spreading fast in Sao Paulo, the epicenter of the outbreak in Brazil, students and teachers at the school say they wanted -- needed -- to dance together again.

"I was really anxious to come back. It felt like my first time," said 17-year-old dancer and local resident Kemilly Luanda, taking a break from rehearsals in an improvised studio whose ballet barre is a balcony railing -- the dividing line that separates this world of graceful leaps and precision pirouettes from the brick shacks it overlooks.

- Bedroom Zoom rehearsals -

Luanda and her classmates are rehearsing a new ballet with an urgent message: "Nine Deaths," a tribute to the victims who died in a stampede when police raided a huge street party in the favela in December last year.

The school had to postpone the debut performance because of the pandemic. Now, the students are working to get it ready as they return from the long interruption.

Getting through lockdown has not been easy for the academy, which was founded in 2012 and provides free training to its 200 students thanks to public funding and private donations.

Luanda, who is in her final year at the school, recounted how difficult it was to keep up with her training via remote classes from the two-room house she shares with her parents, four siblings and dog.

Paraisopolis is a postcard of the inequalities that divide Sao Paulo, Brazil's sprawling economic capital.

The favela juts up against one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city, Morumbi, a privileged reserve of luxury high-rises and mansions that is a world apart from the one where Luanda lives.

"I had to get everyone out of the bedroom, prop the cell phone up on the top bunk and practice in the aisle between our beds," she told AFP.

Her shaky internet connection, small phone screen and lack of computer made things harder. And, she said, she missed the "sisters" she has studied dance with for the past eight years.

She is one of 22 students who have returned for classes -- 10 in the school itself, and 12 on the second floor of a cultural center that was converted into an anti-coronavirus command hub during lockdown.

Wearing face masks, they practice for four hours a day, five days a week.

The rest of the school's students are continuing their classes online, for now.

The academy had to postpone its first-ever graduation ceremony, now planned for next year.

- 'We never stop' -

Keeping the school going via remote learning "hasn't been easy," said its founder, Monica Tarrago.

"It was the worst feeling I've had in my life. We never stop except for Christmas and New Year's. We're like a family," she told AFP.

"We thought of everything we could do via (the videoconference application) Zoom to keep up their physical and mental preparation at home," said Tarrago.

The program featured classes on nutrition, stretching, exercises and choreography, plus lessons with 10 dancers from around the world, including French ballerina Isabelle Guerin, former "Danceuse Etoile" at the Paris Opera Ballet.

Now the dancers are working hard to ready "Nine Deaths." They have the sores on their feet to prove it when they remove their ballet slippers after class.

"We have to feel the characters in our skin. I try to feel their suffering.... It has to hurt, body and soul," said Luanda.

Still, she added, "I can't live without dance."