This Black-owned ballet school empowers young dancers
Photographs by Alishia Abodunde/Reuters
Story by Rebecca Wright, CNN
Published October 28, 2023
At the beginning of the year, Alishia Abodunde joined her friend, a former ballet dancer from New York, on a trip to the ballet at the Royal Opera House in London.
It was her first time going to the ballet, and she fell in love with it. But as she looked around, she noticed something.
“I realized ... there aren’t that many Black or Brown dancers,” Abodunde said. “And also ... I was like one of two people of color in the audience.”
She hadn’t thought about it before — how when you imagine a ballet dancer, you usually think of a White woman — but she couldn’t stop thinking about it after.
That thought led her to Ruth Essel, the founder of the Pointe Black ballet school in London who’s creating a space for young Black ballet dancers to be their most authentic selves.
“She told me quite a few of her stories of what she experienced as a young Black dancer, and she told me a bit more about the school and what led her to open up Point Black,” Abodunde said. “After the call I was like, ‘Yes, this is exactly the story I want to tell.’ ”
Abodunde spent more than 10 months with Essel and a group of dancers known as the “M-Troupe,” documenting as the dancers not only improved their skills as ballet dancers, but also how they built their confidence.
“It was just amazing to see this safe space that [Essel] had created for these kids to be unapologetically themselves,” Abodunde said. “They could wear their hair how they wanted to. They’re in black tutus and wear the Pointe Black merchandise. At the end of every class, she had them do their positive affirmations.”
“I am Black, I am brave, I am beautiful,” the girls say to themselves.
As a child growing up in England’s Norfolk County, Abodunde never danced — instead, she was a sprinter — but now she says she can’t help but wonder if that’s because she didn’t see herself in that space.
“I think growing up in this very small city in the ‘90s as a mixed-race child, there just wasn’t much representation at all,” Abodunde said. “That’s why I love that [Essel’s] providing representation for other kids who may not even know that this is something they can do.”
Essel’s own challenges growing up as a Black dancer in a predominately White space motivated her to start Pointe Black in 2020. She does it all on her own, according to Abodunde.
“She teaches on her own, she puts together the showcase every year on her own,” Abodunde said. “Her brothers help with the music ... but she doesn’t have any arts funding.”
But a lack of resources doesn’t stop Essel from pouring everything she has into her students. To help prepare for their performance of “Brick Road,” Essel invited the girls to her house for a watch party of “The Wiz,” a 1978 reimagined telling of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and an all-Black cast.
“There were snacks everywhere. Everyone had way too much sugar,” Abodunde laughed, remembering the day.
“It was really lovely to see her with the girls not in the school. She really cares about all her students, and it’s so obvious to see because they’re so comfortable and warm with her.”
This isn’t Abodunde’s first time photographing kids. The documentary photographer got her start with her pandemic project “Locked Down,” documenting the daily life of two young children as they navigated a global pandemic.
“Originally, I thought, ‘This is going to be boring, this isn’t going to be anything,’ ” Abodunde said. “But actually, I would go home and edit through the photos, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is hilarious. I’m actually doing something here.’ ”
That experience, Abodunde said, helped her prepare for this new story. She knew she had to build trust with the kids.
“The stuff from the beginning didn't get used that much because I spent that time just familiarizing myself with them and making sure that I felt comfortable with them and they felt comfortable with me to a point that I could literally have my lens in front of their face like this and they wouldn't see that I was there,” Abodunde said.
She also had to build that same trust with Essel.
“This is such an incredible story, and what she’s done is phenomenal,” Abodunde said. “I wanted to make sure that I was going to be able to do her story justice, and I knew that I had to put in that time.”
Since Abodunde’s story was first published by Reuters in early October, Pointe Black has been getting more attention. Essel has received donations from all over the world, and parents are reaching out to see how their kids can get involved.
“That’s all I wanted to be able to do,” Abodunde said. “To give her this platform, for parents to see it so that children know that they can do it. It’s easier to aspire to do something when you see people who look like you.”