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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.

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.