The center moves to the edges: culture in Rio

Limelight for a new generation

The passinho is IT

The blog has covered various aspects of how culture is changing in Rio as the city integrates the formal and informal city.  The process of discovery has been gradual, moving from a conversation with Fred Coelho to a mind-boggling encounter with the youth of Cidade de  Deus with Marcus Faustini, to experimental theater in Complexo do Alemão, to an art exhibit in Complexo da Maré.

Slowly it’s become clear that Rio de Janeiro –as perhaps an example of a much broader transformation– is turning inside out.

Julio Ludemir

“I used to be an expert on violence in Rio de Janeiro,” recalls writer Julio Ludemir. “Then, when I was working in 2008 with Marcus Faustini who was Culture Secretary in [the bedroom community of] Nova Iguaçu, I thought, ‘There’s something different here.’ A young pregnant girl was choosing her baby’s name using Google Translate.”

She chose a Hungarian name.

Former Communist and student leader Lindberg Farias was mayor of Nova Iguaçu at the time. As the city’s Social Development Coordinator, his wife Maria Antonia Goulart was wreaking change in one of the poorest areas of metropolitan Rio. “Next to Maria Antonia’s office was a big room occupied by 300 young people. These were kids in charge of part of the city’s communication effort. It was an enormous Lan House (internet café),” says Ludemir.

Clayton, 19 hopes to become a professional dancer

“These kids were more antenados (informed) and more included than I was. They were taking books I’d never heard of that had just come out in English, and putting them into Google Translate so they could read them. The Lan House was competing with school, with family, with things they were supposed to be doing to prepare for adult life” he adds.

The violence is still with us, but Ludemir and others say it’s receding into the background as young people from Rio’s favelas and poor bedroom communities — now with improved income and education– finally discover they can afford the time to dream.

“It’s like the sixties in the U.S. and Europe,” he explains. “With the Baby Boomers, the counterculture. For the first time in Brazil’s history, young people who aren’t from the traditional middle class are expressing themselves.” Carioca funk, he adds, is getting the same kind of sidelong looks from older more conservative folks, that Elvis did in the late fifties.

Possible explanation for young girls’ absence from passinho dancing

And what the kids want more than anything is to be noticed. This was key to Luis Eduardo Soares’ analysis of the crime situation in Rio in the late nineties and early 2000s, in his memoir Meu Casaco de General about being José Mariano Beltrame’s predecessor under Governor Anthony Garotinho (a populist par excellence now trying to make a comeback by way of an alliance between his daughter and former Rio mayor César Maia’s son, to run for mayor and vice-mayor in October). Soares pointed out that the drug traffic attracted kids because it made them visible.

A decade later, enter YouTube and carioca funk, the soundtrack for passinho. Do a search for passinho on YouTube and you get more than 29,000 possibilities.

Today, the kids’ power is staggering.  This was the blog’s top post in the past quarter; it’s not about pacification, or corruption. And the stats show the boys are still cruising, looking for information about the murder of passinho king Gambá, usually on Sundays when Regina Casé’s marvelous Esquenta!  program– where he appeared– is on.


“I have access to 20,000 young people,” says Ludemir. Last September, he and Rafael Soares organized the first Batalha do Passinho,or Passinho Battle, in which kids from all over the city met to compete.

Passinho is different from most other Brazilian dances in that it focuses not on shoulders or hips, but on the feet–like the frevo of Recife,  from the north of Brazil. It may have started there in fact, during a show of the Cidade de Deus carioca funk group Os Hawaianos, when a drunk got up on stage and danced the frevo. Or the passinho may have its roots in a dance held in the North Zone Jacarezinho favela, where a a zoned-out criminal went in for some fancy footwork that demanded imitation… “It’s the rediscovery of black [culture],” says Ludemir. “of the gingado in all its plenitude”.

The funk music used for the passinho is the wholesome sort, without bald sexual reference or the exaltation of violence. Even so, some kids wear shirts with firearms drawn on them.

The latest Batalha relied on internet voting in the first round, and yesterday in the pacified favela of Morro do Salgueiro a jury chose three dancers who won cash prizes of up to US$1,600 equivalent. The best sixteen boys will perform next weekend during the Viradão Cultural series of cultural events around the city.

Style is crucial

For the first round, the kids uploaded videos of themselves to YouTube, made using cellphones and webcams, then voted in the tens of thousands. They also use the internet to scout out choreography. Yesterday’s round suggested that the passinho may be the most post-modern of dances, with recognizable elements from mime, frevo, street dancing, striptease, belly-dancing, break dancing, ballet and circus contortionism. Boys wear skinny jeans and glittery baseball caps (backwards or forward), go barefoot, and tweeze their eyebrows.


Yet to be seen is just where the education, internet access and improved self-esteem will take these kids, most of whom are unable to think much beyond moving their feet in unusual ways. “I do it because I like to dance, there’s nothing else to do and it’s fun to play around with my friends,” says Clayton, age 19. He has finished school but isn’t working, and doesn’t know what he wants to do besides dancing. His older brother, an army sargent, bought a computer for the family five years ago.

As some boys left the favela after the Batalha was over, pacification police stopped and frisked them. “It’s because bad elements might mix in with them, you never know,” a soldier told RioRealblog. “We have to know who is going in and out and what they might be carrying.”

Proud mom

It is in the nature of popular cultural phenomena that they tend to be adopted, curried and taken over by the powers that be. Samba and carioca funk have both graduated from the streets to the stage. But the passinho, says Julio Ludemir, may be different, because the times are different. Kids go to the Saturday night funk dance in Cidade Alta to dance, not to watch people on a stage, he notes. Today, he adds, Facebook is the stage.

It’s hard to say just how long this will be the case. Starting next month is the Police Pacification Units Passinho Battle, sponsored by the Rio division of TV Globo.

About Rio real

American journalist, writer, editor who's lived in Rio de Janeiro for 20 years.
This entry was posted in Brazil, Transformation of Rio de Janeiro / Transformação do Rio de Janeiro and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The center moves to the edges: culture in Rio

  1. San-Diego M. says:

    thank you so much for giving me more insight. i am an American, but i am a fan of baile funk and like to proclaim myself a funkeiro. this was helpful.

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