Inside a library in a working-class neighborhood in Peru’s capital Lima, about 100 kids in baggy jeans and track pants, hoodies and hightops are participating in an urban dance competition.

And they’re really good.

Sitting on the sidelines is Hector Zapata, who’s in his forties. He has on faded jeans and boots. He works downtown sewing backpacks. This is his 16-year-old son’s first competition.

“At first I thought the steps were kind of weird,” Zapata says. “I said to my son, ‘Are those steps for men or women?’ But I saw that they were really beautiful, and that they could move people.”

Hector’s son learned to dance through an organization called D1. One of the teachers there is Michael Grijalva, who’s 26 and grew up in this neighbourhood, La Victoria.

“Dance was my way out, you know? So that I didn’t get involved in negative things,” Grijalva says. “Living in the neighborhood, daily life there, it was a lot riskier than dancing.”

It all started with a Peruvian ballet dancer named Vania Masías and some creative kids. Nine years ago, Masías was on vacation from her job as prima ballerina with Ballet Ireland. One day she was stuck in Lima traffic, and came across some of Michael’s friends. They were collecting change from drivers.

“They were doing something different,” Masías says. “They were doing acrobatics. I’ve been an acrobat all my life, [so] I know how hard it is to do it. They were not like simple acrobatics. They were really difficult ones.”

So Masías stopped her car, got out, and started asking them how they learned. They told her they did it by themselves, practicing on sand dunes outside the city. They figured it was a good way to make money and help their families.

So Masías started to think. The kids already had physical strength and drive. What if she taught them how to do urban dance?

She organized what she thought would be a few workshops. But she kept pushing off her return date to Ireland. Finally, Masías just quit her job. Today D1, the organization she started, is huge, with a handful of dance schools and cultural centers scattered across Lima.   

Diego Ortega has been studying at D1 for a year and a half. At 17, he’s tall and lanky. When he stops to talk, he continues to flick his arms and hands in precise little patterns, like he can’t stop dancing for even a few minutes.

Diego says he started going to D1 workshops around the time that he started going to parties and drinking with his friends. But soon he decided to just focus on dance.

“There’s nothing wrong with having fun,” he says, “but it’s also good to do something you really enjoy.”

In addition to free workshops like the one Diego started out in, D1 has a tuition-free training program that he’s now enrolled in and a professional dance company. It also offers day classes for the public. A lot of those day students come from privileged backgrounds. Vania Masías says there’s often some culture shock, and even class issues — but mostly among parents, who’d prefer the old status quo.

“There’s some girl who falls in love with the teacher, or they dance in the company together, and the mother comes and says, 'you can’t do this, why [is] my daughter now with this type of people,'” she says. She tells them to get used to it: "This is the new Peru."

The instructor Michael Grijalva, who was part of the first group to graduate, competes all over Latin America. Recently, he won a competition in Brazil. He makes a good salary for Peru — between $700 and $1100 a month, depending on his workload.

“The chance presented itself to earn a living by dancing,” he says. “I really hope that, in a few years, people from neighborhoods like mine will be able to say, ‘I want to earn a living with my art,’ that this will be normal.”

    This story was produced in partnership with Radio Ambulante.

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