Alexandra Ballet School

A young girl at the barre in her ballet class, which is held at the East Bank community hall in Alexandra Township just outside of Johannesburg in South Africa. This image won 1st place in the World Press Photo Competition. Picture: Shayne Robinson

In 2005 I was approached by the Globe & Mail in Canada to work on a story about the Alexandra Ballet School with one of their journalists. I was over the moon, it was a chance to really show what I was capable of, a chance to have my work seen by thousands of people outside of South Africa. Little did I know that this would be the defining moment, the turning point in my photographic career.

It was also the beginning of a beautiful relationship between ballet and I, from the moment I first pointed my camera at one of the young children in the ballet class, I was hooked. I have never looked back and now take every opportunity I get to shoot Ballet.

Dance mistress Penny Thloloe ran classes not only for the children’s enjoyment but also in the hope that ballet might provide a ticket out of the township for some of her students, as it did once for her. In the apartheid years, Penny got the chance to study ballet at a semi-private school, won a scholarship to London and was later a founder dancer in the Ballet Theatre Afrikan. Alexandra has over 60 percent unemployment and many of its children orphaned by Aids. Penny had to go to some lengths to explain that classes were entirely free of charge and that some students might go on to earn money by dancing. Over 1,000 children came to her first audition, of which 37 were selected to begin classes in January.

Alexandra has over 60 percent unemployment and many of its children orphaned by Aids. Penny had to go to some lengths to explain that classes were entirely free of charge and that some students might go on to earn money by dancing. Over 1,000 children came to her first audition, of which 37 were selected to begin classes in January. I spent a year working on this story, going down to visit the children at least once or even twice a week when I could manage it. I had never been so enthralled by a story before, it was like a drug.

I entered this story in the 2005 World Press Photo Competition, I was fortunate enough to walk away with a first place in the Arts and Entertainment section of the competition. I am forever grateful to Penny and the children in her class for letting me be a part of their story, it changed my life for the better and I am truly a better man because of it.

 

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