The ballet class where pirouettes aren’t the pointe, staying in school is

(Courtesy of Luisa Dorr / Malala Fund)

(Courtesy of Luisa Dorr / Malala Fund)

In Complexo do Alemão, one of Rio de Janeiro’s most dangerous favela, Tuany Nascimento holds free ballet classes to encourage girls to follow their ambitions.

24-year-old Brazilian ballet instructor Tuany Nascimento surveys her giggling students — Paloma (11), Ana Carolina (12), Karine (12) and Raissa (13). The four girls can’t stop whispering and laughing. Casting them a meaningful look, Tuany rolls her shoulders back and straightens up. The effect is immediate. The chattering stops and Tuany’s pupils respectfully follow her lead.

Paloma, Ana Carolina, Karine and Raissa are students in Tuany’s weekly ballet class held in Complexo do Alemão, one of Rio de Janeiro’s most dangerous favelas. In a community where no one expects girls to thrive, Tuany encourages them to dream bigger. “More than teaching ballet, I’m teaching girls to respect and love themselves, and that they can have the future they want,” says Tuany.

Her project began six years ago. At 18, Tuany was too old to dance professionally and needed to take a job in a local office to support her family. Unwilling to let go of her passion, she continued to practise ballet in a small spot between two buildings.

(Courtesy of Luisa Dorr / Malala Fund)

(Courtesy of Luisa Dorr / Malala Fund)

In Complexo do Alemão where there are frequent shootings, it is rare to see someone doing anything outside for fun. It wasn’t long before Tuany started attracting attention. Two girls asked her for lessons, then three, then four. Tuany agreed and later that year she formally named the project, Na Ponta Dos Pes (which translates to “Tiptoes”).

Classes are free for girls ages 4 to 17 to attend, as long as they can show a report card to prove they are in school and getting good grades. “Education is the first step. If everyone in the favela got educated, they would desire to do other things with their lives,” Tuany says.

Going to school isn’t easy for girls living in favelas — many communities are run by drug traffickers and remain outside the government’s control. “We can be out of school for a week at a time due to shootings,” Paloma explains. When this happens, she feels sad and afraid. Paloma wants to live in a place that’s calm, where she is free to do what she enjoys — like singing or practising ballet.

In Brazil, more than 1.5 million girls are out of school due to poverty, racism and violence. And, indigenous and Afro-Brazilian girls miss out most — only 30% of Afro-Brazilian children finish lower secondary school compared to 70% of white children.

(Courtesy of Luisa Dorr / Malala Fund)

(Courtesy of Luisa Dorr / Malala Fund)

Tuany is beating the odds. She is currently pursuing a degree in physical sciences at university. She constantly reminds her students of the importance of staying in school. When asked what is the most important bit of advice they’ve learned from Tuany, the girls unanimously agreed it was “to study a lot.”

Since Tuany started Na Ponta Dos Pes, she has mentored more than 200 girls. Tuany can be strict with the girls, but only because she knows the girls are all capable of achieving so much more than anyone expects of them. “Everyone sees [girls] without a future,” says Tuany of the prejudice that exists throughout the country. “Before ballet these girls were just surviving.” With pointe shoes, bright lipstick and encouragement from Tuany, they are now doing so much more than that.

This article is available in Portuguese

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McKinley Tretler is communications manager at Malala Fund. She’s on the hunt for the perfect Oreo milkshake and to befriend Mindy Kaling.