Brazilian dance craze created by young people in Rio’s favelas is declared cultural heritage

RIO DE JANEIRO — It all started with nifty leg movements, strong steps backwards and forwards, paced to Brazilian funk music. Then it adopted moves from break dancing, samba, capoeira, frevo — whatever was around.

The passinho, a dance style created in the 2000s by kids in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, was declared in March to be an “intangible cultural heritage” by legislators in the state of Rio, bringing recognition to a cultural expression born in the sprawling working-class neighborhoods.

The creators of passinho were young kids with plenty of flexibility — and no joint problems. They started trying out new moves at home and then showing them off at funk parties in their communities and, crucially, sharing them on the internet.

In the early days of social media, youngsters uploaded videos of their latest feats to Orkut and YouTube, and the style started spreading to other favelas. A competitive scene was born, and youths copied and learned from the best dancers, leading them to innovate further and strive to stay on top.

“Passinho in my life is the basis of everything I have,” dancer and choreographer Walcir de Oliveira, 23, said in an interview. “It’s where I manage to earn my livelihood, and I can show people my joy and blow off steam, you understand? It’s where I feel happy, good.”

Brazilian producer Julio Ludemir helped capture this spirit and discover talents by organizing “passinho battles” in the early 2010s. At these events, youths took turns showing off their steps before a jury that selected the winners.

The “Out of Doors” festival at New York’s Lincoln Center staged one such duel in 2014, giving a U.S. audience a taste of the vigorous steps. Passinho breached the borders of favelas and disconnected from funk parties that are often associated with crime. Dancers started appearing on mainstream TV and earned the spotlight during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.

Ludemir describes the style as an expression of Brazilian “antropofagia,” the modernist concept of cannibalizing elements from other cultures in order to produce something new.

“Passinho is a dance that absorbs references from all dances. It’s a crossing of the cultural influences absorbed by kids from the periphery as they were connecting with the world through social media in internet cafes,” he said.

Dancing also became a means for youths to move seamlessly between communities controlled by rival drug gangs. It offered you men from favelas a new way out, besides falling into a life of crime or the all-too-common pipe dream of becoming a soccer star.

Passinho was declared state heritage by Rio’s legislative assembly through a law proposed by Rio state legislator Veronica Lima. It passed unanimously and was sanctioned March 7. In a statement, Lima said it was important to help “decriminalize funk and artistic expressions of youths” from favelas.

Ludemir says the heritage recognition is sure to consolidate the first generation of passinho dancers as an inspiration for favelas youths.

Among them are Pablo Henrique Goncalves, a dancer known as Pablinho Fantástico, who won a passinho battle back in 2014 and later created a boy group called OZCrias, with four dancers born and raised like him in Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela. The group earns money performing in festivals, events, theaters and TV shows, and they welcomed the heritage recognition.

Another dance group is Passinho Carioca in the Penha complex of favelas on the other side of the city. One of its directors, Nayara Costa, said in an interview that she came from a family where everyone got into drug trafficking. Passinho saved her from that fate, and now she uses it to help youngsters — plus teach anyone else interested in learning.

“Today I give classes to people who are in their sixties; passinho is for everyone,” said Costa, 23. “Passinho, in the same way that it changed my life, is still going to change the lives of others.”


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