This Nigerian Ballet Teacher's Academy Has Leapt Into the Spotlight

Courtesy Daniel Owoseni Ajala

Daniel Owoseni Ajala has had quite a summer. Born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria, Ajala is the founder and creative director of the Leap of Dance Academy, which provides ballet classes for young dancers. His school has gained worldwide attention ever since June, when he posted a video of one of his students dancing in the rain at his home. The clip went viral, leading to major scholarship opportunities and coverage from news outlets around the world.

We recently spoke to Ajala about how he's used his love for culture and dance to create a ballet program for a community that had none.


How did you begin dancing?

I fell in love with dance when I was just 9 years old. I was young but knew it was something that I loved. I remember watching Save the Last Dance and wanting to do that.

What drew you specifically to ballet?

I've always been an individual and had my own voice. I loved ballet because it was so different from what I saw growing up. Ballet made me feel like myself in my own unique space. It wasn't normal, especially while growing up in Lagos, where we frequently see our native Nigerian dances. Though people would stare if they saw me dancing, for me, ballet was fresh and new, which made me drawn to it immediately.

When did you start the Leap of Dance Academy?

I created the Leap of Dance on Saturday, September 29, 2017, with just five students: three girls and two boys. There was a need for a dance school in our area to teach and inspire young dancers. In looking for space, I contacted the proprietor of my former primary school, and they allowed me to use it for classes. As of now, that space is only available twice a week, so every other time we get together, I teach my students out of my home. We now have 12 consistent students that I teach each week.

What is your dream for the Leap of Dance Academy?

I dream of us having our own space that's solely dedicated to dance. Currently, that's not available to us. We only have a ballet barre, and it would be great to have a full facility with a floor built for dancing. I dream of bringing international teachers to Nigeria to inspire our students. Ballet is about cultural exchange, and when those exchanges are not available, it makes progress feel that much harder. I hope to see Nigeria on the map internationally so that we can build a cultural exchange program that provides proper learning, exposure and opportunities for our youth.

If you could have any teacher come teach at your studio, who would it be?

Wendy Whelan!

What is one thing that you try to instill in your students?

I always tell my kids that I want them to have the opportunities that their parents never had. It's so much more than just dance. Being Black can come with being sidelined and not being included. So many people have led them to believe that because they're Black, Nigerian and come from poverty, that they can't be successful or have opportunities. I want them to know that they can overcome adversity and make their dreams a reality. I do my best to be an example and show that if I can push through without resources, you can. If you don't have the resources, create something out of nothing.

Technique
Nan Melville, courtesy Genn

Not so long ago, it seemed that ballet dancers were always encouraged to pull up away from the floor. Ideas evolved, and more recently it has become common to hear teachers saying "Push down to go up," and variations on that concept.

Charla Genn, a New York City–based coach and dance rehabilitation specialist who teaches company class for Dance Theatre of Harlem, American Ballet Theatre and Ballet Hispánico, says that this causes its own problems.

"Often when we tell dancers to go down, they physically push down, or think they have to plié more," she says. These are misconceptions that keep dancers from, among other things, jumping to their full potential.

To help dancers learn to efficiently use what she calls "Mother Marley," Genn has developed these clever techniques and teaching tools.

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"For three days I would experience relief from the fever—then, boom—it would come back worse than before," Alexis says. "I would go into a room and not know why I was there." Despite the remission of some symptoms, the fatigue and other debilitating side effects have endured to this day. Alexis is part of a tens-of-thousands-member club nobody wants to be part of—she is a COVID-19 long-hauler.

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"I had a hard time watching people have these conversations without historical context and knowledge," says Griffith, who now resides in her hometown of Portland, Oregon, after many years in New York City. "It was clear that there was so much information missing."

For example, she observed people discussing tap while demonstrating ignorance about Black culture. Or, posts that tried to impose upon tap the history or aesthetics of European dance forms.

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