Many consider time spent on Facebook a frivolous waste, but like many things in life it is what you make of it. I have found, as other writers have, that it often offers up food for thought, writing ideas and opportunities, can actually be educational provided one double-checks facts, and can provide far-reaching connections that have been most fruitful.

Recently I was moved by a video shared by London’s The Guardian titled “Slum Ballet”. It is a heartwarming clip about a ballet school in a Nairobi slum. As the text narrative accompanying it explains: “Living in Africa’s largest slum doesn’t mean you can’t learn ballet. Every week after school this classroom in Kibera, Nairobi is transformed into a bustling ballet studio”.

slum ballet

Pamela, 13 years old, is quoted as saying “When I was young, I saw ballet on TV, I liked the dance and the pointed shoes, and I wanted to be a ballerina since then.”

The film explains that the youth (about forty of them) mainly practice barefoot, but also use donated shoes for advanced techniques. Their dance teacher Mike Wamaya is a former professional dancer. “The children we work with go through a lot of challenges…but when they dance, they develop hope for a better life”, he says. Some have won school scholarships through dance, while others have joined professional dance schools. Some of the older students now train at Dance Centre Kenya. Over Christmas they performed Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet at the Nairobi National Theatre.

I shared the video on my timeline, expressing the hope that someday Child’s Play India Foundation could bring such an initiative to India as well. If one highly-motivated professionally trained dancer could achieve this in a Nairobi slum, it is not too far-fetched to envisage the same miracle here as well.

I got a response from a South African musician-journalist friend who is also committed to music education and social change through music. She drew my attention to a recent controversy in her country regarding ballet being viewed (by some) as “Eurocentric and colonial”, and solicited my viewpoint. “What are your thoughts and how would it be perceived in India?”

Does this sound familiar? It was interesting to see that other post-colonial states have similar issues as we do. I read up on the controversy. Apparently, after “82 years of partnership”, Cape Town Ballet had been booted out of its University of Cape Town premises due to objections by a group of students.

Ironically, the student group were from the contemporary and African dance streams, which had been included in the curriculum at the encouragement of the executive director of the ballet company.

This is not a new debate. The ‘culture wars’, the pitched battles between ‘our’ music and culture and ‘theirs’ have been raging from the moment the imperial powers left their colonies around the world. This reminded me of a wonderful book “Soul Music: The Pulse of Race and Music” by African-American novelist (and now a friend as I’ve corresponded with her at some length after reading the book) Candace Allen.

In her book, she visits and describes her experiences in places as far-flung and diverse as the United States, Palestine, Venezuela, Scotland, the streets of London and Kinshasa.

She describes her experience of and participation in the Black Arts Movement, the artistic branch of the Black Power movement prominent in the 1960s and early ‘70s. With the benefit of hindsight, she is able to look back on those years. She chose an undergraduate thesis ‘Towards a Black Aesthetic in Visual Communications’, and she writes: “My first pass at its opening chapter was a categorical dismissal of the entire Western artistic tradition as bankrupt, dictatorial and antithetical to all grounded human values, to which my advisor’s only counter was ‘Isn’t this a bit harsh?’”

Further on she writes: “We knew nothing of irony and would have despised it if we had, but ironies abounded. The African fabrics in which we decked ourselves were of Dutch-manufacture and Indonesian design on British-woven stuff. Our African beads generally originated in Venice. Our interest in Black music and history were creating a bonanza for white record companies and publishing firms as they reissued the likes of Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday in handsome new packaging and brought long-lost texts by black writers back onto the market. We bought eagerly with no thought of provenance.”

This is such an important point. How complete can a rejection or boycott ever be? And if not complete, how meaningful is it really?

In another chapter Allen writes: “Though the said ideal was to break down class barriers within the community, so much of what was Black was defined by working class, oppressed conditions, survival mechanisms and sensibilities. Could there be only one way of being Black, listening Black, painting Black, conjuring Black? Only one true way to pure Soul?”

She also categorically addresses ballet: “My mother opposed my studying ballet…but she had no problems with my seeing ballet…I allowed no racial identification to interfere with my love of what the human body in choreographed motion could achieve and the music through which they manifested this glory. Balanchine [iconic choreographer and father of American ballet] might declare that ballet dancers had to be small-headed, flat-butted and have complexions comparable to the inside of a peach, I didn’t care. I was confident enough in my knowledge that he was wrong, had seen so much evidence to the contrary in life and on stage, that I ignored this dismissive, and yes, ignorant part of his character and continued to relish what he produced. I just wanted to feel it, explore and learn it such as I could.”

This ridiculous notion of a balletic ideal, this “credo of the perfect dancer” espoused by Balanchine, that there is some utopian phenotype most suited to ballet, and that others fall short is so dated and frankly, racist. It is precisely to demolish such a myth that I feel that people of all origins should study this art form even more avidly.

This is certainly what American ballet dancer Misty Copeland did on encountering prejudice on account of her skin colour and body structure. When at puberty her body began to fill out making her breasts fuller, she was told diplomatically to “lengthen” so as not to “lose your classical line.” In her memoir “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina”, she writes: “My backup plan was to out-dance everyone, to be so technically perfect and unbelievably lyrical in my movements that all anyone would be able to see was my talent, not my breasts or curves or the colour of my skin.” It worked. “They came to see… that my curves are part of who I am as a dancer, not something I need to lose in order to become one.”

Copeland and Michaela dePrince in Amsterdam have some similarities with the “Slum Ballet” children.

They have both taken a “Eurocentric” and “colonial” dance form, and not only made it theirs, but excelled in it. This in my view is a far better response to a self-defeating, knee-jerk rejection of it.

(An edited version of this article was published on 5 February 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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