In early November, Dirk Badenhorst, South African ballet advocate, artistic director, and educator, will travel to Nigeria to conduct a teacher training for the Association of Ballet Teachers of Nigeria.
Badenhorst is the founder of Training Teachers in Townships, an organization tasked with the goal of educating and preparing ballet teachers in South Africa's townships – impoverished and underserved neighborhoods in which South Africa’s non-white population was once legally forced to live during the apartheid era. Today classical ballet classes are not a common feature of childhood education in South Africa, but Badenhorst is working to change that. He not only believes that ballet has the potential to nurture creativity among children living in the townships, but he also believes that the cultures of the townships have something unique to contribute to the global ballet community. Training Teachers in Townships operates in Soweto, Randfontein, Ennerdale, and Ekurhuleni, with plans for expansion. The program now trains 30 teachers, who together reach over 1,000 students.
In addition to his work as the director of Training Teachers in Townships, Badenhorst founded Cudansa, an organization designed to bring the Cuban ballet methodology to students and teachers in South Africa. From the beginning Cudansa has worked closely with Cuban dancers, and Badenhorst’s pioneering efforts were recently recognized by the Cuban Embassy in South Africa.
Badenhorst’s model is an inspirational one for Esther Oladipupo, the founder and president of the Association of Ballet Teachers of Nigeria (ABTN). Like Badenhorst, Oladipupo believes that classical ballet training can inspire young children in new ways and that training teachers is the best way to expand ballet education. Remarkably, the majority of ballet teachers in Nigeria are self-trained. Oladipupo founded ABTN with the goal of offering professional training and a support network to ballet teachers across Nigeria. Oladipupo hopes to train 60 teachers across the country and help at least 90% of Nigerian ballet instructors earn professional certification.
But it wasn’t Badenhorst’s work in South Africa’s townships that most interested Oladipupo - it was his experience with the Cuban methodology. Oladipupo, who studied at the Joburg Ballet School in Johannesburg, South Africa, reached out to Badenhorst to share her vision for ballet in Nigeria, and Badenhorst recognized the value in expanding his advocacy beyond the borders of South Africa. He’ll be traveling to Nigeria in November to lead a teacher training organized by ABTN. In Lagos Badenhorst and a colleague who will travel with him will be leading a workshop in the Cuban ballet methodology similar to the workshops they lead through Cudansa. Over the course of two days, ABTN teachers will be introduced to the method and cover the first level.
I spoke with Badenhorst about why he believes that the Cuban methodology is well suited for ballet education in South Africa and Nigeria. The answer, I was surprised to learn, is related to the history of exclusion and racism in ballet.
One of the biggest problems that Badenhorst and Oladipupo encounter in their work is the perception of ballet as “fancy,” elitist, or, as Badenhorst put it, an art form for white people only. In South Africa, Badenhorst explained, “Ballet used to be the ultimate white art form.” During the apartheid era, continued Badenhorst, “Black people didn’t have access to classical ballet. If they were black, if they wanted to be a ballet dancer, they had to leave the country.” Even after the end of the apartheid, ballet was still largely the purview of white people: audiences domestically and internationally expected only white skin on stage. Similar perceptions abound in Nigeria.
But times are changing. According to Badenhorst, “And now you can be a black ballet dancer in South Africa and train, and you can be in a professional company and make it your career.”
One major component in the effort to strip ballet of entrenched racism is the decision to train students in the Cuban methodology. The Cuban methodology is much less dependent on specific body types, and it does not require physical qualities to achieve its aesthetic. Instead, as Badenhorst describes, the Cuban approach “takes the body you put in front of it,” whether that body is black or white, thin or muscular. In other words, the Cuban methodology better accommodates non-white bodies into its aesthetic. This is in part because the Cuban method was developed in Cuba, where dancers of color are on the stage. For Badenhorst, the fact that the Cuban methodology accepts physical variations more readily than other ballet methodologies makes it one of the best blueprints for ballet instruction across Africa.
“It speaks to the South Africa mentality,” explains Badenhorst of the Cuban method. “It speaks to the South African body…We want to have good ballet. We want to have virtuosity, the bravura, the big steps that the men do, and that really appeals to the bigger South African market.”
In Badenhorst’s view, teacher training in the Cuban methodology can and should be taken beyond the borders of South Africa to other countries on the continent, where black teachers and students could benefit from the Cuban approach that “takes the body you put in front of it.” Badenhorst’s trip to Nigeria – his first visit to that country – is a step toward putting the Cuban methodology to use in this way. Both Oladipupo and Badenhorst hope that Cudansa and ABTN will have an ongoing relationship. Badenhorst would like to return to Lagos to teach workshops beyond the first level, eventually bringing with him a team of Cuban method ballet instructors. Badenhorst has also recently been contacted by ballet teachers in Togo and Benin, who hope that he will be able to visit their countries to lead similar workshops. For Badenhorst and Oladipupo, the Cuban method can help strengthen a unique ballet culture across Africa. It’s a point of departure for discovering what ballet dancers from places like South Africa, Nigeria, Togo, or Benin have to tell the world.
Banner image by John O'Nolan on Unsplash