By Ernesto Falcón

The success that led the World Critics’ Association to recognize the Balé Folclórico of Bahia as the best dance company on the planet is the result of a lot of dedication, discipline, perseverance, and determination. A lot of daily sweat and exercise over the course of two decades and a half of work. An aside that, all the talent, of course.


Different from other dance companies, the BFB was already born with a focus on the idea of professionalization as a way to survive through art. What at the beginning might be a company centered on artistic and cultural endeavors soon evolved into a project that also had a social aspect.


This is because, from the beginning, the dance corps was made up of bricklayers, mechanics, painters, and workers who did heavy labor during the day and transformed into stars at night. It wasn’t a simple task to sustain a ballet of around 60 people, including musicians, dancers, costume designers, and technical crew. People who associated the artistic work with the necessity of material survival. This challenge imposed upon us an immediate professionalization.


Perhaps this was the difference and the motivation for the great leap that the BFB took. The understanding that overcoming was absolutely indispensable. And that it wasn’t an easy thing to do. But that leap happened, thanks to the competence and the professionalism of the group. The victories kept coming, step by step, show by show. Then came the first awards. The BFB established itself in a context that demanded excellence. Promoting itself and its cast, it amplified its presence in concentric circles. Putting itself out there everywhere it performed, the BFB always surprised, attracting the attention of the press and specialized reviewers.


One fact, perhaps, can explain this recipe for winning over the public: the combination of the expressive force of popular culture and a sophisticated aesthetic orientation from the directors of the company; the foundation of an anthropological reading of art and a refined reading of popular culture, all packaged in the creativity of the artistic language of dance. This explains the public recognition that the company has obtained.


This critical perception of the reality led Vavá Botelho and his Artistic Director, José Carlos Santos (Zebrinha), once the headquarters of the BFB in the Pelourinho begin to function, to incorporate into the company a school for training future dancers. In the black neighborhood of the Pelourinho, full of street kids, many of whom have nothing to do all day, Vavá and Zebrinha decided to bet on this sociocultural work: “the street kids wouldn’t allow us to work normally. They’d yell, throw rocks, do anything to disrupt the course of activity in our rehearsals. So we thought: why not bring these kids in to see our work?”


From that point on, the junior company of the Balé Folclórico da Bahia was formed, like a minor league soccer team. Street boys and girls took their place on the stage and were soon elevated to the level of quality artists. Currently, there are more than 300 children taking part in the program, with classes in modern dance, classical ballet, Afro-Brazilian dance, contemporary dance, and rhythmic gymnastics. Two hours a day of study, three days a week. All of which takes place under advanced pedagogical orientation, which awakens in the children a consciousness of their own identity and excites their curiosity about the world through dance and art. What’s more: it opens a new horizon and new perspectives so that these boys and girls can start a new life.


“When they leave the BFB, they go on to become professionals in modern dance, and with great success, because they have something different, which is the technique of Afro-Brazilian dance, which many other dancers don’t have,” notes the Artistic Director of the company, Zebrinha.


The social dimension of the work isn’t a secondary aspect. It is an essential part of the project. “I entered a portal. I ended up completing the life mission that destiny had prepared for me. It’s what I’ve done with this work, which isn’t only artistic, but which is strongly tied to the social question, to the advancement of the human being, and which ended up being the basis of our  company. Without the social work, this company wouldn’t exist,” asserts Vavá Botelho.


In fact, hundreds of street kids who take part in the preparatory school – and who would probably be in a risky and vulnerable social situation if they didn’t have this opportunity – are living, body and soul, through a profound change. Many of them are shining on the world’s stages. Others have worked their way up to the main dance corps of the BFB, becoming dance stars. Every year, these new talents emerge in the Pelourinho, right in the middle of the plaza where black slaves used to cry out as they were whipped, tied to the tree trunk that gave its name to the colonial neighborhood. Art and dance, thus, created the transformations that they are capable of, transforming these street kids into great artists and showing, through practice, that the house saint can also perform miracles, and what art is truly capable of.