In the bustling city of London, Ruth Essel takes a graceful yet determined stance, unyielding in her commitment to alter the traditional narrative of ballet through her creation – Pointe Black Ballet School. The school stands not merely as an institution teaching the refined art of ballet but emerges as a symbol of resistance, empowerment, and a sanctuary where the traditional norms of the ballet world are both challenged and redefined. Essel’s journey from a young ballet dancer to establishing Pointe Black reveals a poignant tale of resilience amidst adversity, narrating not just her story, but echoing the silent struggles of many Black ballet dancers across the globe.
The spark that kindled the establishment of Pointe Black was born from Essel’s personal encounters with stigmatization and exclusion due to her race within the conventional ballet environment. A vivid memory that casts a long shadow over her past is a moment on a West End stage at the tender age of ten. Essel, filled with pride at her carefully braided bun – a financial sacrifice made by her single mother, faced a harsh critique from her teacher who dismissed her hairstyle as a “mess” amidst an almost entirely white cohort of dancers. This incident, among several others, would instill in Essel a defiant spirit and an unwavering resolve to forge a path where Black dancers could flourish, devoid of prejudice and discrimination.
Pointe Black, established in 2020, when Essel was 26 and working as a deputy programme manager at a unit of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, emerged as a beacon for those aspiring Black dancers who seek not just tutelage in ballet but also a supportive environment where their heritage is celebrated, not suppressed. Essel’s desire for the establishment was deeply rooted in her yearning to create a Black environment where young dancers could see their reflections in their mentors and peers alike.
In stark contrast to the traditional ballet world, where a light-skinned ballet dancer image still largely prevails, Pointe Black proudly embraces diversity, intertwining classical ballet with African steps and music styles. The school showcases a vibrant display of diverse hairstyles from afros to plaits, becoming a vibrant mosaic that celebrates individuality and cultural heritage. Essel, through Pointe Black, seeks not merely to teach ballet but to subvert and expand the norms, allowing Black dancers to bask in their cultural identity without the compulsion to conform to traditional aesthetic norms of the ballet world.
However, the disparity in the ballet world isn’t concealed. Statistically, about 2.2% of dancers in the UK’s top four ballet companies are of Black heritage, roughly in alignment with the country’s 3% Black population, as indicated in Sandie Bourne’s 2017 doctoral thesis. This is a clear indicator of the underrepresentation and challenges faced by Black dancers in the professional sphere.
Pointe Black doesn’t merely stand as a ballet school but evolves as a nurturing ground, providing not only ballet lessons but also emotional counseling, creating a robust, community-based network of studios, dancers, and instructors. The school reflects the sanctuary Essel wishes she had access to in her formative years, presenting a vibrant illustration of how barriers can be dismantled when defiance is paired with determination.
Young dancers like Maya Beale-Springer find at Pointe Black a haven where they can explore varied ballet styles and music, unshackled by conventional restraints, and allowed the freedom to intertwine their aspirations, whether they be in astrophysics or the arts, without conflict or compromise.
Pointe Black Ballet School, through Essel’s visionary leadership, ascends as a monumental testament to how the unwavering spirit of one individual can carve out spaces of acceptance, empowerment, and unbridled expression amidst a realm tethered to traditional norms.