Just like Billy

17th March 2006 at 00:00
Is ballet school still the domain of a snooty elite? Or are the real-life Billy Elliots taking classical dance to the masses? Heather Neill reports

Ballet is suddenly cool. When the three stars of the stage production of BillyElliot - James Lomas, George Maguire and Liam Mower - stepped up to receive their joint Olivier award in London last month, a glaring spotlight was turned on an enclosed, esoteric corner of the performing arts. The fact that one of the young stars was a real-life Billy Elliot (see box) added to the feeling of cultural glasnost. But what does a parent do when a small hand tugs at a sleeve and says, "I want to be a ballet dancer"?

Most likely something along the lines of, "It's not for the likes of us."

Despite the success of Stephen Daldry's film and musical, ballet still carries an air of privilege and mystery. Do children really have to start at seven or even younger? Isn't all that getting up on tip-toes bad for young knees and feet? And don't classical dancers belong to a snooty elite?

Elmhurst school for dance is a good place to find answers to such questions. It is certainly not like any mainstream school. Almost all the students, from the age of 11 to the first year sixth, are boarders. There are only 214 of them (aged 11 to 21), and they are educated in a stunning new pound;20 million complex on a five-acre site which boasts seven dance studios, a 250-seat theatre, a library, music rooms, classrooms and an exercise centre, as well as living accommodation. The school moved in 2004 from Camberley, Surrey, to the current premises in Edgbaston, funded partly by lottery money. It works closely with the Birmingham Royal Ballet; this year two senior boys have been granted contracts with the company, the holy grail for a ballet school student.

On the day of my visit, Year 8s are being assessed in one of the dance studios. Twelve girls in identical turquoise practice dresses - the boys, fewer in number, will come later - glide forward four or six at a time, demonstrating exercises and routines that show how they have progressed during the past year. A pianist pumps out tunes, quite unexpected ones sometimes - "The Lambeth Walk", "If I Were a Rich Man" and "Magic Moments", the rhythm adjusted as necessary -as background to the girls' precise movements. Each section is presented fluently at a word from a teacher, ending with a demonstration on pointes.

As the girls finish, the school's artistic director Mary Goodhew, one of the watching panel, congratulates them, adding: "And how are your toes? All right?" These young ones are as yet inexperienced in working on pointes.

There have been a few wobbles, but the overwhelming impression is of an extraordinary discipline. Already these young people are presenting themselves like professionals, keeping concentration as they step, heads up, out of the studio. Some of them have become "tall and skinny", says Ms Goodhew. A sudden growth spurt is not unusual at this age, but it can put pressure on the lengthened leg muscles; hence the wobbles.

Ms Goodhew, a successful member of the Sadler's Wells company until injury set her on a new career path, still has a dancer's stylish bearing. She laughs that she wished herself shorter as a young girl. "Of course, there are some elegant tall dancers, but it can be a problem finding partners."

Physique is taken into account along with artistic potential, athleticism and musicality when children audition. "We look at the parents' height and that of grandparents too if it is known," says Ms Goodhew. Hopefuls are given a detailed examination by a physiotherapist; a student with potential physical problems will not be taken. Elmhurst has four nurses and three physiotherapists, and a programme of exercise, Sthenos (the Greek word for strength), is compulsory. The emphasis is on preventing injury.

Although hugely oversubscribed and currently experiencing a surge in applications, Elmhurst, like other ballet schools, is always searching for talent. Mary Goodhew has written to 900 primary schools and says she would happily see "every child in the country" to find the right students. There are various entry routes. Children can apply to the lower school between the ages of 11 and 13, by which time they will probably have been attending classes after school for some years. Shaun Mendham in Year 7 may be typical: "I kept dancing round the house so my mum said, 'Do you want to do classes?', and I enjoyed it." If students do not show sufficient progress at their Year 9 and 11 appraisals, alternative schooling will be suggested.

At 16 they may go on to the senior school, at which point new entrants also arrive.

Leyna Magbutay and fellow students Melissa Hamilton, Bethany Eyre and Laura-Jane Gibson are all slender, self-possessed 17-year-olds, with typically severe dancer's chignon hairstyles. Leyna was only 12 when she was spotted in Japan by Elmhurst's then artistic director, and came to England to board in Camberley. "It was strange at first. I was the only Japanese in my year, but it got better. I see quite a lot of my parents as my mother's an air hostess," she says.

Her three colleagues arrived after GCSEs. Melissa and Laura-Jane (from Northern Ireland and Scotland respectively) have already danced with a touring BRB company in Sleeping Beauty at Salford. All four are committed to classical dance, although Bethany, a comparative local, from Nottingham, began with tap. "My parents were late picking me up after class one day and I saw the ballet class while I was waiting and immediately wanted to do that too," she says.

The curriculum at Elmhurst includes all forms of dance, but for the majority nothing touches the romance of the classical repertoire.

Commitment is essential. The day begins with assembly at 8am and a first class at 8.40. School finishes at 6.40 on weekdays, but students have to attend classes on Saturdays as well.

Academic results are good - the school was placed halfway in the Sunday Times top 500 list in 2004 - partly because classes are small. Everyone is expected to take between eight and 11 GCSEs, and in the upper school a three-year intensive vocational training course, linked with AS and A-levels, leads to a national diploma in dance. Some do a fourth year, when they take a pre-professional course.

Young people putting themselves through this regime tend to be more focused than the average student and that is reflected in all aspects of their lives. This passion affects families, too: 85 of the students here receive funding through the Department for Education and Skills music and dance scheme, and there are 60 scholarships for students over 16, but it is not uncommon for parents to remortgage their homes to pay the fees.

Through the DfES scheme, parents receive means-tested help at eight independent specialist schools, including Elmhurst, where fees are pound;17,500 a year for boarding and pound;13,650 for day pupils in the lower school. A combined parental income of pound;20,000 would require an annual contribution of Pounds 870.

Running costs are considerable; a senior girl may get through a couple of pairs of pointe shoes in a week. Mary Goodhew says: "It would be wonderful if the most talented vocational UK dancers could be funded for all their training and educational needs (regardless of parental income) to enable us to make best use of native talents and keep up with what is on offer to students in other European countries, where everything is covered financially."

An elite, then, these students certainly are, but not necessarily in class terms, and there are 15 nationalities at Elmhurst, though few black and Asian faces. They have to set their sights high to succeed in a competitive business, but at the same time be prepared for something less than stardom.

"They have to run with the dream, but realistically," says Ms Goodhew. Even those who make it have to accept that ballet is a relatively short career.

If they escape injury, they will still have to think about another career before 40; ballet dancers, like other athletes, retire young. Leyna Magbutay is already thinking ahead. "I love photography and I might even think about ballet criticism," she says.

Leyna and her friends know they must be sensible, and talk dutifully of becoming teachers or physiotherapists if they don't get their big break; but their eyes shine brightest when they talk about dancing as a career.

They will need to be tough and patient as well as charming and delicate.

Ballet is no place for slouchers.

Information about Elmhurst, including Saturday classes: 0121 472 6655; www.elmhurstdance.co.uk

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