Beautiful ballet in a violent slum

Story highlights

  • A former gymnast is giving free ballet lessons to young girls in Rio de Janeiro
  • The classes give the girls a place of refuge in their violent favela

(CNN)On a hilltop overlooking the sprawling Complexo de Alemão favela, girls fill an old basketball court in Rio de Janeiro. Wearing pink leotards, pink tights and pink shoes, they stand with their hands on their hips as they learn proper passé technique.

The girls practice ballet on a basketball court because in their favela, considered one of the most dangerous in the city, there is no other place for them to go.
    Their instructor, Tuany Nascimento, teaches them for free. Her program "Na Ponta dos Pes," or "On Tiptoe," is intended to provide young girls with a place of refuge while also teaching them the graceful art of ballet.
    Nacimento is a former rhythmic gymnast who represented Brazil in international competition. She wants to give her young students a sense of hope and identity, said Sebastian Gil Miranda, who has been photographing the classes since 2014.
    Photographer Sebastian Gil Miranda
    In 2010, the Brazilian government launched a military operation to clear the favela of drug traffickers. Following the deployment of troops, special police units were sent to Alemão as part of a "pacification" program designed to restore order.
    But Miranda said the favela is more dangerous than ever.
    "I've never seen a situation like now," he said. Dancing in an open basketball court exposes the group to violence, and they often have to stop classes because of a nearby shooting.
    Nascimento's goal is to prevent her dancers from getting involved in the "wrong" type of life, and Miranda says she is doing just that. There's a noticeable difference, he said, between the girls who take Nascimento's class and the girls who don't.
    Miranda has photographed professional ballet companies around the world, and he knew immediately that there was something special about these dancers. Two years on from that first class, he becomes emotional just talking about them.

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    "The little girls dancing there, it's incredible," he said. "The first time I took pictures, I started to cry."
    Nascimento's dream, Miranda said, is to build a community center complete with a library, computers and a dance studio. Miranda helped establish a GoFundMe for the community, and construction on the center got underway. Economic and social circumstances, however, have put the project on hold.
    But Nascimento is undeterred by these setbacks, Miranda said. He continues to return to Alemão to photograph her program, and he has come to view his subjects as family.
    While in Rio covering the grand spectacle of the Olympics, Miranda found time to visit the favela for a quieter performance by Nascimento and her dancers.
    "I think we need more people like her," he said. "She's really changed the lives of those girls."