Only When I Dance is a documentary film about two very talented students at a dance school, Centro de Dança Rio, in Méier, a poor neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. The school, established by Mariza Estrella, a former ballerina, encourages students from favelas to learn classical ballet. Mariza says that the best dancers in Brazil come from the favelas because they have the drive to use dance as a way to move up in the world. Thus ballet serves these students in much the same way as boxing has served many people from impoverished backgrounds in the United States.
The school’s most talented student is 18-year-old Irlan Santos de Silva, who grew up in Complexo do Alemão, a group of favelas just west of Galeão International Airport. In recent years, Complexo do Alemão has been subjected to large-scale police actions that have resulted in dozens of deaths. The film crew needed to make arrangements with the local drug dealers for permission to film in the favela. Irlan looks to dancing as a way out of the favela, both for himself and for his parents. His parents were surprised initially by his interest in dance, but eventually became supportive and made substantial sacrifices to support his studies.
Another student of considerable promise is Isabela Coracy, a 17-year-old from Cachambi, another poor neighborhood of Rio. She is the only black student in the school. Mariza says that, because of race prejudice, black students have no chance of making successful careers in classical dance in Brazil. If Isabela is to succeed in a dance career, she will have to find employment abroad by winning an international dance contest. Note, however, that black dancers do perform in some of Brazil’s premiere dance companies, such as Grupo Corpo and Companhia de Dança Deborah Colker.
Both Irlan and Isabela are entered by the school in contests in Lausanne and New York. Irlan wins a fellowship to study with an internationally-known ballet company in New York. Isabela does not win because, she is told, she needs to lose weight. One can see from one of the trailers that she has done so after the contest.
Both Irlan’s and Isabela’s families are strongly supported, and both families make difficult sacrifices to support their students in the school and in the contests.