Esther Oladipupo, founder of the Association of Ballet Teachers of Nigeria, describes her pioneering efforts to bring ballet to aspiring students in her home country
In collaboration with the Association of Ballet Teachers in Nigeria and the Kingdom Ballet Company, based in Benin City, Ballet Rising is launching a series of articles on the history and status of ballet in Nigeria. This is the first part of the series.
Although Nigeria has a rich tradition of dance, there are relatively few ballet schools and ballet teachers around the country. It is often difficult for children who want to study ballet to find a place to do so. The upshot of the dearth of ballet schools, however, is that a surprising number of ballet students, and teachers in Nigeria are self-trained – an incredible fact that reflects the tenacity of Nigerian ballet practitioners.
Esther Oladipupo, a former ballet dancer from Benin City, is on a mission to make ballet more accessible to students and prospective teachers. Her ballet school, Kingdom Ballet Company, is one of the top-rated ballet schools for young children in the country. Recently, Oladipupo founded the Association of Ballet Teachers of Nigeria with the goal of bringing together teachers from across the country for trainings, networking events, and collaboration.
I recently caught up with Oladipupo over email to discuss her own background in ballet, her current work, and her vision for the future of the dance form in Nigeria.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Lindsay Alissa King: Tell me about your background. Where did you grow up, and how did you discover ballet? Where did you do your ballet training?
Esther Oladipupo: I am Esther Oladipupo. I was born in the ancient city of the Benin Kingdom in Edo State, Nigeria. I am the fourth child among seven siblings, although we lost my immediate younger brother Paul. I was raised with both silver and wooden spoons – i.e. I have had a taste of life in both bad and good conditions.
The beginning of dance for me started when I was a little child between age 5 and 6, the best my memory can recall. I remember going to parties with my parents and winning every dance competition staged among the children in those parties. I remember how proudly my parents would talk about me all the way home from those parties, how I danced so well and everyone gifting me items. I was my parents only daughter back then and daddy's girl. It is a memory I will hold to forever.
I first discovered ballet at my primary school. I was actually a rejected student at the beginning. I was in primary 3 when my school was going to have an end-of-year celebration. Our proprietress’s daughter, who was visiting, was choreographing a dance, but she needed to select kids to participate in it. So she made her selection by merely looking at everyone, and I wasn't selected. Instead, I was placed in the drama club. I was good at acting too, but my first love was dancing.
Every afternoon after my drama class, I would sit far away and watch the ballet rehearsals. Then I would go home and repeat all I saw. Our end of year party came, and everyone did their presentations.
Then one faithful morning when I was around 8 or 9, my dad was in town (he was a regular traveler), and whenever he is around, he spends his entire mornings playing all sorts of music. So that morning, as the collection of different music was playing, suddenly I heard the intro of the music the ballet teacher taught the dance to. I ran to the living room in excitement and began dancing to it. I danced my heart out and my feet were quick as one who was originally in those classes. At the end of the music I gave a curtsy, and to my amazement I heard resounding applauds and cheers. Looking around it was my parents and siblings. I didn’t even notice that I was being watched. And the next thing I heard someone said, “You have to come teach my pupils this dance for their graduation ceremony.” That was my mum's voice inviting me to teach in her school – yes, my mum was the proprietress of “Saint Bitrice Nursery, Primary and Secondary School” before we relocated to FCT-Abuja. That was my first official call to ballet, and ever since, I have grown as a ballet teacher more than I ever danced. I started teaching teenagers far older than me, from schools to churches to community services, etc.
I took trainings from everyone and learnt all kinds of dances and taught dances through my childhood and teenage years until I got to a point in my life where I had to choose ballet only if I wanted to do it well. Unfortunately, there were no ballet schools in the both states I grew up in, Benin City and FCT-Abuja. Before I had access to the Internet, I learnt proper ballet from DVDs. I would plead with everyone traveling to the West to buy me ballet DVDs. I had collections of lot of ballets – Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Nutcracker, Giselle, plus dictionaries, dance books, etc. It was very difficult to learn on my own, but I realized the more I taught someone else the more I understood and retained.
So it wasn’t until I became a professional teacher that I could afford taking professional classes.
I trained with Chily Ballet in the UK and at the Joburg Ballet School in Johannesburg, South Africa.
LAK: Ballet is less well known in Nigeria than other forms of dance. What motivated you to study ballet in particular?
EO: My motivation to do ballet above other dance forms was because of its peculiarities, the desire to be different from the norm in my community. I naturally love everything about the art form, the music, the discipline, the artistry of the techniques, the grace poised by the professionals and most importantly, the fact that it’s a storytelling dance. I loved drama as a young lady and was once an artistic drama director in my teenage club. I directed a lot of plays that pleased the emotions of many. Finding ballet and having the opportunity to bring both my passion for dance and drama together was a dream come true.
LAK: What inspired you to become a ballet teacher?
EO: My inspiration to become a ballet teacher started with a need to teach pupils at my mum’s school. It later grew to become a greater passion to champion ballet dance education in my local state and country as a whole. I said to myself, if the foreigners refuse to bring ballet to us, then I must go to them, learn and bring it back home. The resources [for ballet] have not been developed yet in Nigeria, but I choose to do much with the little that we have.
LAK: Could you give me a brief history of your ballet studio, Kingdom Ballet Company?
EO: Kingdom Ballet Company was first called Kingdom Ballet. It was founded late 2005, with a focus on contemporary ballet. Back then, I tutored teenagers in poor communities for free. We would take classes in local church halls, open fields and sometimes at people’s homes. Anywhere we could find shade from the sun and rains. We went to places to perform for little or no pay, but we were so passionate. It was a struggle to give the youth hope to remain in dance as they couldn't see a future in it – especially because of the way ballet was seen as in Nigeria. It was less known [than other forms of dance], and everyone, including myself, was discouraged on a daily basis.
It became so bad that they weren’t coming for classes. I made up my mind to teach young children [instead of teenagers] because I believed that children would have more passion and less distraction from learning. So I officially registered my company “Kingdom Ballet Company” on June 11, 2010. I started with kids from mostly poor income homes.
So far, we have grown, and we’re still growing. Our studio isn’t a standard dance studio as it’s a size of a living room with ply boards as a dance floor. The tights and shoes are quite expensive for most parents, but we do manage to make beautiful ballets.
LAK: I’m curious about the children who take classes at your school. What draws them to the classes or inspires their parents to enroll them in ballet? What kinds of backgrounds do their parents tend to have?
EO: Parents and students are inspired by our testimonials. Kingdom Ballet Company does not have the resources for TV or radio adverts, nor have we been able to publish newspaper adverts. Our clients come to us by word of mouth from other parents, and they are thrilled to see young children perform ballets as lovely as they see on the Internet.
Kingdom Ballet Company is based in Edo State in a very small city with majority of low-income earners. Our tuition is 20 US dollars per month which is a struggle for many to afford.
LAK: Kingdom Ballet Company recently held its major annual recital, entitled “Talent and Elegance.” Your students presented classical, neoclassical, and contemporary work, and you choreographed several pieces. Could you tell us how you selected the pieces the students performed?
EO: Since our previous recital, which was in April 2017, I have introduced the Cecchetti ballet method in my classes, which I learned at the Joburg Ballet School during my teacher’s training. I love the Cecchetti approach, especially with its attention to music. Cecchetti ballet has a strong romance between techniques and music that has made me to fall in love with ballet again, and I created our 2019 recital pieces to reflect this harmonizing system. We didn’t have much time for rehearsals as our classes are only weekends and we are barely a year introducing the Cecchetti method, but it was a great start and our audience loved every piece.
LAK: What is your own approach to choreography?
EO: My approach to choreography is based on the dancers’ ability at the time of creation. So if I want to choreograph, I set goals for the dancers and give them a period to achieve those goals. These set goals become the materials I use to create the dance piece. I set choreographies for students based on their abilities.
LAK: I noticed that the recital also had costuming inspired by African traditions. Why did you choose that style of costuming, and how did this shape the performance?
EO: I have always taught my students that ballet creates room for the marriage of cultures. Ballet in every region is greatly influenced by local and national cultures – Russian, Italian, American, Chinese, etc.
At our 2019 recital, I choreographed traditional ballet to 6/8 music for my children, and I thought, instead of the traditional ballet gown made from cotton and satin, why not design the same gown but with the Nigeria Ankara? I never mentioned it to my students until it was costume rehearsal day.
To my greatest surprise, they all screamed for joy. They loved it and didn’t want to take them off. I suddenly realized how knowledgeable my students have become. They could tell these costumes were perfect for the kind of dance they were doing. They knew they didn’t need a tutu but a dramatic dress to portray the story they were telling. Our audience also loved it, and the dances with the African costumes became the best performances for that day – not because they had the most technical variations or patterns but because the costumes appeared more familiar to the audience and complemented the choreographies as a whole.
LAK: Are there ways that other styles of dance or other aspects of Nigerian culture impact your work as a ballet choreographer and teacher?
EO: Our African culture influences my work greatly as a contemporary teacher. I believe we can produce amazing contemporary dancers if our cultural dances are included in our ballet program.
LAK: In addition to directing your studio, you are also actively working to expand ballet education across Nigeria. How widespread are ballet schools in Nigeria, and where do ballet teachers get their training as dancers and teachers?
EO: In Nigeria, we only have a handful of ballet schools, although we have a lot of active ballet clubs in formal education settings. Most teachers are self-trained. It’s very expensive to travel abroad to study ballet as we have never had ballet companies in our system before now. So teachers and dancers rely on the few who have had the opportunity to study ballet abroad.
LAK: You’re the founder and director of the Association of Ballet Teachers in Nigeria. What was the inspiration behind this project, and how does the association support the work of ballet teachers?
EO: Teaching is a community thing. It takes teachers to have a teaching system. I long to have teacher friends to share ideas with. In the past years, I have written to so many teachers I admire, requesting to be part of their dance community. I wanted to learn from others and share my teaching experiences so I could have someone counsel me. A few advised me to go and develop my own community since what they were doing were nothing special but just teachers coming together. I did join many dance communities on different social groups, but none met my needs. There was always a gap. I needed to interact with teachers from the same social background and in person.
I had series of talks with the Joburg Ballet School Coordinator Keke Chele, who encouraged me to make the move. I had a thousand and one reasons why I couldn’t make the move, but he was persistent in telling me that that was the only way I realize my dream of having a ballet community among dancers and teachers, where we could grow the art form together.
I eventually hosted a ballet teachers retreat through Kingdom Ballet Company. The response was very poor, but little did I know I had just the right people in attendance to share my vision for the National Ballet Teachers Association. The Kingdom Ballet Company teachers retreat was a huge success because the Association of Ballet Teachers of Nigeria was birthed from it.
The association intends to get at least 90% of ballet teachers in Nigeria professionally trained, educated and certified to teach by 2025. Exposing our teachers to a world-recognized standard will help us produce professionally trained dancers for the dance industry.
LAK: The annual teachers retreat, sponsored by the association, will take place in early September, and after that you’ll be holding a teacher training in the Cuban ballet method. Tell me what will be happening at these two events and how you hope they will influence ballet education in Benin City and across Nigeria.
EO: The Ballet Teachers’ Retreat, taking place on September 1 and 2, 2019, is designed to expose teachers to the science and medicine involved in teaching ballet to young people. As I earlier mentioned, 90% of teachers here are self-trained so you can imagine the level of risk involved with teaching ballet to young people with little or no knowledge of the body anatomy. I have heard lectures by professors of the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science, and I can tell how delicate it was to put medicine into teaching practice even for someone like me who did science in school. We will be having a physiotherapist doctor educate us more on dance medicine in dance teaching.
Also, the Red Cross Society will be in attendance to educate and train us on basic health and safety. This will help us know what to do in times of injuries and possible safe practices we could employ in our studios.
After the teachers retreat, we will be have our first professional teachers training in the Cuban ballet method. This will be for most of us our first professional training. The training will be by levels as we hope to have the Cuban teachers come in every year until we are all professionally certified.
These trainings are very expensive, especially since the association is just starting off and we are yet to have sponsors. We truly hope we get assistance as this is a very big project designed to promote Nigerian ballet to the world at large.
LAK: What do you think ballet means to people in Nigeria? What do you want it to mean to them?
EO: Ballet to Nigerians is a fancy and girlish type of dance believed to be for just children. But I want Nigerians to see that it is more than that. I want them to see that it is a beautiful art form with a promising career for those who study it. I want Nigerians to see that it is a rich form of entertainment yet to be tapped. I want Nigerians to see that there are diverse opportunities in the art for everyone who chooses to take it up as a career. Our national theater is abandoned, but professional art like ballet can bring life back to that theater. It will enrich and boost our tourism in the country. Generally speaking, the awareness about the art form of Ballet is much better than 10 years ago. 15, 20 years ago it was too foreign to be danced by anyone. I was alienated for trying to do something different. I am thankful and hopeful that sooner or later we will have regular productions and galas with beautiful ballets staged in our theaters.
Banner image by Habila Mazawaje | Other images by Kingdom Ballet Company