Marcell Monteiro, 15, and Paulicéia Borges, 16, are packing their suitcases to go to the Staafliche Ballettschule (the world-famous ballet institute in Berlin, Germany), where they will meet their friend Bárbara Freire, 17, who has been learning ballet since 1999. Freire is getting ready for her first role as the protagonist in the ballet, 'Giselle'.
All three girls are from the slums of Rio de Janeiro. But instead of wasting their childhood on drugs and crime, or being defeated by poverty and lack of education, the girls are training as ballet dancers and securing a better future for themselves.
Monteiro, Borges and Freire are part of a special project run by the NGO Dancando para Não Dancar (DPND, Dancing to Take the Right Step). Since 1994, DPND has been organising ballet classes for slum children. It reaches out to 450 students (between six and 17 years of age) in 10 slums in Rio.
"I don't know what I would be doing now if it wasn't for the project. I hope to enjoy and make the most of this opportunity. My dream is to become a great ballerina," says Borges. Borges has a tough routine: she rehearses for four hours every day in the Olympic Villa of Mangueira, a slum area. She has also recently joined ballet classes at the School of Dance of the Municipal Theatre of Rio de Janeiro.
More than a million people (19 per cent of the population of the city of Rio de Janeiro) live in favelas (slums). Surviving amidst unhygienic, unhealthy conditions, they are often victims of gang violence. Children living in slums rarely have access to education or skill-building. Many get hooked to drugs, become drug peddlers and join local gangs.
DPND's founder, Thereza Aguilar, a ballerina trained at the Staatliche Ballettschule (Berlin), the Camaguey Ballet and the National Ballet Centre (both in Cuba), decided to start the project based on her experience in Cuba while working with disadvantaged children.
Aguilar says, "I knew that the road wouldn't be easy. With the support of the residents' associations, I called the children to take a test. To my surprise, 250 children turned up for the 40 openings that were offered."
With her ballet classes, Aguilar aims to steer the children away from crime, drugs and violence. DPND's objective is not only to teach the children a profession that traditionally belongs to the elite, but also to increase their self-esteem.
Today, two girls from the group -- Márcia Freire, 19, and Aline da Silva, 15 -- are on a scholarship to the National Ballet Centre in Cuba. And Ingrid dos Santos Silva, 16, is getting ready to play her first role in the ballet, 'The Nutcracker', in Rio city.
"The ballet makes you change an entire lifestyle and the way you see the world. I am a different person. My parents are very happy to see me so devoted to something like this," says Silva, who joined the project in 1999.
Although there are only 25 boys with the DPND project, some of them have already made a name for themselves. Júlio César, 19, travelled all over the country in 2003 with the show, 'Terra Brasis'. He was recently selected by the Center Cultural Opera Brazil for a role in a stage show.
DPND classes are held six days in a week, and continue even during school vacations. "The children take a break once a year, only for a week. We plan in such a way that they don't have too much idle time, so that they don't go astray," says Aguilar.
Besides ballet lessons, DPND offers classes on musical theory and exposes the children to other dance forms. Children are also taken for educational trips (to the planetarium, the legislative assembly), and for picnics. Sometimes, the children perform to raise money for charities. The NGO also supports their education and offers medical care and counselling to some of the children.
"Not all the young people being trained will become professional dancers, but they will have access to artistic activities and know how to make good use of the knowledge gained in professions connected to physical and artistic activities," explains Aguilar.
In 2001, DPND built its own centre - Olympic Villa - in the Mangueira slum, with the help of the Brazilian Development Bank. "Here we have rooms for rehearsals, offices, clinics and a pantry," says Aguilar. Aguilar's project is supported by several private organisations - like Petrobras (Brazilian Oil Company), Videofilmes (a private movie company) - and the Ministry of Culture. The first ballerina of the Municipal Theatre of Rio de Janeiro, Ana Botafogo, sponsors some classes for DPND and moviemaker Walter Salles, known for his internationally acclaimed films 'Central Station' and 'The Motorcycle Diaries', takes care of the food and lodging for the girls who train in :D Berlin.
Aguilar has recently included nine children who have Down's syndrome and eight children with hearing impairment. DPND's dance classes and specialised care aim to integrate the children into the mainstream.