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By Chris Abbott
The Tillsonburg News
Staff Writer
October 28, 2009


Tillsonburg’s Dakota Walker did more ballet in his first four weeks at the National Ballet School of Canada than he did all last year.

Walker, 13, who was at Tillsonburg’s Danscene from the age of 3 until the last three years when he went to Elite Dance Centre in Woodstock, did not specialize in ballet before auditioning for Canada’s National Ballet School last November.

“Jazz, that was my favourite,” said Walker, who also did acro, lyrical, tap, ballet, and in the past three years, hip hop, which was part of Elite Dance Centre’s competitive package. While in Grade 7 at Annandale School, he was going to 14 dance classes per week in Woodstock, with classes ranging from 30-90 minutes. “Around 16 hours a week,” said Walker, who was dancing on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, plus an hour on Tuesdays.

Last November Walker was asked to attend NBS auditions in London by a friend who had been trying for years to qualify for a spot in the elite ballet school for approximately 150 Grade 6 to post-secondary students.

“He went to keep her company, auditioned, and he was offered a spot,” said Walker’s mother, Cindy Gibbons. “He went for the experience. Auditions have a learning curve and usually you have to go to many of them before you get in.”

‘Competing’ in London against boys who would be attending Grades 8 and 9 the next fall, Walker was one of only four out of 22 who were selected to attend a July 2009 tryout.

“I think everyone was fairly close (in calibre),” said Walker, enjoying his month-long visit to the downtown Toronto school. “You get to meet new people and see what it’s like.”

“A lot of them had more ballet experience because he only did one hour a week of ballet,” explained Gibbons. “Someone concentrating on ballet is doing three or more classes each week. They were all at a much higher level (in ballet) than him.”

“Most of them have been focusing on ballet,” Walker nodded.

Walker was accepted for a probation year the school. Standard procedure, said Gibbons. “It’s the same for all the students. The first year they’re on probation. They get a letter at the end of the year stating whether they get to stay or not. They don’t have to give you warning or reasons if they let you go. After the first year they give you lots of warnings, and try to help you out if you’re struggling.”

Academics at NBS have been challenging, said Walker, because Grade 8s are learning Grade 9-10 material. “They have very specialized teachers in each of the fields,” said Gibbons. “So he’s getting a wonderful education there. And it’s a safe environment – I don’t have to worry about him.”

Students are expected to carry an 80 per cent classroom average, but ballet is, and always will be, the focus. “At the National Ballet School, their expectation is that eventually you will come out of it as a professional ballet dancer. That’s their expectation, but some do go the modern or lyrical line or contemporary. In the older grades they have classes for those.”

There are only eight Grade 8 boys at NBS, in total, and only three stay at residence. Walker was the only male to ‘parachute’ into the Grade 8 class. “I’m catching up with them in ballet,” said Walker.

“He’s the only boy who got in for Grade 8, there were seven there already,” noted Gibbons. “When he was offered the spot he was told he’d have to work extremely hard to catch up to the seven boys who had already been going.”

On the other side of the coin, Walker is the best of the Grade 8’s in the weekly co-ed jazz class. “Some of them might not have had jazz before,” noted Gibbons.

In the first two months, Walker has already noticed improvement in his ballet, attributing it to the frequency of his training and the national-calibre instructors. “A big improvement,” he nodded. “In posture, in the way I dance… my legs are straighter. And my feet…”

“I noticed last night an immense difference just from one month,” Gibbons agreed. “It was amazing.”

“Because last year to this month, I’ve done more ballet than all last year,” Walker noted.

“But even if you count the first month as a whole year (of ballet),” Gibbons countered, “you wouldn’t have been doing last night what you were doing in ballet if you were still going to (Woodstock).”

He is quick to admit ballet has not exactly been his ‘passion’ but he could not turn down an opportunity of a lifetime. “So I could see the experience,” said Walker, explaining his pursuit of both high-calibre ballet and education. “So I could get better at ballet, which makes me better at all my other dances.”

“Ballet is the backbone of all dances,” explained Gibbons. “And he’s starting to love ballet – but he won’t admit that.”

He will admit, however, a lifelong love for dance going back as far as he can remember. “As soon as he started walking he wanted to dance,” said Gibbons. “He wanted to travel the world. And he’s always said when he turns 18, he wants to go on ‘So You Think You Can Dance – Canada’.

“And actually when he was little, we saw this (National Ballet School) somewhere on the computer, showing different views inside and stuff, and he said, ‘I’m going there mom.’”

“That was three or four years old?” Walker asked. “Three or four,” nodded Gibbons, “because he doesn’t remember saying it. I remember saying, of course, ‘anything’s possible if you want to.’ But that’s not something he remembers.”


It didn’t take him long to settle in at the private school.

“Usually we wake up around 7 o’clock,” said Walker. “School starts at 8:25. Then you have two academic classes and two hours of ballet. Have lunch. Then three more academic classes till around 4:15. After that you usually have two other types of classes, like character (historical/national dances) or allegro (jumps and turns) or pool conditioning. Eat supper. Usually you get done around 7ish. Seven to 8:30 is (mandatory) homework time. Then from 8:30 to around 9:30 is free time. Then 9:45 is bedtime for my grade.”

That gives him roughly five hours of school, and four hours of dance, five days a week. “School is five days a week, and then we have one ballet class dance on Saturday. On Sundays they don’t want you to dance.”

In the first weeks Walker split his weekends between staying in Toronto, usually with a visit from family, and going back to Tillsonburg.

“They highly recommend that they go home on weekends whenever possible,” noted Gibbons. “They want them to have a family life too.”

Walker had five days off for the Thanksgiving holiday, while his national and international classmates returned to homes across Canada and around the world (including Japan and Australia).


While at NBS, the students follow a strict diet. In addition to three regular meals a day, they also have three snacks.

“Breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, supper, snack…” said Walker.

“In three meals a day they make sure he has all the food groups,” noted Gibbons. “They don’t let you leave the food line unless you have all of them.”

“And they make you eat everything,” Walker grimaced.

“He’s a picky eater,” Gibbons laughed.

“They always ‘overdo’ things, it’s not ‘simple’ stuff,” said Walker, who would prefer a healthy choice of basic foods. “And there’s no salt, and only a little sugar for cereal and coffee or tea.”

NBS residences – four and three-floor buildings – have a ‘house parent’ on each floor. Walker stays in a four-floor dorm with a roommate, and said Gibbons, students do not have access to the elevators. “It’s good exercise for them,” she smiled.

“They have a fitness room that you can use it if you want,” said Walker. “The older students have more breaks, so they have more time to use it.”

“So far, he’s adjusting very well,” said Gibbons, who stays in touch by phone. “His cell phone’s never on,” Gibbons laughs, “so I have to wait for him to call every third or fourth night. “He also has his sister’s (Chantelle) laptop.”

“It’s been fun,” he nodded, but Walker is not sure yet whether he wants to commit to ballet for the next four, five or more years. If he misses anything, other than the family dog, it’s competing in a variety of dance events. “Yes, I miss the competitions,” nodded Walker, who had a shelf full of trophies on the wall behind him.

He won’t be competing in dance while at NBS, but there are opportunities to perform, including The Nutcracker with the National Ballet of Canada (Dec. 12-Jan. 3).

“They mentioned he needed to get his passport,” said Gibbons. “A few years ago a New York company hired the whole school…  All the boys from Grade 6-12, and they paid for it,” added Walker. “It was just a sudden thing, so you have to be prepared,” said Gibbons.

Funding for students at NBS is subsidized by the provincial and federal governments (almost two-thirds of the total amount) and additional financial aid is available in the form of bursaries ranging from $200 to $24,000 depending on family income.

“We still pay what it would cost to feed him at home,” said Gibbons. “Plus $3,000 for the (four-week) summer program, which is mandatory.”


© 2009 , Sun Media  

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