Not too late for ballet
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of ballet? A little girl, a fluffy short dress or combed hair up maybe. But if you only think about these things, you have to meet the dancer Ingy Al-Shazli, who changed the rules of ballet.
Now 35, Al-Shazli is the first Arab ballerina to wear the hijab. She also started ballet at age 27, much older than other dancers who usually start training early in childhood in order to learn ballet skills.
Most ballerinas start taking ballet lessons before the age of 10, some as young as three. But despite her late entry into the world of ballet, Al-Shazli became an incredibly accomplished ballerina and challenged entrenched ideas about age and training.
“I always dreamed, even as a child, of becoming a ballet dancer. I used to do water ballet, but I stopped at 14. People told me it was already too late for me when I was only 10 years old. But then I discovered that I could join ballet classes at the age of 27. There are many ballet schools around the world that accept dancers of all ages,” says Al-Shazli.
“I also thought that my hijab maybe a hassle, but that’s fine. After a year of training, I started dancing on stage, where I wore dresses with long sleeves and put on a black hijab. Then I would vary the color of my hijab depending on the character I was dancing.
Its success has given many young women who dreamed of donning a tutu the inspiration to train and pursue their dreams. Although ballet is a profound art form, it has not always been popular in the Arab world. Al-Shazli’s example helped change that.
“Training at 27 was very difficult, and it took a lot of hard work and discipline. One of my biggest accomplishments was learning to dance in pointe shoes. Usually girls start ballet lessons at age four or five, but don’t start wearing pointe shoes until age 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 I started wearing them. People said it would be difficult, if not impossible, to perform in pointe shoes because of my age. But I was up for the challenge, and now I feel comfortable with them.
When Al-Shazli started training as a ballerina, she was an operations team leader at an Egyptian tech company. However, after some time she was able to take up ballet professionally. “I first worked as an assistant, then I worked with professional ballet dancers in Cairo. I traveled to Dubai and worked there for a year. She added that her other field of activity is simultaneous interpretation.
“My first supporters have always been my family. They viewed ballet as a form of sport at first, like it was like going to the gym. People wondered if I could dance in a hijab, and they almost always told me that I was too old to start ballerina training. But I just felt like it was the right thing to do for me, and as I moved forward, I could see my childhood dreams turning into reality.
“Perseverance is what makes people around a person feel the importance of an activity for that person. Then they will respect what one is doing and also offer their support.
Al-Shazli says ballet has many health benefits. She urges everyone to try. Anyone who has ever harbored the ambition of being a ballet dancer should put on some ballet shoes and start training, she says.
“I discovered that there are ballet schools in the United States that give lessons to people in their fifties. It’s not easy, but it’s doable for people of all ages. So don’t hold back. Go for 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 have to remember that we are capable of anything if we have passion and dedication.”
*A version of this article appeared in the September 15, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.