What did Ellen Ofori, Marie Genevieve van Goethem, and Karen Kain have in common? These women lit the flame which led to my dance passion, ballet. I started as an RAD student in 1986 and progressed in my own right as a dancer, where I pursued related goals and career interests.
I was an assistant at the studio where I started, and I acquired that studio when its name changed to Conservatory of Dance Plus Inc. (CODPI). I became its Owner and Artistic Director from 2004 to 2013 and continued my membership with the RAD on and off thereafter. I would step away only to focus on the wellbeing of my family, particularly my mother. She had battled some health issues more than once and epitomized strength. My mom, Ellen Ofori, a Ghanaian woman, had my older brother and me in Toronto, Canada.
At the tender age of nine, two weeks after my mother signed me up for ballet lessons, my school teacher asked our class to prepare a project answering the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I never told my classmates I wanted to be a ballet dancer. I wanted my choice to be a surprise, and I could not wait to commence my research. The librarian was kind as she pointed me to a small section where the dance books were housed. In my young mind, I thought my dream to be a dancer would be considered unrealistic unless I could find a book with a ballet dancer who looked like me.
One book on the artwork by Edgar Degas caught my eye because it featured, along with paintings of ballet dancers, a statue of a dancer. She had brown skin like mine – or at least I thought she did. Being bilingual, I was able to read the caption on the page, La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze. I wanted to know more about her. What was her story? I called the librarian over for assistance and happily started to ramble off my questions with excitement. She quickly realized I was referring to the sculpture of Degas’ most famous dancer. Her name, ‘Marie Genevieve van Goethem, Little Dancer of Fourteen Years’, the caption’s translation.
The librarian could see how the material used to create the statue might confuse me. Marie van Goethem was not black, but the librarian was savvy enough to notice my disappointment and tears in my eyes as I explained the purpose of my visit to the library. The librarian went away and quickly came back with two more books, one on the unique story of van Goethem, who was only able to afford dance lessons after her father got sick, because Degas chose to sculpt her before he went blind. The other was about Karen Kain, a Canadian ballet dancer and icon. The librarian was able to help me recognise how these two women could inspire me, and they did. I knew at that moment the diversity I did not see in dance was going to be an opportunity. I quickly dried my eyes and thanked the librarian. Later on, I shared my experience with my dad. I will never forget what he said during the car ride to my dance class that day, “Akua, never feel limited, but limitless. Your passion will be stronger than any barrier you face.”
My dad, Albert Yaw Acheampong, was killed six years later by a drunk driver. RAD ballet studios became a second home where dance was my therapy. For this reason, despite the initial hardship, my mother found a way to continue to afford dance lessons. Challenges I faced were socio-economic, and forms of discrimination or the pressure to assimilate with my white counterparts. Getting my kinky hair smooth enough to make a bun, not having access to make up for my complexion at dress rehearsals and performances, no costumes or attire for my skin tone, and questioning roles in choreography.
Nobody was asking the question, in those days, of whose voice was excluded in the professional development courses, materials, resources, music compositions, posters on the wall, and in the business of dance. For example, my Operations Manager, Jennifer da Silva and I, started at the same studio. I saw her as a sister and member of my family, the way I viewed anyone who became part of our dance community. She would have to point me out, on more than one occasion, as the director, as people would assume it was her all the time.
At times, these issues would rattle my confidence. However, I strongly believed that in order to see the change I wanted to see, I needed to work in dance education. My expertise in diverse dance forms grew in other areas as it did in ballet: this included Ghanaian traditional dances, hip hop, and more. This enabled me to expose students from both affluent and underprivileged neighbourhoods to the fine arts of dance in engaging ways, by leading workshops in schools or seminars in universities. Whether it was making a connection with the Ontario Arts Council, Dance Immersion, or Culture Shock Canada, I found a way to dance, do arts consultation, or choreography.
As a dance scholar, I recognized that ballet had taught me about discipline, commitment, and perseverance. I wanted to share these attributes and my passion for dance with others. Ultimately, the reason for starting a ballet studio as a black woman was to be a voice at the table. Despite never seeing a black artistic director before, or individuals from racialized communities in leadership capacities at professional development courses, or in other significant roles, I wanted to be what I did not see growing up and help fill the void. It was my hope that the wider RAD family would find ways to further acknowledge the contributions of its black members too.
With that said, I remember being impacted in a good way by Wendy Holt (Ontario Ballet School, where I started pointe), Pia Bouman (Pia Bouman School for Ballet and Creative Movement, who encouraged me to pursue the RAD Certificate In Ballet Teaching Studies from 2004 to 2005, which led to becoming an RAD Registered Teacher), the late Penelope Doob (Chair of the Dance Department at York University, where I accomplished my MA of Arts, Dance in 2003), and Philippa (Pippa) Pepera (where my work as a ballet assistant at the Mandy Fouracre Dance Academy in Accra, Ghana, West Africa gave me international experience in 2002). These individuals unknowingly made a positive impression on me, and I wanted to pay it forward.
The year I acquired my dance studio, I landed employment with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), instructing – among other subject areas – the dance teachable/integrated arts curriculum to students. My now 16-year-old daughter, born the same year, watched me pursue every minute of my dance passion.
When you close your eyes, initially you may see darkness. If you concentrate, you start to see shadows, images, blurred colours, and moving pictures. Unafraid, and despite the black background, you can even concentrate on your breathing and beating heart. We are all the same when our eyes are closed. In the dance community, a call to action and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement means bringing awareness to what makes us the same while acknowledging the challenges faced by blacks or people from racialized communities, and their barriers in dance. Only in solidarity can we work harder to promote equality for all. Ballet is not just a dance outlet, but a system that traditionally did not consider what lens was underrepresented when decisions were made. Nevertheless, RAD Canada started my formal dance journey, which led to dance leadership and opportunity not just on the stage, but in every area of the dance industry, its educational institutions, and beyond. If you are in a position of dance influence or privilege, it means being unafraid to mentor the next change-maker and embracing black skin in all its shades to enrich the future of ballet, and the dance world.