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London's Pointe Black ballet school aims to break racial barriers

Ruth Essel sees her school as a safe space for Black dancers to get counselling, and a way to create a community-based network of studios, dancers and teachers

Ruth Essel, founder of Pointe Black Ballet School. Image via Reuters

By Reuters

LAST PUBLISHED 02.10.2023  |  04:00 PM IST

It was a pointed comment about her Afro-braided hair that spurred Ruth Essel to carve out what she calls a safe space for Black dancers.

The founder of Pointe Black Ballet School in London said when she was a child, teachers and assistants all but punished her for not fitting the traditional ballerina mould, as if she was using her race as some kind of rebellion.


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"I'll never forget my first time about to dance on a West End stage," said Essel, describing when, aged 10, she started a final rehearsal at a theatre proudly wearing the braided bun her single mother had spent her last 100 pounds on.

Her pride turned to shame when her teacher pointed at her in the lineup of an almost all-white group of dancers, saying, "You're going to take all of those zigzaggedy things out of your hair because it looks a mess."

That was just one of several instances when Essel was made to feel that being different was "like a defiant choice by me," she said. "These are all things that happened before I was 16 years old, and I didn't know any better."

Those challenges inspired Essel, a deputy programme manager at a unit of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, to establish Pointe Black in 2020 at the age of 26.

"I wanted there to be a Black environment. I wanted there to be people who looked like me. I wanted there to be a teacher that looked like me," she said.

It was empowering, she recalled, to finally wear black tights and shoes, rather than the traditional pink for ballerinas, "because it was closer to my colour."


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The iconic image of a ballet dancer remains light-skinned, even though the artform—which originated in the Italian Renaissance as court entertainment - has expanded globally with stars from Asia, South America and Cuba. And classical ballet companies strive for a uniform look especially in works like "Swan Lake," making it harder for dancers of colour to get hired or promoted.

Some 2.2% of dancers at the UK's top four ballet companies are of Black heritage—roughly consistent with the country's Black population at 3%, said Sandie Bourne, a committee member of Britain's Society for Dance Research, in her 2017 doctoral thesis.

At The Royal Ballet, "we are determined to make our theatre a welcoming and inclusive place for all," a company spokesperson said.

"Dance is for everybody," noted a spokesperson at The Royal Academy of Dance, whose syllabus is taught worldwide. "Ensuring there is diversity in the dance world is important to everyone at the RAD."

Essel wants to speed up change by disrupting the status quo.

"We incorporate African steps and music styles in our shows," she said. "I have afros. I have plaits. I have perm rolls. I have twist. I have Afro puff bunches. And it's really just about celebrating the person no matter where they come from."

Maya Beale-Springer, a 10-year-old student at Pointe Black and another ballet school, enjoys exploring various styles.

"I get to experience different types of ballet, different music," said the aspiring astrophysicist, after a flawless solo rehearsal for an upcoming show. "I like ballet, so I'd like to do it but hopefully my career won't get in the way."

Essel, who teaches all the classes in her school, sees it as a safe space for Black dancers to get counselling, and a way to create a community-based network of studios, dancers and teachers.

"When I was 15, I wanted to apply to dance colleges, but I was discouraged because I was told that the ballet world just wasn't really ready for someone who looked like me," Essel recalled.

"Everything about my school is what my younger self would have wanted."

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