This article part 4 in our series on ballet in Nigeria. After the Association of Ballet Teachers of Nigeria sponsored a teachers’ training on the Cuban ballet methodology, Ballet Rising followed up with two of the attendees. If you can believe it, these two inspirational women are self-trained dancers! Read below to learn how they’ve worked to transform the future of their communities. Ballet in Nigeria Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3
According to Patricia Patrick-Adelaja and Titilayo Joseph, it was the 2001 movie Save the Last Dance that inspired their love for ballet. Patrick-Adelaja recalls, “Something about the graceful swirls of Julia Stiles who was cast as ‘Sara.’ The poise and the fluidity of her movement enthralled me. Even though I didn’t know where I could learn how to dance that way, a seed was sown, and I was determined to let it grow.”
Nearly 20 years later, both women have made ballet their careers. But it wasn’t easy.
When she founded Patya Expressions Academy in 2013 after completing a degree in History and Strategic Studies at the University of Lagos, Patrick-Adelaja found herself having to justify her decision to friends and family. “[Opening a dance school] sounded entirely foolish because everyone expected me to go find a job and build a career and reach for the skies,” explains Patrick-Adelaja. In fact she describes this stretch of time as one of the most difficult periods of her career because she found herself enduring frequent ridicule for what other viewed as an unrealistic goal.
Titilayo Joseph, however, opened a dance academy after receiving encouragement from a friend. Although she always loved to dance—and even trained herself to do ballet—she quit dancing when she got married. But after choreographing a dance piece for children at her church, a fellow church member encouraged her to find a local school where she could teach. “This statement,” reports Joseph, “was a move to research, retrain and keep fit after [having] two kids.” In 2014, she opened her own school, named Chirpynotion Dance Academy (CNDA), in Port Harcourt.
Until recently, neither Patrick-Adelaja nor Joseph received any formal ballet training. In fact, Patrick-Adelaja notes that this is the case for most ballet teachers in Nigeria: “Very few of us learnt how to dance ballet from some who were privileged to have studied abroad, but a majority learnt watching YouTube videos and with constant practice and passing that unto others.” Although Joseph learned other dance styles from Nigerian dancer and teacher Elabraham Egbeyemi, she learned ballet on her own, after being inspired by Save the Last Dance.
Although both teachers report that this process was difficult, Joseph and Patrick-Adelaja brought the same self-motivation they pursued in ballet training to their work as artistic directors and business entrepreneurs.
Patrick-Adelaja describes the early years after Patya Expressions Academy was founded: “An empty classroom served as my studio for four years, and whether it was one child that turned up or two or three, I just danced and coached like they were many and assumed we were in some glass studio. I got a rubber carpet and a boombox for music, and that was about all we had in the studio. The passion to dance and teach dance blinded my eyes to these obvious disadvantages.”
Today Patya Expressions Academy has seven employees and puts on an annual charitable performance called Ballet Effect in collaboration with Threshold Life-Aid Foundation. Patrick-Adelaja notes about her success, “I overcame the pressure to quit and pushed aside the emotional burdens that accompanied starting [the academy] because ballet had not gained any form of recognition and wasn’t accepted as a form of graceful dance. People couldn’t see any business sense in what I was doing. I just kept on.”
Joseph’s school has also flourished thanks to her tenacity. CNDA now offers classes in ballet, contemporary, jazz, acrobatics, and hip hop, and they have activities to promote first aid, nutrition, reading, education, and good ethics among their students. Children from the ages of 2 to 12 can attend classes, and Joseph hopes to add classes for older students in 2020.
Both Joseph and Patrick-Adelaja report that a lot has changed regarding the acceptance of ballet in mainstream Nigerian culture. Patrick-Adelaja explained, “I can confidently say that Nigeria is the ‘entertainment headquarters’ of Africa, and dance is an integral aspect of that. We love dancing in Africa so it’s not foreign to us.” But ballet technique differs from many of the dance forms that comprise a fundamental basis of Nigerian culture. At first Patrick-Adelaja had a hard time explaining how contribute something valuable to her community in Lagos. Now, however, schools and children’s clubs are actively recruiting ballet teachers.
Likewise, Joseph said that when she first opened her school, she tried to describe the social, physical, and cognitive benefits of ballet to others, but she was often met with disinterest. Today, however, things are different. She notes, “Nigerians have certain perceptions of ballet dance, but it’s gradually evolving.” Joseph’s solution to some of the challenges of explaining the benefits of ballet to parents is to demonstrate that ballet can be fun, even if the technique is demanding.
Despite the obvious regional success of their studios, Joseph and Patrick-Adelaja report that greater acceptance from the international ballet community would benefit their work. “Personally,” said Joseph, “I tried to apply to some [international] dance-related associations, to be a member, to gain knowledge and have access to useful materials to have a good dance school, but [the associations] are highly demanding. I wish they could consider the slow impact of ballet in Nigeria and make it easy to affiliate for support and growth.” Patrick-Adelaja reiterates Joseph’s plea. Although Nigerian ballet has not yet hosted national competitions or produced operas with ballet, Patrick-Adelaja believes that “it is only a matter of time” before ballet in Nigeria takes off—on an international stage. “[Ballet] is gaining popularity gradually in each niche,” add Patrick-Adelaja. “It would be a joy to have the international community work in collaboration with us for further trainings and insights.”