Manoel Pereira Costa is a star on this sprawling mountainside in Rio de Janeiro.
No matter the nook or cranny, neighbors are eager to greet him anywhere he goes in maze-like Rocinha, one of the biggest and best-known slums, or favelas, that dot the city landscape.
As Rio gears up to host the first-ever Olympics in South America, bringing all manner of sport to a country best known for soccer, Costa is revered for helping local youth in the troubled neighborhood through capoeira, a Brazilian martial art, reports Reuters.
Over the past three decades, he has run neighborhood workshops that give kids a chance to immerse themselves in a tradition with roots in the dance, fighting and percussion practices of Africans brought to Brazil as slaves.
In a favela with a history of violence between police and drug gangs, or armed battles between traffickers themselves, capoeira is an outlet that gives kids a sense of community – its practice a collective exercise blending characteristics of drum circles, sparring and tag-team gymnastics.
“There is a very negative image of this neighborhood,” says 56-year-old Costa. “We more than anything want to teach about community, about citizenry, so that kids understand that they are part of something.”
Costa, or “Master Manel” as his students call their coach and mentor, came to Rio at the age of 19 from the northeastern state of Bahia, where capoeira is most traditional.
Currently with some 300 students, Costa does not charge for the courses. His program, known as “Awaken Capoeira,” instead relies on financing from donors that include the city government and local merchants.
Costa’s thousands of former students have gone into fields including television and modeling. Others have gone on to become teachers themselves, in Rio and across Brazil.
Several, including a son of Costa’s now living in Norway, are even teaching capoeira abroad. They have helped organize trips for Costa and some of his students to perform in countries including Italy, Germany and the Netherlands.
With thousands of athletes now descending on Rio for the Olympics, which start Aug. 5, Costa sees another opportunity for his students to feel a connection to something bigger.
“Even in this community, with our problems, we are part of the world,” Costa says. “And the students have to know that they can step out into it, that they can do anything they want.”