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Striving to become the next Darcey Bussell or Wayne Sleep takes hours of dedication, determination – and heavy financial investment. Emily Woodrow speaks to five young Welsh dancers with a dream to succeed in the ballet world and discovers the major sacrifices that they and their families have made.

 

Western Mail
Photographs by the BBC
Aug 21 2010

IT takes hard work, determination and discipline to become a professional ballet dancer, not to mention the emotional and financial sacrifices that come with it.

With vocational schools like Elmhurst costing around £22,000 a year, it’s not a career choice for the faint-hearted, and often pushes parents to the limits as they attempt to give their child the future they desire without sending their own bank account soaring into the red.

A new TV documentary, Ballet School, features five Welsh teenagers, all very different in appearance and personality, but with one very strong common link – the dream of becoming a dancer.

They are put through their paces, physically and emotionally, by artistic director Desmond Kelly, who hopes that by giving them a taste of long hours and gruelling schedules they will be best prepared for life as a ballet dancer outside the school.

But it’s not just the young people who have made life-changing sacrifices for their future careers. Their parents often go to extraordinary lengths to ensure the best for their child, as the four-part BBC Wales series reveals.

Dominic Handford, 13, from Swansea decided he wanted to take up ballet after watching Angelina Ballerina on the television when he was just six.

His mum, Adele, thought it was just a phase, but after two years of his nagging she gave in and took him to a ballet class – a decision which was to alter not just his own life, but also that of his parents and three siblings.

It soon became clear that the then eight year old was talented, with his teacher even asking him to move classes to Cardiff so she could continue teaching him.

His father was driving him to and from Swansea up to three times a week, and when he asked to audition for Elmhurst, based in Birmingham, his parents had to make a tough decision for both his future and theirs as a family.

Adele says: “When he first started ballet, we had no clue about the enormity of what he was getting into, in any way, shape or form. And we definitely weren’t aware of the costs involved for training schools such as Elmhurst.”

“Initially, we said to Dominic he could only go if he got a funded scholarship, as we couldn’t afford it otherwise, but when the letter came back saying he had a place, but without funding we felt we had no choice, but to do what we could to get him in.

“It’s such a prestigious school and they only take very few boys worldwide, so by being offered a place, funded or not, it was clear to us that he had talent and we knew what a fantastic opportunity it was so we pulled out all the stops for him. What else can you do?”

Adele and her husband decided to sell their family home and relocate to a smaller house in a different area – a move which would free up enough money for two years’ worth of fees.

They had discussed the move with their other three children, and had to make compromises for Dominic’s older sister Yasmin, who struggled the most leaving her school and her friends.

But Adele feels Dominic is aware of the sacrifices they’ve made as a family, and is happy to have completely changed their lives for him because of his passion for dance and his unselfish nature. “He’s a lovely child and doesn’t take anything for granted”, she says.

“He’s the sort of child who would do anything for anyone and we feel he deserves that back. When we told him about the position we were in and that we would do our utmost to help him he understood that.

“He has a huge desire for this, and even if our situation changed and we couldn’t afford the fees any more, I know he would keep pursuing it in other ways and wouldn’t give up.

“If he did decide to give it all up, I would be slightly disappointed, as we’ve obviously made a lot of sacrifices for his ballet, but it’s his life and we wouldn’t put any pressure on him – we’re not pushy parents at all.”

Dominic adds: “I kind of feel a bit guilty about them selling the house, but kind of glad they did it so I could go to Elmhurst.

“However, if I don’t become a famous ballet dancer or even just a dancer I will feel miserable, because I made them do that for me”

Adele admits that she’s often asked if she feels that she treats the children differently, and whether she’s worried about Dominic’s siblings resenting him when he’s older for the lengths they’ve had to go to for him to fulfil his dreams.

But she confesses that, as parents, they try to do as much for their other children as they do for Dominic, and hopes that because the family are so close, they will just be pleased for him as opposed to envying him.

“Yasmin gets whatever she wants, when she wants it, and when Connor wanted to take up acting, we agreed,” she says.

“At first I thought, ‘Oh no, not again’, especially as we have to make regular trips with him to London for auditions, but if it’s what he wants to do, then we’re prepared to support him on that.

“Dominic’s other brother Charles has Asperger’s and dyslexia. He absolutely dotes on him, and we do have problems when Dominic goes back to school. He also adores Elvis, so we’ve been letting him have guitar lessons which, like everything else, doesn’t come cheap, but it’s what we have to do.

“I find it strange when people ask me if the children might resent Dominic as I just see it as part and parcel of how his life has progressed.

“Yasmin likes going to discos and being where the action is but he’s completely different. He’s totally focused on ballet.”

Dominic adds: “One of my brothers doesn’t like me going away because he misses me, and the other one likes it when I come back. My sister doesn’t seem particularly fussed either way. “I don’t think they get jealous though, I think they’re just pleased for me.

“Dancing is everything to me. If it was the last thing I would ever do, I’d be happy.”

Michael Harris from Barry wasn’t brought up in a ballet background either, so it took him a little while to settle in at the school.

The 15-year-old admits that when he first started at Elmhurst, he didn’t fully understand what vocational meant, but by the end of year nine, he knew ballet was definitely what he wanted to do in life, so put his head to it and really started to enjoy being at the school.

His petite physique, however, could be cause for concern in the near future as in ballet one of the main male roles is to support the female.

Another of the children featured on the programme is Adam Russell-Jones from Cardiff. He only started doing ballet because someone told him he should, and the main reason he auditioned for Elmhurst was because a friend of his was doing so and didn’t want to go alone.

Even after securing a funded place, he wasn’t entirely convinced it was what he wanted to do, toying with the idea of going to university and getting a “normal” job. He says: “I wasn’t sure it was the right path for me. I questioned whether I really wanted that life, and whether I might rather go to university and get a degree and a normal job.”

And a serious injury to his ankle made Adam really begin to re-assess his future.

According to Kelly, injuries are an intrinsic part of being a dancer, as they are for an athlete, and his pupils have to face the possibility that they will be injured. The work they do is physical and constant and it’s almost inevitable that something will eventually give, but he hopes that the school goes some way to helping them prepare for what’s going to happen later in their lives and careers.

But whereas some children might see a long-term injury as an excuse to leave the ballet world behind them, Adam admits being out of action for almost a year made him realise ballet was what he wanted to do and made him more determined to get back on his feet and catch up on the work he’d missed out on.

The 15-year-old says: “I guess when I first got the injury I wanted to be back in a week and the teachers and doctors told me I probably would be. But that didn’t happen, so I just kept thinking it would be the next week, and then the one after that, and I think it’s that drive which kept me going. The injury lasted a lot longer than I’d anticipated, but I stayed strong and kept telling myself it wouldn’t be long until I was back in class. It helped me realise I really wanted to be a dancer. I didn’t really want to before, but when I came back after being out for such a long time, I appreciated it more, and since then I’ve been much more determined than before.”

“I think the main appeal of ballet is that it’s not a normal job. It’s physical work as opposed to sitting at a desk doing paperwork, which is something that’s never really interested me.”

Talking about Adam on the Ballet School programme, vocational manager Patrick Hinson says: “What’s unique about him, and actually what anybody wanting to succeed in this profession needs, is that he has drive to keep motivated and keep going, even in the worst of times.

“We had a discussion when he first got the injury and he was concerned himself and started to question whether it was all worth it. But we talked about him keeping his focus, and that if he did he would have that ability to quickly recover what was lost in that time and he’s managed to do that.”

Because Adam was offered a ballet scholarship, his parents didn’t have to take the same drastic steps as Dominic’s to ensure he attended the school. But he has had to make other sacrifices for his ballet dreams.

He says: “Freedom at the school isn’t brilliant, and if I was at home it would be a lot different. I’ve lost contact with all my friends from home, as it’s quite hard to maintain strong relationships when you’re living 200 miles away.

“I don’t feel like I’m missing out on my childhood – I’m just having one that’s very different to most children my age.”

Adam kept his ballet classes a secret when he was growing up, as he was worried about bullies and what people might say. But the teenagers admits he now realises what he possesses is a talent and is proud of being a boy ballet dancer. He also hopes that his three siblings support him and don’t hold his career choice against him.

He adds: “I think they’re pleased for me. My parents always said if they had an interest in a vocational career, they would support them, so there’s no need for them to be jealous of me. We’ve all been given equal opportunities for our hobbies, I’ve just taken mine a bit further.”

Rebecca Haw, 16, from Chepstow, beat tough competition to get into Elmhurst’s sixth form and is now one step away from her dream career as a professional ballerina. Before attending the school, she was fitting in numerous ballet classes in the evenings and weekends, and eventually her talent was spotted.

She says: “Ballet’s always competitive. Although quite a few people drop out of classes in their teenage years, there are still a lot of girls who stick with it. I stayed all the way through, and even started going to more classes to get more hours in and make myself even better. You need to be passionate about it and really want it, otherwise you have no motivation at all. When you’re really, really tired and don’t feel like you can do another class, it’s that little kick inside you that keeps you going.”

The fifth child featured in the four-part Ballet School series is Joseph Fawcett from Llwyn-Y-Garreg, near Welshpool, Powys. The 12-year-old’s sisters were keen ballet dancers and he admits he was getting fed up of not being able to do the things they could, so decided to take it up as well at the age of eight.

He began doing one class a week, but this soon increased to three or four, including trips to Birmingham for his involvement in the Royal Ballet School’s Junior Associated Ballet Programme.

Joseph’s dance teacher recommended he try out for Elmhurst. And after auditioning, he received a full scholarship to the school.

But though he enjoys his time at the school and loves ballet, he comes from a home-schooling background and admits the long hours and lack of contact with his friends and family is sometimes hard to accept.

He adds: “I do get a bit homesick, as I’m so tired. It’s a constant routine and knowing you have to get up the next day and do it all again sometimes makes me think that I can’t be bothered and I get a bit fed up.

“I usually struggle the most in the evenings when I realise I’m not at home in my own bed and I can’t have a shower in my own bathroom, but then once I’ve called my parents I feel better. Most of the time I’m so busy I forget about it anyway.”

Ballet School begins on BBC Two Wales on Tuesday, [August 24th] at 7.30pm

 

Copyright 2010 Media Wales, Ltd.

 

In the UK past episodes of Ballet School my be viewed on iPlayer

Also In pictures: Ballet School

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