Yolanda Demétrio stares out the window of our public bus in Rio de Janeiro, on our way to visit her dance colleagues at Rio’s avant-garde cultural center, Fundição Progresso. Yolanda is a 37-year-old dance teacher, homeowner, social entrepreneur and former favela (Brazilian urban shantytown) resident. She is the founder and director of Espaço Aberto (Open Space), an organization through which Yolanda has nearly single-handedly taught dance to more than 500 children from Rio’s favelas. Yet it was only this year, she shares with me, that her mother recognized her as a dance professional.
Born in the government-sanctioned favela of A Cruzada (The Cross), ironically nailed between Leblon and Ipanema, two of Rio’s wealthiest beach-front neighborhoods, Yolanda danced her way out of Rio’s slums and into a scholarship seat in the Maxime d’ la Horch dance academy in Barcelona, Spain.
After three years of dancing on various stages throughout Europe, Yolanda returned to her students in the favelas of Rio, where she uses dance to transform young lives. For years, Yolanda has taught dance in Rocinha and “City of God” to help slum children learn about themselves and the world beyond their favelas, so that they may integrate into it. Today Espaço Aberto teaches ballet, ballroom, Afro-Brazilian, jazz and other dances to children from Rio’s favelas to help them become global and socially responsible citizens.
Convinced that dance could create opportunities where resources were lacking, Yolanda founded Espaço Aberto in 1998 without a studio of her own. At times, there was only the beach shore to rehearse on. Yet this March, Yolanda’s students helped me create a video diary about the value of dance in their lives so that we could raise the funds needed to build a two-room dance studio in Rocinha, Brazil’s largest favela.
In our mini-documentary, Yolanda and her students described dance as a means of social and economic empowerment, a means of self-expression and self-sufficiency. As Roger, one of Yolanda’s few male dancers, observed in that video “[The experience of Espaço Aberto] shows that there is no such thing as ‘favelado’ (slum-dweller); there are people with dignity here who know how to do the things they want.” Roger was referring to the agency provided by dance: the power of the dancer to counter the violent and demeaning images of drug-infested favelas by humane images of centers of culture and free expression.
And Yolanda, as a self-employed choreographer and founder of a not-for-profit business, has shown her students that dance not only combats the silence and marginalization of the favelas, but also fights poverty through self-reliance and ambition.
Limited resources have never been enough to limit Yolanda and her students. Their strong work ethic has garnered for them trophies and medals, the honor of representing Brazil two years in a row at the MercoSul Latin American Congress, and invitations to dance at several of Rio de Janeiro’s premier performance spaces—including the Baden Powell Theater in Copacabana and the Circo Voador in Lapa. One of those spectacular performances last year, at Rio’s prominent Catholic university, Pontifícia Universidade Católica (PUC), so greatly impressed the university coordinator of social and cultural activities that she recommended I spend my yearlong fellowship working with Espaço Aberto.
I met Yolanda and her students for the first time last October. Yolanda asked a violin teacher in the government building across the highway from Rocinha to open his classroom twenty minutes early so that her students might have a space to show me some of their work. That night, the girls danced a romantic ballet number in their torn slippers and tights and the group at large danced a gripping Afro-Brazilian piece depicting the story of Brazil’s slave trade. Then they pushed the music stands back together and returned the space to the teacher before his class began.
I spent my fellowship year teaching and learning from these young artists. In March, I began to collaborate with Solace International, a small American NGO that supports self-sustainable social projects around the world, to raise the funds needed to build a permanent “open space” for Espaço Aberto. By June, we had raised enough money to begin building the studio space.
“It wasn’t until you and the Americans decided to sponsor the building for me this year that my mother finally respected my dancing as a career.” Yolanda shrugged her shoulders and looked out of the window.
“That never stopped me… I’ve been dancing since I was 7 years old. And when I was 13, I was already teaching dance classes at the church when the teachers were gone.”
At the age of seven, a parish priest from A Cruzada recommended Yolanda for a government-sponsored dance program. Her love and talent for dance were apparent to her teachers from an early age. I’ve seen photos of Yolanda at age 15 teaching girls, her age and older, ballet routines when the instructors were abroad with their dance companies. Yet Yolanda’s mother regarded dance as a non-lucrative hobby and a poor excuse for her daughter to get out of the house. Yolanda recollected, in an amused rather than bitter way, when fellow dancers performing an Afro-Brazilian piece had to sneak Yolanda and her costume onto a school bus and drive away before her mother was able to pull her daughter off the performance bus.
Yolanda managed to defy her mother’s rules and continue dancing into her 20s, while working and attending dentistry school. Through dance, Yolanda would also defy the social and geographical boundaries of Brazil’s rigid class divide. At age 28, after dropping out of dentistry school for a career in dance, Yolanda received a scholarship to do post-graduate work at L’Institut Nacional d’Educació Física de Catalunya in Spain. She accepted and spent three years studying, working and performing throughout Europe.
In recent years, Yolanda has returned to Leblon and Ipanema as a private dance teacher to the wealthy neighbors who once ignored her. Now, as a teacher and social entrepreneur, she continues to influence the lives of youth who are growing up much as she did.
It is for this reason that Bruna, an 18-year-old government-certified ballet teacher, who has danced with Yolanda for seven years now, says that through dance she has “learned to face life.” These days Bruna shares her passion with the world, from dancing in the opening of the Pan-Olympic Games this July to declaring her goal of becoming her family’s first college graduate (in dance, of course).
However, Bruna didn’t always know that she had it in her to become such an accomplished dancer. At age 8, Bruna began taking ballet classes with her cousin Kelly at a school in A Cruzada, twenty minutes away from Bruna’s home community of Rocinha. When Kelly stopped going, Bruna no longer felt motivated to travel to another favela for dance, especially since her father, João, did not approve of a hobby that offered “no future.” But when Bruna was 11, she met Yolanda, who offered to teach her various types of dance for one sharply reduced monthly fee. Bruna accepted and hasn’t stopped dancing since.
With Yolanda, Bruna began to perform outside of Rocinha, including her first trip by airplane to film a dance documentary in Espírito Santo, a state north of Rio. Bruna and her mom, Dulce, were elated to travel often on weekends for dance competitions, but her father still disapproved. As Bruna puts it, “In the beginning, he really didn’t like it. He used to argue with my mom when we would get home late from performances. He would say ‘you just stay in the streets.’ Now he’s finally accepting that there is no way he can stop me from doing what I love. Now he sees that I’m not dependent on my mom anymore. I split the monthly fees [from the ballet classes I teach] half and half with Espaço Aberto. So if I need sneakers, I go out and buy them myself.”
Bruna recognizes that Yolanda’s teachings were fundamental in making her the independent young woman that she is today, observing, “I was always learning with her; learning to express myself, open up and use words to express exactly what I was feeling. Sometimes I would say ‘I can’t do it’ but Yolanda did not accept that. She taught me that I can do anything that I want to do.” Now a high school senior, Bruna teaches two ballet classes of her own at Espaço Aberto. She even has two “scholarship students” who each pay a quarter of the monthly fee for ballet classes. Bruna also co-teaches ballet with Yolanda in both Rocinha and in Leblon, while continuing her studies on a scholarship at Arte em Movimento, a ballet academy in Rio’s wealthy neighborhood of São Conrado. And for the first time this year, she heard her father point to her at a performance and say proudly “that’s my daughter.”
Through dance, Yolanda has taught her students internal, rather than external, validation. As a teacher whose students live both in Rio’s slums and in Rio’s wealthiest beach-front neighborhoods, and as a professional whose mother is just now recognizing the value of her daughter’s service, she has taught her students that only by setting and meeting one’s own high standards will they ever surpass their audience’s and society’s expectations. Through dance, Yolanda and other children from Rio’s favelas have become talented artists, trophied performers, scholarship recipients, sought-after teachers, successful businesswomen and positive global citizens.
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