Teaching Dance in Rural Areas,
a Strong Yet Precarious Commitment
Valérie Dorbe-Maimi, Marie-Christine Daviet and Rahaman Check teach dance in the Beauce, Vendée and Comminges regions in France. A long way from Paris, they settled down in rural areas that have offered their artistic activities a second wind.
For those who live in rural parts of France, the amount and range of dance classes on offer locally is often limited. In Luçon, a small town of 9,000 inhabitants in the Atlantic-facing Vendée region, only modern-jazz classes used to be available before Marie-Christine Daviet created a school there in 1980. After dancing in Paris (at theaters including Mogador and Bobino), and even at the Tehran Opera, Daviet “really wanted to create [her] own pieces,” she says. Looking to escape the fierce competition she saw in the capital, she decided to move and give her first ballet, jazz, flamenco and tap dance lessons in her hometown, before setting up additional classes in Angles and in three other towns in South Vendée.
A few decades later, Valérie Dorbe-Maimi’s career followed a similar path. After obtaining her teaching diploma in 1992, she taught ballet for almost thirty years with various associations in Guyancourt, in the greater Paris region. Deeply affected by the closure of dance studios during the 2020 lockdowns, Dorbe-Maimi left to settle in Allainville-en-Beauce (Loiret), a small town of 1,300 people in central France, where only street jazz workshops were taught sporadically. She saw an opportunity to make what had hitherto been a pipe dream come true: she opened her own studio, Ballet Studio Bel Air, last September.
For these professionals, leaving Paris and its surrounding cities allowed them to have more independence. “Everything is ours to build here,” says Dorbe-Maimi, who, like Daviet, has turned the building adjacent to her house into a studio, in order to limit the cost of renting private or public spaces to a few classes and her annual showcases.
For Rahaman Check, this initial investment wasn’t even required. In Martres-Tolosane, south of Toulouse, this French-Cameroonian artist created the association 1, 2, 3, Mouv’Flow in 2016 with a few volunteers to increase the presence of hip-hop, ragga dancehall and AfroMouv in the Comminges region. Check didn’t originally plan to continue with his dance career when he moved there, but he quickly saw that urban dances simply didn’t have a local presence, as a market study he commissioned confirmed. Urban dances “weren’t born in a studio,” Check says, so he has worked “outdoors” and “in a range of structures” – in schools, for instance – with the support of the city of Martres-Tolosane, which funded the renovation of a municipal hall to host dance classes.
While they were eager to share their passion, all three instructors were surprised by how well the rural populations responded to their dance classes. In the space of a year, Dorbe-Maimi went from about fifty students to over a hundred, with some “driving over thirty minutes to get to the studio,” she says. She was also impressed with the support many volunteers provided, and the marks of gratitude and admiration she received. Daviet and Check concur, although both say that student numbers have declined lately due to the pandemic.
Whether we’re talking about urban dance or ballet, dance is often seen as a feminine activity in rural areas, which means that most students are women and girls. Dorbe-Maimi confesses that her pupils are mostly girls aged 4 to 13: “It’s hard to get boys to attend dance classes.” Check, meanwhile, expresses some astonishment at the realization that “some of the adults here didn’t know they could enroll in dance classes.” Beyond the common goal of sharing their artistic vision, the three instructors want to make dance accessible “to more people” on an economic level – with classes priced accordingly – and on a cultural one. While big cities absorb most of the performing arts activity, Daviet regularly invites dancers from the Paris Opera Ballet to perform and give workshops and ballet intensives at her Luçon school. Beyond workshops and regular battles, Check has also put together a local version of the Pontoise-based dance competition 1pose Ton Style.
Enthusiastically, they all note how “open-minded” and “curious” their students are, whatever their age. Many now stay informed about dance through social media – mainly Facebook and Instagram – and some are considering a career in the field: Dorbe-Maimi is currently training two high-school students who are applying for a S2TMD baccalaureate, which offers a major in the performing arts. And as Daviet notes, “even if we don’t train a lot of future professionals in our small schools, what matters most is that we are training future audience members.”
Their commitment to teaching in rural areas is such that Dorbe-Maimi, Daviet and Check are currently worried about the future. If Dorbe-Maimi wants to “keep teaching for a while still,” it’s because she knows there are fewer and fewer trained ballet teachers, because the necessary diploma has become harder to obtain – a real threat to classes in underserved regions. Daviet already sees the consequences: when she left her dance school in Angles in 2021, after 42 years, to focus on the Luçon one, she couldn’t find a replacement, and the school had to close. Financial difficulties are another obstacle. “We can’t provide fixed salaries for dance teachers,” says Check, because the necessary public subsidies would mean time-heavy administrative work that his structure can’t handle. Rural dance remains a precarious juggling act, acutely dependent on the personal commitment of professionals who believe in growing the artform outside of its traditional hubs.
Callysta Croizer is a student at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris (ENS-PSL), where she is working on a MA thesis in transnational history. Her research focuses on the development of Rio de Janeiro Municipal Theatre’s corps de ballet. She has chronicled dance performances and books on dance for the Culture-Tops website since 2021. This year, she took part in Springback Academy, a training program for contemporary dance critics initiated by Aerowaves.