Sesayarts Magazine, 3rd October 2023

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Beyond the Barre: Celebrating Diversity with Cassa Pancho and Ballet Black

By Emilia Voudouris, Sesayarts Magazine, 2023

October 3rd 2023

Cassa Pancho first encountered dance at the young age of two, when she walked into her first ballet class. It was love at first step. Encouraged by her school, she would try other dance styles such as tap (she hated the noise), musical theater and jazz. But she always knew what she liked, and her captivation was ballet.

Pancho is the founder of Ballet Black, a Neo-classical, British-based ballet company and dance school promoting inclusivity for Black and Asian dancers. Ballet Black’s classes are turning the once-staid world of ballet into a welcoming space – both on and off-stage – for everyone in the community. Ballet Black prioritizes bringing ballet to a more culturally diverse audience, a goal they are working towards by sharing their work overseas. The company has just arrived in Canada and will make its North American debut at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, and then appear at Fall for Dance North in Toronto. The choreographies presented will include Then Or Now by William Tuckett, and Nina: By Whatever Means by Mthuthuzeli November. Attending one of these Ballet Black shows will be an opportunity to challenge preconceived notions of ballet and reimagine what dance can look like.

Growing up

Music was an integral part of Pancho’s upbringing, inside and outside of the classroom. With a British mum and a Trinidadian father, their family flat was always bustling with a diverse mix of sounds and tastes. Michael Jackson, Jimi Hendrix, Glen Miller, and Vivaldi were never far. The family’s Caribbean roots were represented with abundant Calypso and Soca. And the UK made itself known with The Beatles. From an early age, this melange of musical cultures would inspire and enrich her. Her familial, musical and cultural connection to these different worlds allowed her to become a bridge between cultures and to celebrate the beauty in each.

But her mixed upbringing also posed challenges for young Cassa. First, it was a dawning awareness of difference: she would eat West Indian curry for dinner when her friends ate pizza and chips. But at eight years old, that sense of difference metastasized when someone spat on her on the street. “I was really confused, and didn’t know what it meant at the time”, she explains, but this brush with racism would not be an isolated incident.

Because she is mixed and light-skinned, her ballet teachers would verbalize racist rules – about what black people could and could not do – in her presence: “They spoke freely because they thought there was no presence in the room that was reflective of who they were talking about.”

Starting with a question

Her studies in dance at Durham University required Pancho to write a final dissertation, but she could not bear to write again about the usual topics, such as exercise or nutrition. She instead chose to write “All Things Black and Beautiful”, an analysis and appreciation of Black women in ballet. Her goal was to interview Black ballet dancers in the UK, in order to study their experiences in British ballet. There was just one problem: she could not find any who were working in the UK. The few who had trained there in the 1970s had been told that they would not find work, and so had left to pursue careers in the US.

This is when Pancho reframed her dissertation’s central question to “WHY aren’t there any black women in ballet?” When she sat down with women who were still training or working professionally in contemporary dance and listened to their stories, the answer was distressingly simple. Almost every one of them had been the only Black person at their studio, and they had been actively discouraged from becoming ballet dancers.

Lack of representation is one of the most fundamental barriers to aspiration – so once again, Pancho got to thinking. What if a company were run by a mixed-race woman? What if the instructors leading the class were Black? What would that do to the power structure in the room? With these questions as her foundation, Pancho opened a small, Black-led class of six dancers – and found the dynamic was instantly changed. Seeing was believing: with role models who looked like them, these young Black dancers felt like they belonged and were supported. As a result, they stretched, grew and aspired to more.

No quick fixes

The goal was clear: to get more Black dancers onto professional stages. But this required starting at the beginning: by giving Black children strong role models and training from the age of three. “Nowadays, we can name Carlos Acosta and Misty Copeland, two very famous black ballet dancers, but when Ballet Black started you couldn’t name a dancer who’d made it big in ballet who was Black.”

It was also important for children and families to see career paths in ballet outside of the stage – for instance, in the worlds of choreography and production. Pancho knew well the time commitment and the emotional and financial investment required to support a child’s pursuit of any craft at an elite level: “You can’t just have a willing child. You need a willing family.” And that willingness increases as the range of possible rewards for pursuing dance widens. It also increases when prospective dancers and family members become part of the audience. “The whole thing is about demystifying what ballet means” – which means diversifying who wants to go and see ballet.

Of course, truly inclusive and welcoming environments require more than mere words and intentions. They are built on actions and experiences. Iconic ballet attire has always been pointe shoes and tights, which for the longest time were limited in colour and size. For this reason, in 2017 Pancho collaborated with Freed of London, a world leader in Handcrafted Dance Shoes, to create two new colours of brown pointe shoes and tights. Tangible objects – especially objects of clothing – are important. And this collaboration has meant that “if you’re a young black girl you can go to a ballet shop and see there’s stuff in your skin colour. So you know – without us preaching it to you – that ballet is for you. There’s a space for you in ballet.”

Money matters

The loving support of friends and family kept Pancho motivated, but back in 2001, she had no funding to back her project. She was not a famous dancer or brilliant choreographer: she was a fresh-out-of-school student with no reputation to trade on. But for Pancho, obstacles are lessons. When she encounters a new challenge, she learns how to navigate it.

So in the beginning, Pancho was not focused on a transformative vision and long-term plans. Rather, she asked herself the next question, then figured out how to answer it: “How do I get that class started? And then how do I come back and do it again? It was very small increments of progression.” Through steady steps, Ballet Black grew into today’s company of ten dancers and school of 200 children.

As the company has evolved, what has never dimmed is Pancho’s consciousness of the role of money in a budding dancer’s career. This is why Ballet Black does not offer internships. There is no expectation for people to work for free. Instead, Pancho wants to foster an environment where people can learn, work, and make a living. “Some people come from backgrounds where they have family cash to support an internship,” she says, “and there’s nothing wrong with that. It just means it’s the same people who get the jobs every time. And it’s been like that in ballet as well – something only wealthy caucasian elites can do.”

Ballet Black

“Until Ballet Black, we didn’t have anything like Dance Theater of Harlem”, says Pancho, referring to the American Ballet company founded by Arthur Mitchell and Karel Shook. “We had small contemporary and African dance groups, but we didn’t have anything in classical ballet.” In the UK, ballet usually starts in a church hall and community spaces: “You don’t go to a big fancy studio. You start with an old, out-of-tune piano and a chair for a barre”. Though ballet starts out as an everybody-can-take-part activity, it tends not to remain that way.

One of the biggest struggles in building up Ballet Black has been the denials of racism from both the Black and white communities: “A lot of people say there is no racism, and you just have to be the best now…. And yes, you may be as good as someone else, but there are other barriers that you hope you won’t have to navigate.” Ballet Black was a major irritant to the ballet establishment in its early days, and “it took about a decade to shake off that tag of just being a young girl who is a bit uppity and doesn’t know her place.”

Pancho’s prowess in asking the right questions, building new answers, and advocating on behalf of those answers has enabled Ballet Black to become the force it is now. “The rigour of ballet technique is still there, but the fact that people involved are from different backgrounds, and that the company is called ‘Ballet Black’ forces people to ask why . . . There’s a shift there. And it really bothers a lot of people.” The bottom line is simple: “a lot of people don’t like that we exist. But I just want to open it up for everybody, you know?” For this reason, it is essential that those who join Ballet Black understand the very real barriers imposed by racism. While some dancers in the company may not feel personally affected, other dancers can attest to the ways racism has made their lives more difficult: “What I don’t want is anyone in the company denying that experience that other people may have had… You don’t have to be a spokesperson for anti-racism, but you need to believe in the goal of the company.”

Inspiration and outreach

Rather than presenting the thousandth remake of Swan Lake, Ballet Black has pioneered the creation of new, relevant works and choreographies that reflect the world today. In doing so, it has become an integral element of the British ballet scene. Pancho’s work has inspired other ballet companies to celebrate the diverse roots and potential of dance and self-expression.

And right now, she and the company “are all very excited to come to Canada. Most of us haven’t been before.” The performances Ballet Black has prepared for their North American debut will be held on October 3rd and 4th at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and on October 6th and 7th at Meridian Hall in Toronto. The performances combine classical ballet, poetry, and activism to explore the notion of home and belonging. 

Ultimately, Ballet Black is on a mission: “post-Brexit and post-COVID, this is the start of Ballet Black taking this work, this ethos, and these ideas further than the UK, to other places around the world.” And she feels strongly that this outreach through the Ballet Black experience is “all very positive. There’s nothing negative. Although we do talk about racism and things like that, if you see the actual show – however you feel about race, or where you are in the spectrum of believing – the show itself is a very inspiring and uplifting thing.”

With open eyes and open heart, Cassa Pancho has relaxed the rigidity of the ballet world. Through the work of Ballet Black, she has asked – and answered – tough questions one by one. She has used discipline, strength and flexibility to understand – and to solve – representational and monetary challenges. And she has applied the essence of dance to create a diverse and dynamic community that bridges the gaps between church halls and professional dance studios, and individual aspiration and the larger dance ecosystem. 

Her lifelong work is a celebration of her love of dance and a testament to her gift of nurturing and strengthening community. Ballet Black has bloomed not only as a successful company, but as a powerful force driving change in the world of dance.