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2016 Rio Summer Olympics

Best Dancers of the Favelas Compete for Their Own Gold

IMAGE: Raayane Dos Santos

'I pray a lot before I start my performance,' Raayane Dos Santos says after winning a Passinho dance-off Saturday in Rio de Janeiro. Jim Seida / NBC News

RIO DE JANEIRO — In the newly renovated port district at the heart of Rio's historic center, a group of young Brazilian passinho dancers stepped onto the stage to compete for a chance to win a gold medal of their own.

While a global TV audience watched the exciting final day of full competition at the Olympic Stadium, hundreds of Rio residents gathered to loudly encourage the best dancers from their favelas.

Passinho, or "little step," is a street dance that evolved from funk carioca, a type of music born in the Rio slums decades ago.

Dancing Their Way to a Better Life 0:47

Attention turned to the genre after a dancer named Beicola posted a video of himself and friends demonstrating it at a barbecue in Jacare in 2008. The video went viral, and soon enough, dancers from other favelas began to upload their own homemade clips to show off their skills.

The scene gained wider exposure when it morphed into battle-style competitions called Batalha do Passinho. Hundreds of contestants — some as young as 6 — enter these battles, which are held in school gyms or outside squares in various favelas, and compete for the King of Passinho crown and cash prizes.

Dancers are paired off, and each has 45 seconds to perform for a panel of three judges. The judges, themselves passinho dancers, decide who proceeds to the next round based on technique and skill. The judges also look for dancers who have unique styles.

Early this month, passinho dancers took center stage during the opening ceremony. And Saturday, 16 teenagers from Rio's poorest neighborhoods battled it out on Olympic Boulevard as families watched anxiously.

"I pray a lot before I start my performance," said Raayane Dos Santos, winner of the female category. "I think to myself: I am going to do my best."

Dos Santos, 18, has been dancing since she was 15 years old. She trained at home by watching YouTube videos of other Brazilian dancers. As soon as she got the hang of it, she started to upload her own videos on Facebook.

Dos Santos, who hails from a poor area of Duque de Caixas, a municipality of Rio, walked away with a cash prize of 3,000 reais, about $940.

Dance is becoming a viable future for kids growing up in these poor communities. Dos Santos, almost speechless about winning so much money, said the prize will go a long way for her family, helping her mom out with bills and buying things they don't have at home.

IMAGE: Passinho dance-off
Thousands of spectators watch a young Brazilian compete in a Passinho dance-off Saturday on Olympic Avenue in downtown Rio de Janeiro. Jim Seida / NBC News