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On the road in Rio: how a dance craze is transforming the lives of inner city youth

As the world focuses on the Olympics, working-class Brazil is being united by greater recognition of passinho dance culture.

Of all the aspects of Rio’s well-received Olympics opening ceremony, it was its nod to the emergence of the favelas that Brazilians feel most ambivalent about. If, on the one hand, favelas are where Rio’s most violent criminals operate, on the other they are also where some of the most creative minds in the country reside.

A day after the ceremony, I found myself in northern Rio's Madureira Park –  a place  far away from the bright lights of Copacabana and Ipanema beach. On weekends, it’s here that Cariocas from the surrounding favelas congregate to spend quality time with family and friends.

The park is one of the greatest infrastructure legacies of almost a decade of the city hosting major international events. Two years ago this place was nothing more than scrubland.

As young and old gather in front of a stage on a hot Saturday night, what they are about to witness is the latest art form to come out of the favelas. 

Passinho, or “little step”, is what breakdancing is to hip-hop. Only in these parts, Brazilian kids dance to funk – the local version of it.

The dance mixes a number of genres such as samba, breakdancing, forró, and Michael Jackson’s moonwalk. The bodies of the dancers pop, turn, twist and lock – all with a typical Brazilian flavour.

Video: Felipe Araujo

The moves have been a cultural staple of favela life for the good part of this century, but it is only recently that they have gone pop.

Stars such as Beyoncé, Chris Brown and MIA have all danced to passinho – either on stage or in music videos. But it was last week’s opening ceremony of the Olympics that has given new hope to those steeped in the culture.

“We have been doing this for 12 years, but it’s only now we are starting to get the type of recognition other more traditional dances get,” Anderson Neemias tells me backstage during the show in Madureira.

Born in Penha, a working-class neighbourhood in northern Rio, the 23-year-old was one of the Olympic opening ceremony’s passinho dancers at the Maracanã the night before. When I speak to him, he still can’t believe he was actually there.

Anderson tells me how the event was not just the realisation of a personal dream, but also the culmination of years of hard work by a group of people still on the fringes of Brazilian society.

“It saved our lives. We could be doing all kinds of bad things right now had it not been for this,” he says, pointing to the stage where a girls-only passinho battle is about to get underway.

There are a number of stories in regards to how passinho first started, but my favourite version is the one involving a drug trafficker and a group of gay men. According to legend, in 2001, the leader of one of Rio’s most notorious favelas, Jacarezinho, was proud of the fact that gay men came regularly to his funk parties. The gay guys, with their flamboyant and outlandish ways, brought with them a different kind of energy to the place, the favela boss thought.

And so one night, with the spot completely packed and music blasting, the drug kingpin – who was also a keen dancer – forgot for a moment that he was a sought-after criminal, put his machine gun to the side, and started mimicking the fast moves the gay men did with their feet. Local kids, for whom the trafficker was a God-like figure, took notice and started emulating his steps. Passinho was, apparently, born.

The genre, just like other Brazilian art forms before it, has been on a bumpy road. Over the years, police have put in major restrictions on the funk parties where dancers perform their moves. The country’s media hasn’t been very supportive either. 

Government officials and law enforcement agents claim passinho glamourises and, at times, enables the lifestyle of the groups who control the drug trade inside Rio’s estimated 700 favelas. 

MCs, dancers and promoters dispute those assertions, however, saying the content of their songs is only a reflection of their surroundings.

“Funk MCs, just like musicians from other genres, sometimes talk about everyday life and unfortunately violence and crime is a reality where they come from,” says Emilio Domingos, director of the 2013 documentary Passinho Dance Off. “The violence and crime are not passinho problems. They are problems of the state.”

Video: Emilio Domingos

It’s a story that repeats itself. In the first decades of the 20th century individuals who sang and danced to samba were also the target of constant police harassment . Samba musicians, mostly black and poor, used the music to talk about the harsh realities at the hands of a society unwilling to welcome them.

In his film, Emilio set out to talk to those at the forefront of the Passinho movement — most of them teenage boys with dreams of Youtube superstardom and of being able to make a living out of what they do best. 

“Doing the film I realised there is a whole generation of Brazilian kids who are not really expected to do much with their lives,” he told me over the phone.  

“But those assumptions are based on society’s prejudices because they exude creativity and they work very hard.”

If today Brazil is a country that hosts events like the Olympics and World Cup – celebrating its diversity for the entertainment of international audiences in the process – the truth is that those in power would rather favela culture remained out of sight.

“This is a fractured society in which the cultural elite chooses to identify itself more closely with what is created in the US than acknowledging a cultural heritage that is typically and genuinely Brazilian,” says Bernardo Conde, an anthropology professor at Rio’s Pontifical Catholic University. 

For Professor Conde, there is a tiny — albeit extremely powerful and influential — group that still longs for Brazil’s post-colonial era, when, fresh from the shackles of Portuguese rule, there was a concerted effort by the ruling class to ethnically and culturally shape the country after the European super-powers of the time.

“If we go back to the 19th century it was clear that there was a project to ‘civilise’ the population, in which the goal was to make Brazil look like France,” he says. “And more than a century later, we are still trying to be Europeans, or Americans. Trying to be something we are not.”

And yet, in spite of the prejudices and preconceptions about what is good and bad art, the future looks bright for passinho dancers and funk MCs. 

“Passinho has the power to transform people,” Anderson tells me, as he is about to get on stage. “Lots of kids who before looked up to drug dealers can now follow in our footsteps instead.”

For Rio passinho dancers, performing on the world’s biggest stage is certainly something to be proud about. But in a society with a well-documented history of persecution and intolerance of young black men, their journey towards acceptance is still far from over, according to Professor Conde.

“Funk and passinho at the Olympics is a small victory in a long journey. The war is far from over.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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