Full-time training for most dance forms starts at 16 or 18 years of age, but for ballet students it can begin as early as 11. Elmhurst Ballet School in Birmingham, the Royal Ballet’s White Lodge in London, the Hammond in Chester and Tring Park School for the Performing Arts are boarding schools offering dance training alongside academic studies.
“Ballet training is at the core of what we do,” explains Robert Parker, artistic director at Elmhurst. “The students have a two-hour ballet class a day along with supplementary disciplines such as pointe work, repertoire and pas de deux.”
However, students no longer train solely in ballet. “We deliver versatility,” explains Parker. “Students get a whole array of styles from contemporary and jazz to flamenco and character.”
Physical demands are way beyond what they were
When talking about his students, “autonomy” is Parker’s word of choice. It spreads through the training programme of the school from teaching students self-health management to learning about financing and CVs. Students also prepare their annual showcase and are involved in everything from the lighting to programme production and sourcing costumes.
As with many institutions, the school invites industry leaders to run workshops. It’s an aspect of training that helps prepare dancers for professional life, as well as exposing them to different styles of working.
“We want to produce a ‘thinking dancer’,” Parker continues. “The days are gone when you would stand in front of a choreographer and wait for them to tell you what to do. These days, they want a 50/50 input – a lot of work is collaborative or task based. We’re trying to prepare them for that.”
The nature of ballet training means that it remains a somewhat exclusive world (while there are scholarships, full-time training from age 11 is not realistic for everyone) but schools are keen to keep abreast of change. “The physical demands of a dance career are way beyond what they used to be,” says Parker, who aims for his students’ training to reflect that.
After studying at Elmhurst for five years, Freya Jeffs continued her training on the three-year course at Central School of Ballet, which takes students from age 16. She went on to dance for Scottish Ballet and now works freelance within contemporary and aerial dance.
“There are many things from training that I have taken forward with me into professional life, and not just technique. I left the Ballet Central tour [the school’s third-year company] with a knowledge base in stage technician skills, adapting choreography to fit stage sizes and what food benefited me on tour – all things that I have found consistently useful.”
For contemporary dancers, training normally starts at 18. In London at the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance, London Contemporary Dance School and Trinity Laban, as well as Northern School of Contemporary Dance in Leeds and the Scottish School of Contemporary Dance in Dundee, students study for a BA (hons) alongside intensive, practical training. Classes are in ballet and contemporary techniques led by teachers who are practising dance artists or active practitioners in their field. Choreographers are also invited to work with the students on the creation and performance of a piece.
While many might want to pursue a performance career, the reality is that this takes time and, in a world of funding cuts with few jobs available, collaborating with friends or producing one’s own work will often be the most practical way forward.
Graduates must think beyond existing boundaries
“Students need to develop the ability to work with practising artists as well as their peers,” explains Veronica Lewis, principal of LCDS. “The majority will go on to portfolio careers and make a living through a mixture of dance-related and non-dance related activity.” To assist this, students undertake an independent research project. They produce and choreograph their own work as well as performing in works by fellow students.
Sophie Thorpe trained at LCDS before joining Verve, the postgraduate company at NSCD. Since graduating, she has established the collective Feet off the Ground Dance with friends from LCDS. “Training enabled me to work things out for myself, instead of just being spoonfed. It was also a time where I learnt so much physically and it made me mentally stronger.”
In 2015, three leading choreographers voiced their concerns about the technical proficiency of contemporary dance graduates and the “rigour” of UK training. Yet among dancers there’s a clear understanding that creativity, choreographic and teaching skills are just as valuable as practical training. Schools focus on creating dancers able to work across the profession, rather than solely as technical performers. This is a pragmatic approach, since most jobs will require a range of skills and involve dancers in the devising process.
“Today’s contemporary dance profession looks to employ artists who are creative, resourceful, entrepreneurial and multi-skilled. Graduates must be able to meet complex performance and choreographic demands and have the capacity to think beyond the existing boundaries of the art form by being curious, experimental and original,” says Colin Bourne Collins, head of dance programmes at Trinity Laban.
University courses allow students to specialise in areas outside of performance. Amy Butler, a dancer with StopGap and rehearsal director for Akram Khan’s Chotto Desh, initially gained a degree from London Metropolitan University before continuing her training at LCDS. She is currently doing a part-time MA at LCDS.
“I had a rich and varied experience from both institutions. However, I do feel that the academic world of dance under-appreciates practical experience. It would be wonderful to see the two worlds cross over more.”
It’s something that universities are also recognising. From September 2017, the University of Chichester will run a BA in dance performance alongside its BA dance programme. “The new BA dance performance programme is more akin to a vocational training with two classes per day, including Feldenkrais and pilates,” explains Cathy Childs, head of dance. The university has also run Mapdance, its MA performance company, for 10 years. It attracts students of both vocational and university training.
Whichever genre of dance you train in, versatility is key. For musical theatre or commercial dance, an all-round training is required. At schools such as Laine Theatre Arts in Epsom, London’s Urdang Academy, London Studio Centre and Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, students study a three-year diploma or degree course. Training covers a range of styles such as jazz, tap, contemporary and ballet alongside singing and acting classes. Pilates and choreography may also supplement students’ training.
Students have to be all-round performers
Frances Clayton, director at Midlands Academy of Dance and Drama in Nottingham, advocates the importance of an all-round training. “To ensure sustainability and longevity in employment, students these days have to be all-round performers – dancers need to be able to sing and act; actors need to be able to sing and dance.”
At any school, the training will be intensive. Former Urdang student Sam Carlyle studied on the school’s foundation course before taking her diploma. “The intensity of that prepared me for the three-year course. It’s physically demanding. You get breaks, but sometimes that’s 15 minutes between a jazz and ballet class.”
For many, this intense schedule is also the first time away from home. George Hankers, who trained at Laine, started at 16: “You’ve moved from home for the first time and have to fend for yourself while working through a gruelling training environment day in, day out. It’s both physically and emotionally exhausting – but I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Despite the difficulties of training and the notoriously competitive environment, the experience is worthwhile for many students. “Even though I’m now a singer, my dance ability is still there,” says Emily Juniper, a graduate of London’s Bird College. “I still have the ability to pick things up well and do different styles.”
While agents are invited to each school’s final year showcase, the road to that first job can be challenging.
“The high standards of dance, the expectations of choreographers and the huge number of other hopefuls attending auditions means that graduates must be extremely versatile. They have to stand out from the crowd,” says Clayton.
Hankers is frank about the realities of a dance career: “You never realise how tough it is to book a job until you graduate. You have weeks with countless castings, and months with none. It’s frustrating. But when that job comes, you feel like the luckiest person in the world.”
For many, the reward of being able to dance for a living is worth the struggle. Ultimately, success comes down to commitment and perseverance. In the words of Veronica Lewis: “They have to become confident, brave and resolute.”