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Instagram brings international fame to Lagos Leap of Dance Academy

Instagram brings international fame to Lagos Leap of Dance Academy. Leap of Dance Academy student Precious Duru performs on Okelola Street in Ajangbadi, Lagos. Photograph: Benson Ibeabuchi/AFP via Getty
On June 18th, 2020, a video uploaded to Instagram showed Anthony Mmesoma Madu, then 11, pirouetting on dirty concrete in western Lagos. He was barefoot, it was raining, but his grace, talent passion were undeniable.
“With very little or no resources our kids are training to be the best they can,” wrote ballet teacher Daniel Owoseni Ajala, alongside the footage. “Who wouldn’t be proud of them? What teacher wouldn’t pray for students who come to class with so much desire to learn? Kids who are ready to dance with or without conditions. Imagine what more we could achieve if we have more? DMs for more information.”
The video went viral. Within months, it had been viewed more than 20 million times. Madu was offered multiple scholarships, including one at the American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School in the US. He is currently studying with a ballet school in Birmingham, in the UK.
Now, 19 months later, the experience of the Leap of Dance Academy since that video shows how social media has created huge opportunities for people across Africa who may never have had a way to have their talents valued before, or even a means of discovering them in the first place.
In Nigeria, the continent’s most populous nation, more than one in three people use the internet today, up from less than one in 100 people in 2003, according tothe World Bank. The Leap of Dance Academy is riding the wave of increased connectivity, now has more than 119,000 followers on Instagram. Ajala, its founder, posts updates most days.
A 30-year-old business administration graduate, Ajala started the ballet academy in his own home neighbourhood of Ajangbadi, on the outskirts of Lagos, in 2017, after teaching himself to dance by watching YouTube videos over the previous eight years. Ajala has since used Facebook to connect with ballet teachers across the world.
The roads around his home are rutted and deep in sand. When the car I drove there in got stuck, a group of locals came forward to push it out again. Then, Ajala came running along the road to rush me back to the school; his lesson had been interrupted and his students were waiting. He was clearly well-known. “I see you, I see you,” he said to children who waved at him from the side of road as we walked.
Ajala’s eldest student, Olamide Olawale, is 20 and now has more than 8,450 Instagram followers. She was asleep on the porch of his home, while others milled around, some looking at a new arrival of donated gear from US pointe shoe manufacturer Gaynor Minden. Ajala’s mother smiled at the assembled students.
The previous night, some of the group had returned from Mali, where they performed over a few days. They video-called students they had met on the trip from Ajala’s phone after I arrived, all shouting greetings down the small screen.
“Thank you to the viral video, that’s brought us a lot of opportunities, international trips,” explained Ajala. Still, he remembered that he had been hesitant about posting it because of his concern that it reinforced the negative stereotypes many people have about his country. “A lot of people think that nothing good comes out of Nigeria,” he said, but, at the same stage, he wanted to show “reality”.
In the aftermath of their internet fame, Ajala said, “stardom” has been difficult. CNN, BBC, the New York Times, and the Guardian were among a huge number of media outlets to profile the dance school in the months afterwards. Ajala had to be careful about the privacy of the children and how much information became available about them. Social media has “the good, the bad and the ugly”, Ajala continued. “You have to use the good.”
Back in 2017, the Leap of Dance Academy had just five students. Now, Ajala is turning children away, keeping admission to about 30, about 10 of whom are “vocational”. Those accepted must be “serious” and “committed” – not pushed by their parents or looking for whatever opportunities might come with their newfound fame, he said. Students are taught for free.
Initially it was difficult attracting young people. “Ballet is not really prominent here in Nigeria,” Ajala said. “A lot of people feel it’s not very scriptural, it’s not decent. Some people say it’s demonic, it’s unChristian. And we try to reassure them that it is not a bad art form.”
Ajala explained that he gives classes to wealthier children in more upscale neighbourhoods of Lagos, using that money to support his work in Ajangbadi. The area is a lower-income one, and Ajala’s school now provides food and assistance with academic subjects along with other forms of help.
Precious Duru (13) travelled to Italy last June to dance. “We’re using ballet to represent Nigeria,” she said, with pride. “If you have talent, don’t hide it. Never give up.” She said she wants to become a construction engineer when she gets older.
Her 11-year-old sister, Favour, said she wanted to be a doctor but also to “never stop dancing”.
“Ballet is very hard, you have to put in a lot of work,” said Daniella Nnamani, a 13-year-old wearing silver heart-shaped earrings, who started attending classes in 2018 after hearing about them from a neighbour. She described her first time trying to dance en pointe, where “you can get hurt if you’re not strong”.
“I’d like to tell the world that dancing is really fun to learn, if you want to go far through dance you have to take it seriously,” she said, though her eventual dream is also to medicine.
Beauty Omondiagbe (15) said she has been dancing for three years and enjoys that it makes her different from others in her neighbourhood. Of the four, she was the only one who said she wanted to become a professional dancer – ideally in London.
Most of the opportunities now coming up are abroad, Ajala said, and that brings its own challenges. Ajala advises his students to prioritise offers that will enable them to or perform in other countries for a period of time but then return back to Nigeria. “My major aim is actually to have dancers in Nigeria, not dancers in the diaspora. In the UK or a lot of the world there is already huge competition. In Nigeria you will get more of a name.”
While he hopes some of them will become professional dancers, he also believes they will benefit from having trained in ballet no matter what they do later. Becoming “good humans” is the most important thing, he said.
Ajala said he is also conscious that ballet has traditionally been very white, but he tells his students not to be deterred by that. “If you are given the opportunity to do you should be allowed to dream. No one should be allowed to feel less of themselves because of their skin colour. Let [them] be the one to decide if it’s not a good fit for [them].”
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