Published on March 1, 2014 | by Catherine Van de Stouwe

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Big Ballet offers a second chance to former dancers

ALN’s Catherine Van De Stouwe looks into Channel 4’s new programme Big Ballet and chats to dancers who thought they would never do it again.

Close up of ballet shoes

Big Ballet sees 16 women and two men of a variety of shapes and sizes putting together a production of Swan Lake. [Alex Zalewska]

“I want to be a ballerina” – a phrase that has been shouted from the mouths of ballet-loving babes for centuries. It is not difficult to see why so many young children, teenagers and adults are fascinated by the ballet; the graceful movement, the sparkling costumes and the pointe shoes are all elements that put the traditional image of the ballerina on a high pedestal.

While many children join dance troupes, it is only a small minority that make it to the ballet companies, such as the Royal Ballet and the English National Ballet, and even fewer who make it to the ultimate honour of becoming a prima ballerina. Seeing them dance is an incredible sight, where every bravura and grand jeté is executed with perfect precision.

But seeing this perfection can make ballet seem inaccessible to the rest of us. Traditionally, the ballerina has a tiny frame, an athletic figure and flexibility that even the most enthusiastic of yoga students dream of.

However, in the past few weeks Channel 4 has launched the Big Ballet. Under the instruction of former senior principal dancer for the Royal Ballet, Wayne Sleep, and Ireland’s very own prima ballerina, Monica Loughman, 16 women and two men of a variety of shapes and sizes are putting together their own production of the most famous ballet, Swan Lake.

Common factor

These dancers all share a common factor: they danced when they were young, but gave up in their late teens for a number of reasons; a decision many wished they hadn’t made and some found it hard to believe that they could dance again.

Taking part in the Big Ballet is Shona Stringer. She remembers watching her older sister dance and wanting to be a part of it: “Even before I could walk [I’d] sit and watch [my sister] in my pushchair with a tambourine and some sequins around my neck. As soon as I could walk I started dancing and loved it from day one.”

At the age of 16, Stringer started teaching dance and now has her own dance school in Leeds. As a dance teacher, she feels that she has a responsibility to her students who look up to her.

She said: “I’m glad to be part of Big Ballet which is challenging the belief that you can only perform if you are a certain weight or shape. If this opens the minds of the audience then maybe … it will open a few doors for classical dancers of a slightly larger build, meaning there is a pathway for all dancers, not just the lucky few who fit the ‘criteria’.”

The Big Ballet has also been a positive experience for Carol Hartley, who started dancing later than most at 14 years of age: “I wanted to [do it] earlier but couldn’t afford it. My best friend went to dance classes and she taught me. We ’d be in our rooms and as we danced I had that feeling inside me; I had to dance.”

At 17, Hartley made it as a professional dancer working on a cruise ship around the Mediterranean, but slowly fell away from it as she became older.

Experience

At the 25th anniversary show of her old dance school, it was a teacher who showed the advert and started Hartley’s Big Ballet experience.

Dancers warm up at the bar

Using ballet as a form of exercise is a great way to gain flexibility and good posture. [Alex Zalewska]

“I was nervous at first,” she said. “I thought I was too old and too fat, but it was brilliant. I’m still dancing [now].”

Having Sleep and Loughman as their mentors, they could not have been given a firmer or more professional reintroduction to dance and ballet.

Hartley said of the duo: “Wayne and Monica were fantastic. Monica has this way of seeing what you are capable of, and if she can see it in you she really pushes you. Wayne is crazy – it was a real privilege to be able to do his choreography.”

Through Sleep’s choreography and Loughman’s training, Hartley and Stringer have been able to take part in a 25-minute performance of Swan Lake. By making time to train between work and home lives, both of them feel fitter.

Stringer says: “It’s excellent for posture and keeping the body flexible, [and is] a bit different from the gym.”

Being different from the gym is something the ballerina’s at UAL’s Ballet Society agree on.

Relaxed

Tamsin Rees, a first year Fashion student at CSM, had previously only done a little dancing when she was younger before joining the society: “It’s like yoga but with classical music and a barre. I hate the gym and this is a relaxed group [with] no pressure.”

Parr Geng, a Foundation Art and Design student at LCC, put her first pair of ballet slippers on at the start of the first term in 2013, and won’t be taking them off again anytime soon.

She said: “There was a trial before you joined and it’s great exercise to shape the body. The teacher is lovely and [we’ve] formed a group to see ballet performances of the Royal Ballet.”

However, the Ballet Society is not just for first timers; Alesha Bailey, a FdA Art student from Camberwell, has been dancing for seven years. After moving to London from Canada to study, her cousin at LCF told her about the society: “My Mom got me into it and I stuck with it. Our teacher has a lot of experience and [is very] intuitive about [individual] dancer style.”

There is this perceived notion that only those who have the look of a ballerina can take part in ballet. The Big Ballet, university societies and other dance classes are proving this to be completely false.

Throughout the many centuries of dance, it has been a way of communicating and expressing feelings. Dance also keeps you fit in an engaging way that the treadmill at your local gym will never be able to. Dancing, and ballet in particular, is a passion in many people and it only takes a visit to a dance class to see that anyone can do it if – in the words of Hartley – they have that feeling.

 

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