Founder's Blog

Vania quote

by Vania Deonizio on September 26, 2016

Job Journey, What I Learned -- When I was a teenager, my family moved to a remote and rural part of Brazil. The adults needed money for the monthly house expenses, so they sent me to work at a nearby tomato plantation. I had no interest in doing this work, but in Brazil, when your elders tell you to do something, you don’t question them.

After a day in the fields, I knew I couldn’t continue. I had stood for ten hours in the heat, back bent, tying tomato vines to sticks—unable to adjust my position or take a break. My back ached and I was exhausted from the work and the hour-long walk each way to get to the plantation. That night I summoned my courage and, for the first time, told my mother that I couldn’t obey her. I would do anything to help the family, but I wouldn’t go back to picking tomatoes. The next week I was working just ten minutes from home, making bricks at a local factory—still physically intense out in the sun, but not quite as backbreaking as tomato tying.

That was the moment I realized that my true calling would lie in using my heart, brain, and passion for dance. I resolved that I would devote myself to my education, eventually creating a better life for myself and my family. I am grateful that today I am doing my dream job— leading Dancin Power—but before that, there was a lot I had to learn to do first. And so began a series of more than 30 jobs on three continents and in every field, you can think of. I’ve been a barista, a bank teller, a travel agent, a hospital worker, and a dancer/choreographer/teacher. I’ve tutored people in Portuguese. I’ve coordinated airplane operations. I’ve worked as a construction worker stripping wallpaper, and have helped run million-dollar fundraising campaigns.

And while leading Dancin Power has been my favorite work, there was one job that came pretty close. About ten years ago, I worked as a performing arts teacher at a public K-8 school in East Oakland. The majority of students were immigrants. At first, the job was incredibly challenging: most of the kids had no interest in learning about the aspects of Brazilian culture that I was trying to convey. They wanted to learn and practice hip-hop, and nothing else! At first, they were very confrontational, fighting with and bullying each other and refusing to do any of the classroom activities. On the first day, one kid stole my cellphone to get my attention and threw it into the street! What was I getting myself into?

Faced with this behavior, I knew I couldn’t just force my curriculum on them. I had to create a community in which they could take ownership of their learning and help one another to grow. Rather than getting discouraged by the way they were responding to me, I remained strong and showed them that I was there to stay and that I believed in and cared about them and their future.

As time went by, we began to create our own kind of creative and expressive classroom. At the beginning of each class, after a guided breathing exercise, I asked the students to reflect on their days and how they were feeling, and then to write about or draw their emotions. After a dance lesson, we regrouped and reflected again on how we felt. The students wrote about what they were grateful for in that moment, then pinned it onto the Gratitude Wall, where they could be reminded of the positivity in their lives. During Women’s History Month we discussed powerful women leaders, particularly ones from the students’ home countries. The students, mostly girls, interviewed the strong women in their lives—moms, aunts, grandmas—about their struggles to come to this country in search of the American Dream, and to provide the kids with opportunities they never had back home. In class they sat in a circle and shared the stories they’d heard, forming bonds of understanding and support with one another as they listened and responded. Many of these kids were from Central America, and many of their parents had stories similar. I would never have thought in a million years that a woman of my background and upbringing would be in the United States, helping young kids with struggles similar to mine. I was totally blown away.

As time went on, the students became more supportive of and encouraging each other. There were no more hair-pulling fights in the hallway and incidents of bullying decreased tremendously. The older students helped the young and class became more enjoyable as we built a community of supportive people who cared about one another.

I loved working with young people at that school and building a community of trust and support through art. My work today with Dancin Power has precisely these elements: I am helping children to feel uplifted, strong, and empowered through the power of creative expression, particularly dance. I’ve done a lot of different types of work over the past decades, and I’ve always known when the work was right for me. Looking back, I can see that the tenacity and self-confidence I mustered in telling my mother I wouldn’t go back to the fields has impacted the career I have today. Fundraising and marketing for Dancin Power have required a tremendous amount of tenacity — a quality I developed by been deeply connected to this work. Training more than 50 teachers in the Dancin Power teaching approach and philosophy has allowed me to flex those teaching muscles I gained in East Oakland and create another community of support. I am beyond passionate about the work I do today, and feel committed to doing everything I can to make sure Dancin Power continues to transform lives every day. This NBC - Bay Area Proud Segment highlights the inception of Dancin Power and my personal connection with its mission and work:


 by Vania Deonizio on March 26, 2016

Welcome to my first blog entry! In honor of the tenth year anniversary of Dancin Power today, March 26, 2016, I am starting this blog. Hi, I am Vania Deonizio: the executive director and founder of Dancin Power, a Bay Area-based nonprofit that teaches free, interactive dance lessons to hospitalized kids and their families, helping to improve their quality of life. By using the power of music and movement, Dancin Power transforms the hospital rooms and hallways from a sterile and impersonal setting to one of healing and vibrant ambiance. Dancin Power helps kids feel happier! Check out this short video to see the Dancin Power's incredible stars, the patients, in action!

It’s taken a lot of hard work and quick thinking to keep Dancin Power going, but we’re here and going strong. When I was first starting the organization ten years ago, trying to figure out nonprofit legal jargon, funding, and how to get our services to as many kids as possible, I would have loved to read about others navigating the same world of challenges. So here I go: this is a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to create and sustain a small, but impactful organization. What it’s like being an immigrant female executive director of color in the nonprofit world, and what in my life has led me, personally, to this point: doing my dream work that has touched the lives of so many children and their families.

My life has had its fair share of both successes and setbacks, which you’ll read all about in this blog. I was born in Rio de Janeiro-Brazil. Our family moved from the city to another state, Minas Gerais, to escape the terrifying violence in our neighborhood, and made a home for ourselves in a remote, isolated area with no running water or electricity, where we walked for four hours each day to get to school. At the age of ten, I endured major abuse by an adult in my life. At eighteen I became, with both joy and fear, a single mother. In the face of these and many other challenges, I found in music and dance, which I’d loved since my first Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro at age four, the outlet I needed to express myself and to cope with my emotions and fears. With the love and care of my strong and resilient grandmother, I kept going, moving at twenty-seven to the United States where I learned English and started a life for myself, alone.

Now I use my passion for music and dance every day: to help other children who, like I did, find themselves in a situation they never asked for. Children in hospital rooms often feel trapped, depressed, and terrified, hooked to IVs and kept secluded from their school, friends, and family. Carrying the knowledge and empathy I’ve gained through challenges and adventures, I’ve managed to build an organization that nurtures these children and helps them feel both healthier and happier, teaching them dance steps and techniques from cultures all over the world and encouraging their artistic expression.  

I am grateful to start sharing my life story with you, and, I hope, to show through my own experiences that tremendous hard work, chutzpah, and tenacity have, despite adversity, allowed me to realize my dreams. Dancin Power, my dream of a project, is ten years old and I can hardly believe it!

Stay tuned for new stories of life in California and tales of past adventures!