Off the bustling streets of the Nigerian city Lagos I encountered something totally unexpected – ballet dancers.
A community centre squashed somewhere between a street market selling clothes, a Catholic church and a primary school houses the dancers.
In a derelict building, off the main thoroughfare of the Marina district on Lagos Island is a three-story block that now houses the Society of Performing Arts Nigeria (Span).
It’s a space Sarah Boulos found affordable a few years ago, when she created Span.
Lebanese-Nigerian Mrs Boulos was born in Burkina Faso but moved to Nigeria when her family relocated to expand their business.
Eleven years ago, she had what she describes as an epiphany to leave her career in public health and return to her teenage passion of ballet dancing.
She says it felt more like a religious calling, rather than her feet itching to dance.
She had noticed that the culture in Nigeria allowed youth to perform informally – in church groups or as street buskers.
But Mrs Boulos believed that they needed to be better organised.
And so she created Span.
It was not easy.
Friends and potential funders laughed at her vision.
In the first few years She taught ballet lessons from a small garage at her home.
More recently the profile of Span has grown because Nigeria’s high society has fallen in love with ballet.
Grooming the dancers was also a challenge.
Many of her dancers had never been exposed to ballet.
The young men’s tough and strong bodies were not conditioned to handle the suppleness needed for those fluid movements in the French dance.
In time a lot of that changed.
Abimbola Fakiya is a young hip-hop street dancer, turned male ballet dancer and he describes how at first he thought ballet “was a girly dance”.
Today he is able to balance his upper body on his toes in the famous point position.
He can also contort his body like an acrobat.
He credits ballet for helping to condition his body and make it more agile.
He was taught by Mrs Boulos, who says it takes a minimum of two years to build a body fit for ballet.
For her own rigorous training course it’s longer – she nurtured a crop of professional dancers for four years or more.
The troupe at Span may have started out as a group of fun loving impromptu dancers in the boroughs of Lagos but they have grown to become award-winning internationally recognized artists.
These young Nigerians will join a community of dancers from all other UN member states who are part of World Dance Day on the 29 April.
They take over the streets of Lagos showing the local community the elegance of ballet, the quick steps of ballroom and the high impact movements of hip-hop.
Their initial aim is connect with the rest of the world and their broader goal is affirm the creativity of Nigerian talent and choreography.
Their mentor, benefactor and teacher Mrs Boulos says while it’s been a long hard and under-funded journey, the efforts of Span are starting to pay off.
For instance, she says Nigerian public schools have begun recruiting ballet teachers.
According to Mrs Boulos, there is a recognition that “ballet develops the left and right sides of brain, in terms of creativity and coordination”.
For that reason ballet could be a useful aide in the develop of young children at primary school.
More importantly it’s a potential boon for her students.
That is because the only group of qualified and classically trained dancers will most probably come from the modest halls of the community centre, so many of her students are likely to be hired as teachers.
In the decade since Span formally introduced ballet into the Lagos cultural scene, the evolution of dance has come full circle.
Those dancers who were originally taken from the street are today taking a new form of dance back to the street.
In the midst of this city where chaos, culture, wealth, poverty, joy and suffering exist side by side, there is the beauty of ballet.