There is something unique about ballet dancers. Supermodels off the catwalk just look tall and skinny, film stars are smaller than they appear on screen, athletes in mufti pass unnoticed, but a ballet dancer is unmistakable: that haughty head, limbs that fall into elegant poses even when clad in platform boots. No wonder little girls dream of joining that heavenly corps, sharing that aura.
Scottish Ballet headquarters in Glasgow is where 10- and 11-year-olds can begin to turn those dreams into reality. They are not all girls, but most of them are. "We are always struggling against the idea that ballet is not for boys," says Kenn Burke, acting artistic director. "I don't know where it comes from, but it kicks in very early on." In the bare rehearsal studio upstairs, there are 12 girls identically turned out in powder-blue leotards, white ankle socks and pink pumps, and one boy, Sean, unembarrassed in his solitary splendour, clenching his little fists in manly gestures where the girls arms must be "soft and beautiful".
This is the Glasgow primary 6 class, who auditioned for the Junior Associate Scheme last spring and have been coming to the twice-weekly classes since the end of August. From the awkward little one, all knees and elbows, to the one who has suddenly shot up six inches above the rest, they all wear their hair in immaculate little buns. And as they stand, straight-backed, shoulder blades like wing buds, it is difficult to believe this is the era of the Spice Girls and alcopops. In this slightly shabby room, with the piano tinkling in carefully accented 44 time, and the teacher singing out, "Demi-pli, ladies and gentlemen!", it could be any time; 1958 or '78, as easily as '98.
To get into the class these children have made it through an audition process in which around 330 aspiring dancers are whittled down to 48. The Junior Associate Scheme annual auditions are open to all primary 6 and 7 children, from all over Scotland. There are classes in Edinburgh and Glasgow, and special monthly Sunday classes for children from outside the central belt. The administrator and teacher of the scheme, Penny Withers, is careful to point out that they do not expect auditionees to be already budding ballerinas. "No previous experience is necessary," says the hand-out, and that's what it means. "We are looking for a workable physique," says Withers. "Although we do compromise on that," adds Burke. "We used to look for flexible children, but in recent years we just don't see them. Children don't run around wild and do cartwheels any more. We see a lot of computer posture.
"We work hard on flexibility," smiles Withers, always keen to stress the positive. "We look for a natural mover, a performer, a child with musicality. " Several of the children in the class upstairs had no formal dance training until they joined the scheme, but you would be hard pushed to pick them out. That is not to say they are all alike. "Now, let's see your walks," calls Withers in that kindly, but ever-so-slightly steely way that ballet teachers have. The class pelts helter-skelter to the far corner of the room and then, in pairs, they advance, their arms gracefully, or not so gracefully, extended as they turn from side to side acknowledging the admiring glances of a non-existent supporting cast. Withers watches like a hawk. "Beautiful feet, Louise. Jane, your arms look like an elephant swinging his trunk." And they are a marvellous mixture: the delicate little elf with the makings of a real dancer; the twosome who are all glorious smiles and no technique; and a couple of 13-year-olds from the Dance School of Scotland, here to brush up on basics, who have the haughty poise of Edwardian duchesses.
Despite having beaten the odds to get on to the Junior Associate Scheme in the first place, the children are still at the bottom of a very steep career pyramid.
After two years on the scheme, the best will get into the Dance School of Scotland where they will study dance alongside the normal school curriculum until they are 16 or 17. Then it's audition time again. In any given year Scottish Ballet might be auditioning for two company members, or eight, or none. Out of a company of 36, seven have come through the Junior Associate Scheme since it began in 1982. It is a figure Burke is proud of.
"The great thing about the scheme is that it gives a context to ballet lessons," says Burke. "They come here to this building. They see the professional dancers and realise that the discipline goes right throughout their careers. It's not somebody telling them what to do, because they're children. As dancers they will have lessons every day. Every day somebody will be telling them to stand up straight."
"It is a fantastic opportunity for them," says Withers. "Something is provided for them in every production. Wardrobe might come and let them design their own tutus; six company dancers came in to teach them dances from La Fille Mal Gardee; they get to go backstage and see the scenery close to." And they get to dance in company productions.
"The majority of junior associates are going to have great fun, and learn a lot about dance. They will go on to dance for pleasure, but not professionally, " says Withers. "And, let's be honest, they are the future audience of Scottish Ballet."
The girls in the changing room would be sorely disappointed to be relegated to the audience. They all want to dance professionally and their eyes are fixed on the approaching auditions for the Dance School of Scotland.
Application forms are available for children currently in P5-P6 from Tina Kardasinska, Junior Associate Scheme, Scottish Ballet, 261 West Princes Street, Glasgow G4 9EE. Tel: 0141-331 2931. Forms must be returned by April 10. Class fees are from Pounds 54 to Pounds 106 per term. Local authority subsidies are often available.