Leaping beyond the poverty of Brazil's slums

Dora Andrade knew that her dream of helping impoverished girls escape the slums of Fortaleza by teaching them dance and discipline was going to be tough. But when one budding ballerina fainted of hunger and another revealed that she could only afford to eat flour, Andrade realized that poise alone would not transform the youngsters' future.

"I knew I had to do more," she says.

What Andrade did was create the School of Dance and Social Integration for Children and Adolescents (Edisca) a foundation that teaches girls from the poorest favelas not only how to dance and how to read, but also gives them social skills and discipline. It provides pupils a square meal every day and shows them how to care for and respect their bodies.

Dance schools modeled on Edisca are now open in five Brazilian cities, and other dance-based projects are showing impoverished children across Brazil how to move beyond the barriers they face.

Edisca's success comes at a time when classical dance is gaining new popularity and respect in Brazil.

Last year, Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet opened its first permanent school outside Russia in the south Brazilian city of Joinville, and earlier this year Brazilian dancer and choreographer Deborah Colker took Britain's prestigious Laurence Olivier Award for outstanding achievement in dance. It was the first time a Brazilian had won the honor.

It will be a long time before any of Andrade's pupils are likely to win prizes. For the first priority for the girls at Edisca is not mastering pirouettes, but overcoming the situation they were born into.

Attending free of charge, the girls who enroll in Andrade's school come from three of Fortaleza's poorest neighborhoods, one of them a shantytown built on the edge of the city's garbage dump. A majority cannot read or write, and many come from broken homes where unemployment is rife, poverty endemic, and violence common. Some are on the brink of running away from homes and into the dangers of the street.

"The reality is that socioeconomic hardship often leads young people here toward drug abuse, child labor and even prostitution," says Shannon Walbran, the former associate director for Brazil of the Ashoka Society, an international organization that is one of Edisca's sponsors. "At Edisca, they have ballet to teach them how to care for their bodies and themselves. The tough demands Dora makes of these dancers demonstrate how much she respects them."

Tutus and toothbrushes

Andrade's first task is to teach the girls how to take care of their physical health. Each student is given a medical examination, a kit with basic healthcare products, and a small booklet explaining how to use elementary tools like a toothbrush. Aided by a staff that includes a nurse, a pediatrician and a child psychologist, the children are vaccinated and shown how simple changes in the way they live can help prevent lice or anemia.

The girls enter the school not younger than age 6 and graduate by 20. Their day begins with a meal, and then classes begin. Although students are encouraged to take lessons in theater, music, or singing, they can also choose to read, use the school's computers, or simply play in what for them is a sanctuary from the world outside.

The only compulsory class is dance. Andrade chose to base her course on dance mainly because she is a former dancer, but also because dance - including the country's well-known sambas - is an integral part of Brazilian culture, particularly here in the northeast.

Andrade and four other teachers school the children in the basics of ballet in one of Edisca's two fully equipped studios. Those showing particular aptitude are invited to take lessons six days a week.

The girls who struggle for a place at the barre fantasize about becoming ballerinas. Andrade says her aim is not to produce dancers, however, but to give the girls an education that will help them escape poverty.

"Seven years of education makes a difference in any girl's life," says Andrade. "She'll never be poor again. Most of them just need an opportunity. Our aim is to be that opportunity."

The idea of dance as a leap from disadvantage is not new. In the late 1700s, Moscow orphans began receiving training in ballet, and from their ranks the Bolshoi was later formed.

Some of the girls at Edisca, however, find it hard to accept the opportunity they have been given. One girl would not eat because she could not bear the thought of feasting while her family went hungry. Another girl repeatedly became infected with lice, though the school was treating her. She eventually admitted that she and her family shared the only towel.

Those incidents prompted Andrade to include family members in the program. Now mothers are given medical examinations, and siblings and parents are encouraged to take high school equivalency classes.

It is all a long way from 1991, when Andrade returned from six months of dancing in Minneapolis. Her initial attempts to bring the curtain up on the project were stymied by a lack of money, and at one point she pawned her jewelry to keep the school open. She later applied for a grant from the local government, but was told it would only fund the project if she introduced an educational component to the syllabus. Edisca was born.

In the nine years since, the school has set the stage for 800 young girls to seek challenges in areas that might otherwise have been beyond their reach. Although none have gone on to be professional dancers, many have found teaching or administrative jobs, which, although they may appear humble, are positions they could never before have aspired to hold.

"If I hadn't got into Edisca, I'd be married with at least two kids and cleaning someone's house," says Carla Anacleto da Costa, a former student who teaches part-time at a computer school while studying for upcoming university entrance exams.

"Dora told me you can change your future ... that you are not obliged to remain poor because you were born poor. My future is going to be different."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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