SAO PAULO -- Past the graffiti-covered overpass and subway tracks, in a slum penned in by high-rises, 8-year-old Gabriela Aparecida fixes her curly hair into a bun as she waits for a ride to her new favorite activity: ballet. Peeling back the tarp over the doorway, the skinny girl reaches out into the dirt alleyway to hug the church volunteer arriving to take her to dance class.
Growing up amid drug dealers and addicts, Gabriela has yet to learn how to read. Yet she and other girls from a rough neighborhood known as a "cracolandia," or crackland, are learning the graceful art courtesy of a local church group that also offers them food, counseling and Bible studies. The class is among several groups where young dancers hope to catch the eye of a respected Brazilian ballerina who recruits dozens of disadvantaged girls for an annual workshop.
Twice a week, more than 20 girls, ages 5 through 12, board a Volkswagen van for a 10-minute ride to class, where they put on pink or black tights and ballet shoes donated by a dancewear store.
On a recent day, instructor Joana Machado played a jaunty tune of flutes and piano. Sitting on the floor, the girls formed a circle with their legs out in front of them and knees straight. They flexed their feet and then stretched their toes down toward the floor, over and over again while Machado corrected the younger ones' form.
The time spent focused on grace and control is far removed from the girls' daily lives. Many are being raised by parents who are recovering from or are addicted to drugs. Some girls live with relatives who are dealers, or they have been abandoned and taken in by neighbors. Some have experienced violence.
Girls growing up in favelas are more likely to become pregnant as teens, and the last 2010 census found the rate of illiteracy was twice as high in the slums than in other areas of Brazil.
"We see all kinds of stories here. From girls who haven't showered in days, who don't know how to brush their teeth, who are locked inside their homes all day," said Machado, instructor and head of the project. "I feel always responsible for their lives, always worried about what may happen."
Machado just opened the studio named "House of Dreams" in the neighborhood, relocating the class from a more commercial area of Sao Paulo. Machado herself was raised by a drug addict, who later recovered, in the northeastern state of Bahia.
Ballet dancer Priscilla Yokoi, whose performances have taken her to 15 countries including the United States, recently visited and chose five of the girls for the annual workshop. It allows 150 disadvantaged children to take four days of classes with foreign ballerinas and perform a show in October. The school Gabriela attends doesn't accept boys, but some of the other groups that Yokoi visits do.
Yokoi recently traveled to another slum in Sao Paulo where an audition at a basketball court attracted about 40 dancers and dozens of onlookers from the neighborhood. Some of the girls who took up dancing at a local studio sat on the cold concrete while Yokoi looked for the prettiest pointed feet.
At the workshop in Paulinia, a city north of Sao Paulo, Yokoi brings dance scouts from the only school the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet operates outside of Russia. Yokoi said she wanted to expand on efforts like the Bolshoi school, which opened in 2000 in the southern Brazilian city of Joinville and accepts only a handful of students each year.
"The way I see ballet in these forgotten areas is that it brings children hope. They audition, they participate in a workshop and they are more motivated," Yokoi said. "I see my project as a window into what ballet can become in Brazil if we find talent within these communities."
Russians largely introduced classical ballet to Brazil in the 1920s, when dancers began immigrating and established dance companies in cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. The Bolshoi school in Brazil has given birth to a new generation of Brazilian ballet dancers, such as Deise Mendonca, who performs with the State Street Ballet company in Santa Barbara, California. Earlier this year, she brought tears to the eyes of judges on the Fox television show "So You Think You Can Dance."
Mendonca's father was a mail carrier and her mother unemployed when the family moved to Joinville so she could join the Bolshoi school as a scholarship student.
"We struggled. We had no money," Mendonca said. "But it changes your mindset. Many doors open for future opportunities."
Back in the "crackland" studio, some of the girls make faces and giggle at their reflections in the large mirror next to the barre. The barre work requires more concentration, instructor Machado tells them as they bend their knees into what is known in ballet parlance as a grand plie. Keep your chin and chest lifted, but not too much, she tells them. Keep your back firm, not arched.
"You think it is easy. It looks easy. It's not, and it hurts," Machado tells three sisters who joined the group earlier this year.
After class, the girls get in the van to return home. At the last stop, 8-year-old Sandra Alves doesn't want to get off and she hides her face in her knees. "Just pretend I am not here."
But eventually, she has to go. "It's a nightmare. It's a nightmare," she sings as she glides side to side and disappears into the gritty dark hallway.