The world first saw Anthony Mmesoma Madu dance back in June — his teacher and studio-founder Daniel Owoseni Ajala posted a video of the 11-year-old student turning and leaping in the rainy outdoors of his native Nigeria. The boy’s bare feet propelled him off the muddy ground through an impressive combination of classical ballet, and the clip soon went viral. In the United States and Europe, professional dancers with large followings on social media reposted the video and offered words of admiration for Madu’s tenacity. New York City Ballet superstar Tiler Peck invited him to join her as a guest on her daily IGTV ballet classes. Viola Davis posted the video to her Instagram, and Nigerian journalist Fade Ogunuro announced over Twitter that she planned to pay for the rest of Madu’s academic expenses through the end of college. Earlier this month, the American Ballet Theatre Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School offered him a full scholarship to their virtual summer program, including additional funding for his internet.
The news coverage started quickly. BBC, NPR, Washington Post, Good Morning America, Reuters, People Magazine and TIME make up only a partial list of publications that covered the story. This attention makes sense; Madu’s is a tale of opportunity in a world currently stricken by loss. The dance industry in particular has already hemorrhaged millions, if not billions, of dollars in the wake of waves of COVID-19 and there continues to be no clear date for the safe reopening of theaters and performance spaces.
When the ABT JKO School’s director Cynthia Harvey announced Madu’s scholarship, she touched on this context.
“Here, we’re complaining about not being able to open our buildings,” she told the The Cincinnati Enquirer. “But in that video, I saw a boy who was a perfect example of the tenacity someone can have when they have love and a dream. It was immediately obvious how much determination he had.”
Madu’s work ethic can indeed feel humbling in an environment stricken with complaints surrounding the discomfort of dancing in one’s own air-conditioned living room. The imagery of his dancing in the rain seems to have rekindled the dwindling motivation of many dancers currently training at home while living on tiny unemployment checks. Nevertheless, all of this attention feels narrow: If this student is truly the world’s paragon of tenacity, why did he have to become a viral sensation to even be noticed?
Socioeconomic accessibility in ballet became a revitalized conversation topic this summer. In the wake of a global reckoning with systemic racism, activists continue to push ballet’s leadership to acknowledge and rectify the deep roots of elitism and white supremacy upon which this art form was built. Even today, FiveThirtyEight predicts that a ballerina in training may spend up to $100,000 before landing a professional contract (minus the female-only pointe shoe category, the number is still close to $70,000). As the pressure mounts for rich, white dance institutions to increase their support for communities cut off by such insurmountable price tags, Madu’s story offers a dangerously easy narrative of change — a young prodigy finally given the opportunity his talent deserves. But this narrative only includes the story of one student; the story would be exponentially more powerful if we sought to include the empowerment of Madu’s classmates as well as other underserved communities across the globe.
Madu’s studio, the Leap of Dance Academy, is a prime example of organizations deserving of such financial support and community validation. The founder, Daniel Owoseni Ajala, is a self-taught dancer with a dream of expanding dance education for his own community. He teaches his students from his own apartment and doesn’t charge for lessons. In addition to dance, he provides academic tutoring and a weekly meal. As Madu’s video made the rounds on social media, Ajala received an influx of donations and an invitation to ABT’s two-week teacher training program, but these parts of the story were left out of the vast majority of coverage. Instead, the articles and video featurettes focused solely on Madu’s talented turns and jumps — almost all of them mentioned the boy’s talent as a motivational symbol for a world crushed by an ongoing pandemic. Apparently, students and communities like Madu’s only become relevant with a global health crisis as the backdrop.
These last weeks of summer mark the beginning of many first-of-their kind programming for ballet schools and companies. Digital learning, filmed performances and a terrifying uncertainty of artistic survival will test even the best in our field. Nevertheless, such hardship should not be our only reason to applaud Madu and his teacher. They will still be dancing when this pandemic is over — I hope we will still be willing to support them
Daily Arts Columnist Zoe Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.