There is no national ballet company of Ghana, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be. That’s the belief of Gabe Stone Shayer, a soloist at American Ballet Theatre and Chanel collaborator who, this spring, traveled to Accra to soak in the rich cultural scene of the West African country.
The trip was a long time in the making: when COVID-19 cancelled ABT’s performances for the foreseeable future, Shayer, not one to be idle, reached out to two Accra ballet schools he found on Instagram. Of Ghanian heritage himself (his grandmother is from Jamestown), he asked them if he could teach some Zoom classes. “During the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, I was thinking about how I could make an impact for the Black community as it pertains to the classic arts,” he tells Vogue. “This was a way to both connect with my culture and also champion Black and brown dancers.” He did it, and he loved it.
Teaching through a screen, however, was no replacement for in-person. So when travel restrictions eased this spring, he hopped on a ten-hour flight from Newark to Accra the first chance he could.
His days there were jam-packed with dance: First, he instructed a course in America Ballet Theatre’s National Training Curriculum with the teachers at Vivie’s Dance Factory and Ballet with Louisa Wellington. Not only was it educational, but also opportune: “It opens a million doors for them to be seen by the world of ballet outside of Africa and also for them to be exposed to better training,” Shayer says of the certification, once completed. Then, Shayer taught students across three different age groups, from around nine to 17. After that, he conducted choreography classes at the University of Ghana.
In his off time, he visited the Accra beaches with friends and explored cultural attractions. Two of the ballet teachers, Vivi and Sam, took him to Independence Square, which contains several grand monuments representing Ghana’s struggle to break free from British colonialism. One evening, he saw a play at the National Theatre, both to immerse himself in the city’s rich art scene and also to scope out what might be a future venue: “I wanted to see what potentially we could create to happen there—whether it be an international ballet gala of some sort, or performances with the students,” Shayer explains. “That’s one of my ambitions—bringing Black culture and African culture [to the fore] within ballet, because it is scarcely seen.”
And then there was a visit to Cape Coast Castle: a dark emblem of world history where slaves were held in squalid dungeons before being forced upon trans-Atlantic ships, never to return. “It was likely my ancestors went through there,” says Shayer. “It was a difficult and emotional day, but I’m happy I experienced it.”
The trip also had a joyful reunion between Shayer and his aunt Rita, who he had not seen since he was four.
Below, see Shayer’s Accra, Ghana travel diary.