Across the week, when the young aspiring dancers arrive for their after-school and weekend classes and push the door back to the Marylebone studio, they are entering into the world Cassa Pancho created 21 years ago – the world of Ballet Black.

Words by Yasmin Arrigo,
Global Editorial Director, Amplify.

Launched to celebrate and bring opportunities to Black and Asian dancers, the professional ballet company has an ultimate goal of creating a greater representation in the mainstream ballet universe. From traversing traditional worlds through to extending beyond performance, Pancho answers frankly about the challenges of breaking formats and transforming the dance landscape.

Building the world of Ballet Black

My dad is from Trinidad, and my mum is white British. My childhood was spent taking ballet lessons in west London where there was all the diversity that you’d expect in west London. However, this all changed when I went to professional school – there were no Black dancers and no Black teachers or staff.

I started overhearing what others said about Black culture and its place in ballet, without understanding my background. It made me think, was the world of ballet a racist place? When I was a kid, taking classes with other children from west London, I hadn’t considered that, but at professional school it changed.

Breakthrough moment

In my final year, I decided to write a dissertation about the lack of Black women in classical ballet in the UK. But I couldn’t actually find any UK-based Black ballet dancers to talk to so had to go further afield and spoke to professional Black dancers about their experiences.
I felt their discomfort.

I started Ballet Black upon graduation. I found a teaching post and took on a role as a receptionist in a pilates studio, then the weekends and evenings were about Ballet Black. The first step was actually deciding to do it and the second was coming up with a name. Ballet Black was meant to be a placeholder, lots of people found it too direct and confronting.

I wasn’t aware of needing a certain resilience about me, though. If you do anything of note in ballet, you have to have been a name first. The typical path is to be a dancer, a principal and then a choreographer. In that respect, I was an unknown. Additionally, I was very young and I was a woman. Did I have to be resilient? I wasn’t aware of having to be, as no-one cared – not in a bad way – but no-one was even aware of me and what I was doing. I wasn’t a name so I could carry on building this.

Traversing traditional establishments

Baroness Deborah Bull, former principal ballerina with the Royal Ballet Company, had a remit at the Royal Opera House to find different work to sit in the venue’s smaller performance spaces and she invited us in to train and perform in the Linbury Theatre. It was the equivalent of being a struggling filmmaker that suddenly meets Netflix and gets to be part of the programming. We were an obscure company now suddenly working at the Royal Opera House. Our class numbers quadrupled overnight, we then built an audience and started to grow a press presence.

Pivotal moments

Winning a prestigious Critics’ Circle National Dance Award in 2012 for our company, with Rambert and Scottish Ballet also in the running, was overwhelming. Of course, there’s that moment when you think, did we get this because we had to? Because we were the ethnic one? But to win on our ten-year anniversary was a highlight. You go through the journey and can have dips – the award came along at the right time, to remind the company of why we are doing this.

Extending the footprint

Luke Jennings, the dance critic and journalist, had written an article about the lack of ballet shoes for Black dancers and Freed London got in touch, and he directed them to us. Cira Robinson (Ballet Black dancer) had also been in their shop looking for pointe shoes – they had every colour except brown. Someone working in the shop had told her that if she found the satin, they would make the shoe. When I found out, I went back to Freed and asked them to find the satin! We used Cira as the model, we needed a bronze shoe, plus matching ribbons and elastics. The process began in 2016 and we launched the shoe in 2018. The reaction from across the world, from students, parents and dancers was immense.

Of course, there remained the negative voices, too – questioning why we were focusing on shoes and not crime, as if to say that is what Black people should focus on.

Taking the Glastonbury stage

Stormzy and I were already connected. I had met him at the South Bank Sky Arts Awards ceremony, where he’d won the Pop accolade. I’m a huge fan of his music and we followed each other on Twitter, so he already knew of Ballet Black. He said to me that we’d do something together, so when the head of his creative team got in touch, asking if we’d come and do a festival with him (in 2019), of course the answer was yes. Just four of us went down to Glastonbury and our performance was just 2.5 minutes but it was such a defining moment – one that put Ballet Black on a global stage.

Inspirational worlds

There are so many trailblazers to admire – Kwame Kwei- Armah, the Artistic Director of the Young Vic is such an endless ball of energy. I wish I had his unbridled energy and enthusiasm! Then there’s Laurence Gomez, Director and Head Chef of Papa L. He’s a true disruptor of the food industry, taking Caribbean dishes to a haute cuisine level. And of course Cira herself, who has been very overlooked in the UK.

Future aspirations

We’re 21 years old. When I look to next year and beyond, I want us to do exactly what we’ve done to date but more: more kids, more classes, more dancers, more performances. Then we need to start to perform new stories. For 2023, we’ll be telling the story of Nina Simone. There are so many brilliant stories but to write them for ballet is tricky – it’s a nonspeaking art form so how you translate those stories can be challenging. But we need to find new stories, as the ballet world has really old stories, but does that speak to our modern audiences?