“They need to be able to see somebody looking like themselves on the stage”

By Lindsay Alissa King

Ballet advocate and entrepreneur Dirk Badenhorst is about to embark on a new venture in South Africa. For the past several years he has run Training Teachers in Townships, an organization that trains ballet teachers in underserved communities around South Africa, but for the first time, Badenhorst will expand his work to bringing arts appreciation to teachers of academic subjects like science, language, and math. 

Badenhorst was recently awarded a grant by the European Union to explore how academic teachers can contribute to arts education. As part of the project, Badenhorst will partner with education departments at four South African universities. The collaboration will give teacher-students a background in art and dance appreciation and describe the benefits of arts education for children and students. The goal is for these future teachers to bring arts appreciation to students around the country, imbuing South African youngsters everywhere with an interest in art, dance, and music. Eventually, Badenhorst hopes that these teachers will be able to identify uniquely talented students and connect them with arts instructors who can nurture their talent.

The project doesn’t just take place in the classroom, however. The pilot program actually begins in a dance studio, explained Badenhorst:

“We start with the pilot project in February next year where we actually take a hundred and something teacher-students at one university and a hundred at another university, and they physically have to do ballet – and these are people who have never in their lives done anything balletic. Some of them don’t know what ballet is.”

According to Badenhorst, the inspiration behind this initiative is the same inspiration that drives his other projects: he believes that South African youth have the potential to contribute to the global ballet community in unique ways, thanks to the love for dance embedded in South African culture. But the country is largely an “untapped market” for ballet. Badenhorst noted enthusiastically, “That’s why I love being in South Africa … I like South Africa, for that reason, there is such an untapped market.” 

Along with the new project and Training Teachers in Townships, Badenhorst runs several other entrepreneurial initiatives aimed to bring arts appreciation and dance education to children, students, and potential audience members in South Africa. Several of these projects seek to overcome one of the main challenges Badenhorst has encountered in bringing ballet to South African students. Not only was ballet historically inaccessible to black people in South Africa under apartheid laws, but black children today often don’t see their own body types reflected among the global ballet community. According to Badenhorst, this lack of diversity often discourages potential South African students from pursuing ballet training and potential audience members from attending performances.

To combat this problem, Badenhorst has been bringing international ballet stars to South Africa in recent years in order to showcase a diverse and multi-racial group of performers to the South African audience. Badenhorst was instrumental in bringing both Brooklyn Mack and Michaela DePrince to South African stages, and he hopes to bring Misty Copeland next year. For Badenhorst, bringing international ballet stars to South Africa is about creating role models for ballet students in South Africa, especially those from majority-black townships. The black students with whom Badenhorst works need not only to enjoy the aesthetics of ballet but to believe that bodies like theirs are integral to art form.

The impact of this work is obvious among South African students. Badenhorst described an anecdote from a few years ago: “The kids need to be able to see somebody looking like themselves on the stage … I worked for very, very many years for a township in Pretoria. And I know I was well loved, it wasn’t like I wasn’t loved, but I brought a dancer from San Francisco Ballet, Chidozie Nzerem, who had Nigerian roots, to South Africa, and within ten minutes he was the hero of the township kids because they could immediately physically identify with him. And that’s something that we need, and we need to be realistic about it. So that’s what we need to do much more of. You know, working with Michaela [DePrince], having Michaela in South Africa, that was huge.”

Badenhorst also pointed out that as he works to expand ballet in South Africa and to showcase to the global community what South African ballet has to offer, he is sometimes met with an element of condescendence that minimizes the work of South African dancers and artists. “It’s not about this guy that lives in Africa that wants to make ballet an art form,” said Badenhorst. “It shouldn’t be about that.” Instead, South African ballet should be viewed as an equal partner in the global ballet community. One route to achieving that level of respect from global ballet partners Badenhorst believes goes back to his effort to bring international ballet stars to South Africa. When renowned dancers like Michaela DePrince talk about their experiences in the country, their words go a long way toward demonstrating the legitimacy of South African ballet on the international stage.

Another challenge that Badenhorst faces is convincing the South African government that ballet – and arts more generally – are worth investing in. While his work has been met with enthusiasm from the Nigerian Department of Arts and Culture, the department has not provided any funding for his programs. The solution for Badenhorst is to bring members of the South African government to the ballet. After a recent meeting with the director general of the Department of Arts and Culture, Badenhorst invited him and his young daughter to a ballet and pantsula collaborative performance that Badenhorst organized last year. “She completely fell in love with it,” said Badenhorst about the director general’s daughter. “And that really is the change agent that we need. It’s not the father. It’s the kids.”

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