In Lagos, a Homegrown Ballet Academy Leaps Into the Spotlight
In Lagos, a Homegrown Ballet Academy Leaps Into the Spotlight
In June, a minute-long video featuring a young ballet student dancing in the rain began circulating on the internet. As the rain falls, forming puddles between the uneven slabs of concrete on which he dances, Anthony Mmesoma Madu, 11, turns pirouette after pirouette.
Though the conditions for such dancing are all wrong — dangerous, even — he twirls on, flying barefoot into an arabesque and landing it. He indulges the camera with a smile, but only for a moment, before assuming a look of fierce determination, lifting his eyes toward the sky, his lithe arms and graceful fingers following closely along.
The wide reach of the video — it has been seen more than more than 20 million times on social media platforms — has turned a spotlight on the unlikely story of a ballet school in a poor suburb of Lagos, Nigeria: the Leap of Dance Academy.
Founded in 2017, the academy has transformed the lives of its students, affording them a place to dance and to dream. And in the last few months, it has inspired influential people in ballet to lend a hand. Seemingly overnight, a world of opportunity has opened up: for the students, scholarships and invitations to attend prestigious schools and companies overseas; and for the school, sizable donations, which will allow for building a proper space, outfitted with a real dance floor.
For now, the Leap of Dance Academy is housed at the home of its founder, Daniel Owoseni Ajala, in Ajangbadi, Ojo, on the western outskirts of Lagos. Every day after school, Mr. Ajala’s 12 students walk to his apartment, where he pushes aside his furniture and spreads a thin vinyl sheet over the cement floor for class, throwing open the doors and windows to let in the light.
Against swaths of candy-colored chiffon — intended to make the humble setting a little more festive — students move through their lessons in small groups, leaning against a short, stationary ballet barre and craning their necks to watch Mr. Ajala, or an overseas instructor on Zoom, give corrections.
Much of this is filmed and posted to the school’s Instagram feed, where the students’ joy is evident in each video, their movements precise and praiseworthy — as the comments, hearts and trembling star emojis left by their fans attest.
In the early days of Leap of Dance, many Ajangbadi families were suspicious of ballet. The form’s strict, regimented movements were very different from the more fluid African dances they knew well — as were the skimpy costumes and painful-looking shoes, which, they soon learned, could leave feet cracked, calloused and bruised.
“In the beginning, people kept saying, ‘What are they doing?!’” Mr. Ajala said. “I had to convince them that ballet wasn’t a bad or indecent dance, but actually something that requires a lot of discipline that would have positive effects on the lives of their children outside the classroom. I always say, it’s not only about the dance itself — it’s about the value of dance education.”
When Mr. Ajala, 29, founded Leap of Dance three years ago, he was a self-taught recreational dancer with a dream: to open a ballet school for students who were serious about learning the art form and possibly pursuing it professionally one day. “I wanted, more than anything, to give that opportunity to those younger than myself so they wouldn’t miss their chance like I did,” he said, in a recent Zoom call. “It was too bad that I was as old as I was when I realized I wanted to dance.”
As a child, Mr. Ajala became obsessed with ballet after watching “Save the Last Dance,” the 2001 movie about a lapsed ballet dancer (Julia Stiles) who moves to the South Side of Chicago after her mother dies; she falls in love with a classmate (Sean Patrick Thomas) who shares her passion for dance and helps nurse her dormant dream of becoming a ballerina back to life.
Though he found the love story formulaic and glib, Mr. Ajala said he was captivated by the movement he saw onscreen and, perhaps even more, by the discipline and sacrifice that was evidently required to master it. Ballet appealed to him for another reason, too: It wasn’t widely taught or practiced in Nigeria. “I wanted to be different,” he said. “I loved that ballet is not common here. When you talk about dance in Nigeria, it’s like hitting one-way traffic: Everybody does the same thing, and they all end up in the same place.”
He taught himself what he could by watching lessons and professional companies on YouTube; he also signed up for a few crash courses in ballet at a local dance center. When it came time for college, he studied business administration at Lagos State University at the request of his parents, intending to pursue dance on the side. But after taking his final exams, he decided his calling lay elsewhere: in dance. “I had to explain to my friends and family that sometimes white-collar jobs are not the picture they paint themselves to be,” he said. “They lack heart.”
And so the Leap of Dance Academy was born, its name a nod to the leap of faith Mr. Ajala took in leaving more secure job prospects behind. Turning again to online platforms, he joined an international dance teacher network on Facebook. He posted a note explaining that he was starting a ballet school in Nigeria that would provide free instruction and asked if anyone had used or unwanted dance kits they could send him, since many families in Ajangbadi wouldn’t be able to afford costumes. Soon, he was put in touch with someone from Traveling Tutus, a nonprofit organization in Florida that donates gently used dance wear to students around the world.
On Facebook, he also connected with three instructors who would become instrumental in running Leap of Dance: Linda Hurkmans, the director of the San Jose Dance Theater in California; and Thalema Williams, in St. Croix, and Mary Hubbs, in Brooklyn, Mich., who teach ballet at their own private studios. They gave him lessons online, helping him improve his technique so he could safely instruct his students.
Now they do the same for the kids, waking up early once a week to give lessons while it’s still light outside in Nigeria — Mr. Ajala’s apartment complex gets electricity only every two days — so the students can train and make their way home before dark.
The three women have also helped Mr. Ajala manage the overwhelming attention the school has received since Anthony’s video went viral, which included reposts from celebrities like Viola Davis, outreach from major companies like American Ballet Theater and New York City Ballet, and support from ballet lovers all over the world, many of them former dancers who were blown away by Anthony’s performance.
Fade Ogunro, a Nigerian journalist and media personality (and founder of Bookings Africa, a pan-African talent agency), was one such person. “As a former ballerina, I’m jealous of his beautiful lines, his toe points and his effortless gracefulness,” she said of Anthony on Twitter. “I want to pay for his entire formal education anywhere in the world until he graduates from Uni.”
After talks with the school, Ms. Ogunro, who grew up in Lagos and London, said she had committed to sponsor Anthony’s academic education (his public school uniforms, textbooks and tutoring, and his college fees thereafter) as well as another student’s. “It’s very, very hard to get formal ballet training in Nigeria,” she said in an interview. “There are maybe one or two other schools, like Kingdom Ballet Company” — in Benin City — “that take it seriously, but there’s nothing like the Leap of Dance Academy, which trains its students to dance professionally for free. Creative careers like dance are only just beginning to be taken seriously in Nigeria.”
Ms. Ogunro said she wasn’t able to find a single shop in Nigeria where she could buy the Leap of Dance students new kits — “not even basic pink-toned shoes, let alone shoes for Black skin tones.”
So, she added, “what Daniel and these kids are doing, in making all this happen despite the odds, is really very remarkable.”
Mr. Ajala’s role in the lives of his students goes beyond dance; he is invested in their whole development. One day a week class is dedicated solely to academics; the students come to the academy with their homework, with Mr. Ajala providing one-on-one tutoring as needed. They practice speaking, reading and writing in English together. And between lessons, which run from mid afternoon to early evening, he cooks them a meal.
That routine has changed over the last few months: With schools closed because of coronavirus restrictions, the students have been dancing in the mornings. (Nigeria has recorded fewer than 50,000 coronavirus cases; Ajangbadi, located several hours outside the city center, has largely been spared.)
Recently, too, the students have begun learning conversational Spanish, Italian and Chinese from their ballet teachers abroad, like Ms. Williams and Ms. Hubbs. “I want the kids to be able to relate to people internationally,” Mr. Ajala said.
Students like Anthony and the 19-year-old Olamide Olawale — the academy’s talented first and oldest dancer — seem undaunted by the prospect of dancing abroad. Earlier this month, Anthony, one of three male dancers at the school, was offered a full scholarship to an online summer program at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School of American Ballet Theater after its director, Cynthia Harvey, saw his viral video. “That boy has the focus,” Ms. Harvey said. “This child is doing it because he wants to do it.”
Ms. Olawale, who said she aspires to be the next Misty Copeland, has also enrolled in an online summer program, with the Elmhurst Ballet School of the Birmingham Royal Academy in England. On Instagram, she posts photos and videos of her dance journey, hoping to inspire other young girls who dream of dancing. “Strike a balance girl,” she instructed herself in a recent post, in which she described her dizzying new reality. “You got this.”
To grow that sort of self-confidence in a young person, Mr. Ajala said, was as much the point of starting the academy as was his mission to reframe the historical and cultural context of ballet. “I wanted to show that it is possible to learn it, to live and breathe it — to grow and go places because of it,” he said.
When asked how he is feeling about all that’s happened in the last few months, he said that, above all, it feels good to be seen. “It’s every teacher’s dream,” he said. “What has happened around the world with the coronavirus has been devastating. But in some ways, it has been a blessing for us because it has brought online learning to the forefront and made it possible to have all these incredible opportunities.
“We have also heard from so many people who are inspired by the students and by dance,” he continued. “They felt our joy and came alive. They reminded us that art is here to stay.”