Unconventional and Inspiring, Rio das Pedras Dance Class Empowers Women

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“The women here are warriors,” say countless residents of Rio das Pedras, a favela neighborhood in the West Zone of Rio de Janeiro, and Flavio Moraes’ dance class is one of the few spaces where women can be recognized as just that. Twice a week more than 30 women fill up a room at the Start Academia gym to receive more than just a workout; they gain self-empowerment and solidarity with other women.

A resident of the neighboring West Zone favela City of God, Flavio has been leading dance classes for over 32 years. At the age of three, Flavio enrolled in theater and ballet lessons and pursued a career as a classical ballet dancer as well as a professional actor. His work with ballet and theater, both of which he continues to this day, led him to teach dance classes at gyms in Rio das Pedras, one of Rio’s largest favelas, and Freguesia, a middle-class West Zone neighborhood.

Flavio Moraes' dance class in Rio das Pedras

Flavio’s work with dance as a form of empowerment for women began with his perception of gyms as obsessed with the idea of losing weight. “I began to notice that inside gyms there is a lot of sexism among the professionals themselves,” he explains. Flavio realized that common phrases heard in the gym such as “summer is coming” and “you have to be sexy” may prevent a woman from accepting herself if she’s outside of male-imposed standards of beauty and desirability.

Instead, Flavio’s classes became a form of group therapy out of necessity. Among the women who attend his classes, Flavio says, “there are many women that are victims of domestic violence, and other women that aren’t victims of domestic violence but are slaves to domestic work—women who wake up at dawn, work late, care for their children, and also their husband.” Identifying with each others’ stories, the women in Flavio’s classes form bonds with one another and in this way, “the class [begins] to lose its boundaries as a dance class.”

Flavio Moraes´ dance class in Rio das Pedras

“I think often we professionals at the gym forget that we need to be catalysts for change in people,” says Flavio, who believes in using the platform of his dance class as an opportunity for education. By bringing articles to class and promoting messages of self-assurance, Flavio hopes those who attend his class “learn to respect themselves, learn to respect their freedom… and learn to love themselves above anyone else.”

From the clothes he wears to the strategically chosen music, Flavio works to make women feel safe and able to let loose within each class. He often dresses up in makeup, heels, and short dresses to make outside eyes fall on him instead of on any wrong dance moves made by his students. With regards to music, Flavio “only stretches to Brazilian music, because while [the group] is warming up [he] wants them to think, ‘I identify with this.’” At the beginning of class, Flavio avoids funk and pagode which often “have sexist lyrics.”

Rio das Pedras resident and class participant Jeanne Brandao da Cruz says Flavio’s class is about more than just exercise for her: “I go for many reasons, one reason is for exercise, but also to release energy because his class has such a positive energy.” After classes, “I feel relieved, light, I leave feeling more extroverted, and I can’t stop talking about his class because it’s so good,” she says.

His students are not the only ones who gain from his classes—Flavio himself says: “In every class, I discover sides of myself that I haven’t seen before, that were sleeping, that didn’t exist, or that came to life through [the women who attend my classes].” He says through his students he is constantly re-learning to respect women, to value them, and to allow them to shape the course of his classes.

Flavio’s dance classes transcend the idea that female empowerment only occurs in formal spaces. When each class ends with the message that “no one can love you more than you love yourself,” women leave the local and everyday space of the gym feeling confident. This message is one that perhaps wouldn’t reach these women if it weren’t shared through the everyday locality of the community gym in Rio das Pedras.

“Here people have solidarity, here people become human beings,” sums up Flavio.