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Josephine Woodberry: Teaching ballet to African children

Josephine Woodberry. Photo courtesy of Woodberry.
Josephine Woodberry. Photo courtesy of Woodberry.

We all know the joy and transformation that dance can bring to our life. But it’s easy to forget what a privilege it is to be able to have dance lessons. For many communities around the world, things we take for granted – such as high school education or regular meals – aren’t readily available; for those people, the dream of ballet couldn’t be more unrealistic.

Perla Anthony from Nigeria. Photo courtesy of Josephine Woodberry.

Perla Anthony from Nigeria. Photo courtesy of Josephine Woodberry.

One Australian ballet teacher, however, is well on the way to making a monumental difference to the lives of an entire community.

“My goal is pretty simple,” says Josephine Woodberry. “I want to bring a talented young African ballet dancer, aged 17, to Australia so she can embark on full-time training to equip her with enough skills to return home and become a dance teacher for her community.”

Woodberry, who has owned and run Melbourne’s Brunswick School of Dance (BSOD) for 20 years, is raising funds to bring Perla Anthony to Australia, to attend daily dance lessons at BSOD, as well as studying for a teaching practice with highly regarded examiner and teacher, Karen Malek.

“Many beautiful children have passed through the doors [of my school],” says Woodberry. “Dance has given them joy, discipline, confidence and love. It stretches possibilities, allows dreams to come true!
 So when I heard about gifted young dancer Perla Anthony, living in poverty in West Africa, and her dream to become a ballet teacher, my heart broke. Here was a girl with passion and talent but with no access to high school let alone ballet lessons.”

In 2016, Woodberry launched an Online Ballet Studio to help children who live in isolated communities enjoy the magic and beauty of dance. Through this, she was contacted by a local West African church leader, Pastor Davids O’Keah, asking if she could do anything to help a talented and passionate young girl in his community. Perla’s only encounter with ballet was through watching Barbie cartoons, but she had fallen in love with what she saw and tried to teach herself. When her father had to sell his house to pay debts and with no social support system in Nigeria, Perla had to drop out of high school because her family couldn’t afford to pay for it.

Ballet in Nigeria. Photo courtesy of Josephine Woodberry.

Ballet in Nigeria. Photo courtesy of Josephine Woodberry.

“I learnt that in Nigeria, where Perla lives with her family of eight in a concrete room with a kitchen and a toilet, everyday life is difficult,” Woodberry explains. “Beyond the struggles of basic existence, the electricity supply is erratic. Education is not free. Internet access is costly. Meals are irregular.”

Woodberry couldn’t ignore Pastor Davids’ request. “I set up free access to the program instantly and sent Perla a pair of ballet shoes. A mum at my ballet school donated a tablet for Perla to watch the lessons on.”

The Melbourne ballet teacher went on to raise $2,300 to send Perla back to school. Thanks to the generosity of the Australian dance community, Perla is now in her final semester, “a young woman empowered by education”.

“I must tell you that being back to school is having half of my dreams accomplished,” Perla wrote to Woodberry. “I am so excited and full of life returning back to school. It is like my hope is alive. I called it a miracle! This positive energy has helped my studies a lot.”

Photo courtesy of Josephine Woodberry.

Photo courtesy of Josephine Woodberry.

Woodberry’s current fundraising campaign – to bring Perla to Melbourne – is about so much more than just making one young woman’s dream come true. Once her time in Australia is complete, Perla will return to Nigeria, equipped to teach her local community, passing down knowledge which will positively impact it not just now but potentially for many generations to come.

“I see myself reaching out to others in Nigeria with ballet,” writes Perla. “The pains I go through every day is not remembered anytime I step into my world of ballet. Please do not let my dream die.”

Pastor Davids adds, “Perla’s story connects with pains and frustrations prevailing in Nigeria. In the midst of frustrations, one has to give hope and help people connect with the brighter side of life. The people here love to dance, as dance gives them hope, or they dance away their sorrow and pains. There are no organised ballet dance schools here. The people love ballet. Perla is an intelligent girl and can be a great ambassador for Nigeria, an ambassador of hope.”

You can support this incredible cause by sharing this story and making a donation of any size to the GoFundMe campaign.

By Rain Francis of Dance Informa.

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