Vania Masias vividly remembers the first time she saw acrobats somersaulting at a traffic light on a visit to her home city in 2004.
She was at the peak of an illustrious career as a ballet dancer in Europe — but before long, she would leave it all behind it to nurture the raw talent she found in the streets of the Peruvian capital.
At the time, Masias was the principal dancer with Ballet Ireland and considering an offer from Cirque du Soleil. But she was so inspired by the abilities of the teenage acrobats she encountered in Lima she set up a pilot project to teach them to dance — not ballet, but hip-hop.
Masias — who comes from a privileged background — says that rather than pass on a handful of change, she felt compelled to reach across Lima’s gaping class divide and give the young acrobats an opportunity.
“I had to find a way to reduce that social gap between us,” she said. “Dance connected me with myself so I thought it was the perfect tool to connect us and to start breaking paradigms.”
It began on the self-taught gymnasts’ home turf in Ventanilla, a tough neighborhood near the city’s port. Masias arranged to meet them on the shanty’s sand dunes where they practiced their flips. The response was overwhelming.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
“I thought I was going to meet with three kids,” she said. “When I arrived, there were more than a hundred kids. At that point I said, there’s a lot of hunger here.”
In 2005 Masias formed the D1 Cultural Association: part dance school, part non-profit organization seeking to create young leaders and promote positive social change through the arts.
D1’s social arm, which is 85 percent self-sufficient thanks to the school’s private classes, works with 7,000 children and young people in the capital and has schools in the Peruvian cities of Ica and Trujillo. More than 100,000 children have passed through the program over the years, says Masias.
Among them is Eddy Revilla, who at 13 became his family’s breadwinner somersaulting at traffics lights in downtown Lima.
“I was earning 300 soles (about US$92) a week and here in Peru — that’s money! I could help my family and they started to thank me,” says Revilla, now 25.
But after blacking out in mid-air doing a somersault, Revilla auditioned for D1, and is now a member of the group’s professional dance company.
“When we started nobody thought that you could make a living from dance. Now it’s an amazing opportunity for young people,” says Revilla, who also teaches hip-hop to paying students at D1’s dance studio.
Tiara Tagle, 19, is the dance company’s youngest member. With no previous formal training she has learnt street jazz, modern, classical and folk dance styles and now teaches break dancing as part of D1’s social program in schools and poorer neighborhoods across the sprawling city.
“In the same way that dance helped me find myself, we are using dance to help the kids be themselves and loosen up,” she says. “It’s about giving back.”
Masias acknowledges that only a few of the young students will eventually follow a career in dance, but she says that the act of dancing itself gives them the confidence to transform their circumstances — however disadvantaged.
“Art is a powerful tool to change the problems we have. I’m talking about discrimination, lack of self-esteem, a lack of opportunities,” she says.
In Lima, where migrant families make up 80 percent of the city’s inhabitants, Masias has encouraged her dancers to embrace their provincial roots through fusing traditional Peruvian and urban styles.
“It’s in their blood, in their veins,” she says. Dancers who had been ashamed of their origins “now fight to say where they come from,” she says.
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