The one-minute video is mesmerising. Viewed more than 20 million times on social media, it shows 11-year-old Anthony dancing barefoot in the rain of Lagos, Nigeria. He is in a muddy back yard, with a rough, uneven concrete base on which dank pools of rainwater are forming. Dressed in shorts and vest, Anthony’s lithe body leaps and pirouettes, graceful arms flowing perfectly into arabesque as he lands.
He is an unlikely ballet dancer on an unlikely stage, discarded red and green plastic crates stacked against a wall, his only audience a woman working in the yard who has her back to him and never turns to see the beauty – or the grit – of his performance.
How does he not slip on such wet ground? Or fall on such rough concrete? Does he attend a prestigious ballet school? Hardly. Every day after school, Anthony is among a small group who attend ballet class in the home of Mr Ajala, a 29-year-old self-taught dancer who pushes back his furniture and erects a barre to form a makeshift studio.
Mr Ajala’s room is basic, the painted walls chipped and dirty, but he has hung brightly coloured strips of chiffon curtains, neon candy canes of orange and pink and turquoise and lime green, to brighten it.
It is, surely, his dreams that keep Anthony so sure-footed because there is no privilege here to support him.
How different from Ballet West, the picture-perfect Scottish ballet school in Taynuilt that was voted best ballet school in the UK this year but closed almost overnight last month after abuse allegations.
It is the latest in a depressing sequence of abuse scandals involving young people pursuing physical excellence – not just in ballet but football and also in gymnastics, where both male and females describe a culture of physical and sexual abuse. These stories are a tragic irony. Young bodies, perfectly honed, yet reduced to shells that house their psychological trauma.
Abuse is always ugly, involving exploitation and betrayal. But in the many interviews I have conducted with victims over the years, one of the ugliest aspects is the theft. The theft of a future; the theft of dreams; the removal of all self-esteem until all that’s left is fear and self-loathing.
There is something about the beauty of dance, the perfection of its movements, the almost surreal limits the demands of ballet push the body to, that creates a truly shocking counterfoil to such ugly abuse of power.
When I was a teenager, due to sit a student teacher ballet exam, I did some extra training with professional students. I wasn’t fit enough – by lunchtime my limbs trembled, my lungs gasped for air, my ballet tights stuck to my skinned toes with dried blood inside my block shoes. I lay down in the cramped dressing room and watched in amazement as the pros pulled out lunch boxes and ate sandwiches like they had merely run for the bus, while I heaved on the floor, unable to look at food.
Yet I knew, too, the euphoria of physical challenge, the moments when your body responded in ways you did not think it could, leaping, bending, turning, truly expressing something physically that felt internal and spiritual in the sense “of the spirit”.
It is that which makes the abuse of ballet students, gymnasts and athletes so very ugly – and the video of Anthony so striking. His movements capture something creative and internal – a part of who he truly is. To be an adult and sully that in a young person is unforgiveable.
In pictures of Mr Ajala’s class, young black girls stand at the barre, straight backed and elegantly poised. Mr Ajala once watched a ballet film and became hooked. He might be criticised in our privileged, rule-bound, western world that demands paper qualifications and safety certificates – things that sadly didn’t guarantee safety at Ballet West. But he understands dreams. He knows how to inspire.
“I wanted, more than anything, to give that opportunity to those younger than myself so they wouldn’t miss their chance like I did,” he has said. “It was too bad that I was as old as I was when I realised I wanted to dance.”
Those pictures are striking for the mix of cultures they represent. The singer Adele was pilloried recently for the supposed “cultural appropriation” of wearing her hair in a Jamaican style. That’s ridiculous. All cultures are influenced and shaped by others. Nothing is “owned” in human experience. Nothing remains static, especially in today’s digital world.
Looking at ballet class in Nigeria is a reminder of something that has become muddied here – the joy of dance as well as the discipline. The gift instead of the theft. It does not matter that ballet grew out of Renaissance Italy. Right now, it is alive and well and particularly beautiful in Lagos, where they dance it barefoot in the rain.