What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of ballet? A little girl, a short fluffy dress, or hair combed upwards perhaps. But if you only think of these things, you need to meet dancer Ingy Al-Shazli, who has changed the rules of ballet.
Now 35 years old, Al-Shazli is the first Arab ballerina to wear the hijab. She also took up ballet at 27, much older than other dancers who usually begin training early in childhood in order to acquire the skills of ballet dancing.
Most ballerinas begin taking ballet classes before the age of 10, some even starting at three years old. But despite her late entrance into the world of ballet, Al-Shazli has developed into an incredibly accomplished ballerina and has been challenging ingrained ideas about age and training.
“It was always my dream even as a child to become a ballet dancer. I used to do water ballet, but I stopped when I was 14. People used to tell me that it was already too late for me even when I was just 10. But then I discovered that I could join ballet classes when I turned 27 years old. There are many ballet schools around the world that accept all ages of dancers,” Al-Shazli explains.
“I also thought my hijab might be a concern, but it’s totally fine. After a year of training, I started to dance on stage, where I used to wear long-sleeved dresses and put on a black hijab. Then I would vary the colour of my hijab depending on the character I was dancing.”
Her success has given many young women who have dreamed of donning a tutu the inspiration to train and to pursue their dreams. Although ballet is a profound form of art, it has not always been popular in the Arab world. Al-Shazli’s example has helped to change that.
“It was very difficult to train at 27, and it needed hard work and discipline. One of my biggest accomplishments was learning to dance in pointe shoes. Usually, girls start ballet classes at the age of four or five, but only start to wear pointe shoes at eight or nine. For adults, it takes three or four years to learn, and some of them may never be able to wear them,” Al-Shazli said.
“I trained for two and a half years before starting to wear them. People said it would be hard or even impossible to perform in pointe shoes because of my age. But I was ready for the challenge, and now I feel comfortable in them.”
When Al-Shazli started to train as a ballerina she was an operations team leader in an Egyptian technology company. However, after a while she was able to take up ballet professionally. “First, I worked as an assistant, and then I worked with professional ballet dancers in Cairo. I travelled to Dubai and worked there for a year.” She added, that her other line of work is simultaneous interpretation.
“My first supporters have always been my family. They used to view ballet as a form of sport at the beginning, as if it was like going to the gym. People used to question whether I could dance in a hijab, and they almost always told me that I was too old to start training as a ballerina. But I just felt it was the right thing for me to do, and as I went on I could see my childhood dreams turning into the real thing.”
“Persistence is what makes those around a person feel the importance of an activity for that individual. Then they will respect what one is doing and offer their support as well.”
Al-Shazli says that there are many health advantages of ballet. She exhorts everyone to give it a try. Anyone who has ever harboured the ambition to be a ballet dancer should don some ballet shoes and begin training, she says.
“I discovered that there are ballet schools in the US that give classes for those who are in their fifties. It’s not easy, but it is doable for people of all ages. So, don’t hold back. Go for the gold if you want to pursue your goals.”
Today, Al-Shazli has become a symbol of success for many. “Age is just a number,” she says. “We should remember that we are capable of anything if we have passion and devotion.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.