There’s no single route into a career on the West End’s biggest stages. Three figures from the world of dance tell Anna Winter about getting their big break
How do you turn a dancing whelp into a West End hoofer? How does the kid perfecting a tour en l’air in a provincial dance school above a post office transition into a slick professional touring the country (and beyond) in a hit show?
The demand for triple-threat excellence means that aspiring performers must be primed at a young age. In an entertainment ecosystem that now includes shows such as Into the Hoods and Tango Moderno alongside familiar Broadway classics, successful dancers must display versatility at the drop of a Sally Bowles-style bowler hat.
But the main training establishments don’t require clone-like levels of technique from the outset. Tereza Theodoulou, who teaches at Bird College in Sidcup and chairs the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing’s modern theatre faculty, notes: “There will always be candidates with a very high standard of jazz, tap and ballet, but we also see outstanding hip-hop dancers who have yet to study technical dance in any depth. Some outstanding singers may have little dance training but possess a natural flair for moving rhythmically and expressively. At Bird, we recognise that it’s not always the most technically proficient dancers who are necessarily the most gifted.”
There’s no cookie-cutter route into this fiercely competitive industry. Within Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, you’ll find dancers of varied provenance. Company member Danny Reubens started dancing at 15, then trained at the Central School of Ballet. Girls can rarely begin so late, however. Reubens’ colleague Katie Webb “sacrificed family life” at 13 to board at Arts Educational School in Tring before securing a spot at Scottish Ballet aged 18.
What age did you start and when did you seriously consider the professional path?
I grew up in Banbury and my mum was my dance teacher. I kept my options open, applying for university and dance colleges as I had two very different career paths in my head: either performing or becoming a marine biologist. I went to Bird College because it offered a degree and it’s in Kent rather than central London – a scary prospect at the time.
What was the hardest aspect of the course?
The strain of the timetable. As a degree student you did all the same physical classes as a diploma student, but with written work crammed in. We also had boys-only jazz and ballet classes, which were very hard. Boys try to outdo each other and the teachers would push us – it was extremely difficult even though I’d been dancing for years.
Have you noticed any changes in the industry and how people are trained?
Students often have an expectant, rather than aspirational, mindset: ‘I’ll do this course and then I’ll get a West End job.’ When I left college and went into Chicago, I was taken aback. I knuckled down and worked my socks off. The lack of discipline today can be quite staggering. It comes from all the red tape at college level: what you can and can’t do or say. When I think back to my ballet training, if my second leg on a glissade was late, then my second leg would be hit with an umbrella or I’d have a chair thrown at me.
Any other words of wisdom?
Body maintenance. Your body is the fittest it’s ever been at college, but if you don’t stay in shape it affects your work prospects.
How did you get started?
I started ballet aged three, then modern and tap at 12 with singing lessons a bit later. We were lucky to have free music lessons provided by the county, so I started the cornet and violin. I kept up the cornet and did all my grades.
When did you focus on becoming a professional?
I kept up my academic studies in parallel with performing. I was going to go to Durham university to do a degree in English and history, but then I was offered a DaDa (dance and drama scholarship) for the diploma at Laine Theatre Arts. I held my university place for a year and started at Laines, but I didn’t go to Durham in the end – I was fulfilling a dream. In my second year, I started a part-time Open University degree in English. I’ve just finished it after five and a half years.
What was the training like?
We had daily ballet and jazz classes, tap classes, music and acting. It’s absolutely rigorous but it has to be in such a competitive industry. At Laines, they don’t just train you in musical theatre but in performing arts – you’re prepared for all areas of the industry, which makes you more employable. People don’t just go into musicals – there’s also commercial dance. My first job out of college was on a cruise ship. Then I got a part in Brassed Off at Derby Theatre. I never expected to be in a straight play so soon after graduating.
How did you get started?
I was a late starter. I’d done gymnastics but I started street dance lessons aged 15, inspired by Steps and Madonna, at a great local school in Yorkshire. I turned up in combat trousers, never thinking I could do it as a profession. My teachers guided me towards ballet. It sounds corny, but I really could relate to the Billy Elliot story. I thought, ‘I’m not getting into tights.’ But I donned them and embraced it.
What form did your training take?
It was intense. I went to Barnsley College to study a national diploma in performing arts with dance classes six days a week. I got as much experience as I could: am dram, summer schools, auditions. When I was 17, I picked up a copy of The Stage and saw an open audition advertised for Billy Elliot. Two auditions later, I got the call. It was life-changing.
So you went straight into the show and didn’t carry on training?
I’d got a place at Laines, but I entered the industry quite unconventionally via the open audition. I’m a testament to the fact that if local dance schools are of a high calibre then you can still get into the industry. You don’t necessarily have to uproot and remortgage your parents’ house to pay college fees. It’s not about where you train, but how you train.