Quite by accident, I started my first ballet classes when I was almost 22-years-old. Go figure! Upon finishing school and thereafter doing time in the SANDF, I set out to become the next Hollywood hot-shot actor from South Africa. But I soon became disillusioned with the Speech and Drama course I was enrolled in at the time in Durban and so I applied for a backstage job with the drama company at the Alhambra Theatre – the then home of the now defunct Natal Performing Arts Council. The administrator who conducted my interview said that sadly there were no openings (As an Assistant Stage Manager) with the drama company at that time but there were backstage opportunities with either the Opera or Ballet companies. Was I still interested? I didn’t know it at the time but I was about to make a watershed decision, a turning point which would change the course of my life. I chose the ballet company and in turn ballet chose me! After 18 months I had enrolled at the UCT Ballet School and two years later I had successfully auditioned for the professional Ballet Company (CAPAB).
I am fully aware – even though I did develop rather quickly – that this feat was made all the more easier because of the male starved world of ballet, and that a wannabe ballerina could never reach the required standards were she to start as late as I did. So then (enough about me!), what is the right time to start dance training? This question presents itself as a double-edged sword: if you start when you’re 6-years-old you may ‘burn-out’ by your late teens (or earlier), but at the same time, you’ll never know if you’re destined for greatness unless you start at an early age.
The decision shouldn’t be a difficult one or one that gets too over-worked: start your kids with ‘play ballet’ or pre-ballet at the age of four and then move onto more formal dance classes at the age of six or seven. At pre-ballet, children are shown how to simply move around the studio to the rhythms of different styles of music; the importance of posture is introduced and some may even get to learn the five basic positions of ballet. No rocket science. And that’s how it should be. At this stage in the life of a child, it should be more about playing than anything else. Who of us can say that they remember learning how to speak the language they speak today? Very few I’m willing to wager! And ballet is definitively a language, so just let them have fun and growing up will do the rest.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the engendering of fun rests largely with the teacher. This is something which is often taken for granted. In my, albeit brief time back in the dance world, I have been constantly blown away at the long hours and dedication that so many ballet and dance studio teachers put in. At times it must seem totally thankless, but we can deduce that this cannot be the case because few would go so far beyond the call of duty if they weren’t themselves deriving satisfaction from it, surely? In any event, thank you!
I remember when I was seven or eight years old, my brother and I were sent to cubs. It was after school every Friday afternoon. And as everyone knows, after school on Friday afternoons was for the building of tree-houses and for swimming in the dam. Needless to say, we hated it but we thought it was what our parents wanted. Eventually after about two years of deprived Fridays, we built up the courage and asked them if we could please leave cubs. I’ll never forget their reply: “Of course, any time you want!” Say what!? The moral of this little story is that innocent misunderstandings of this nature can so easily happen in even the most loving of households. And this is the only real way to answer the question at hand. The question relating to when is it a good time to start ballet? Because, quite frankly, perhaps a more pertinent question should be: when is it a good time to stop ballet?
When they’re at pre-ballet – listen to what they may be trying to say to you. When they move to more formal dance classes – listen to what they may be trying to say to you. Don’t simply listen to the words they may be saying but to things said unspoken. In my time as a professional dancer I saw too many Mom’s dancing vicariously through their own children. The decision is theirs. Listen out for it!
The answer then to the question may be this: 22-years-old is definitely too late but 4-years-old is a good time to start them thinking about it.
I often wonder where I would be today if I had chosen the Opera Company way back then during that interview at the Alhambra Theatre in Durban! Who can say? But what is clear is that the decisions we make for our children now will impact on the rest of their lives. So choose carefully. And be fully awake to any small murmurings of wished for amendments which may arise from their young hearts.
About the writer: Bruce Spilsbury used to dance for CAPAB Ballet last century. He now works as a Sales Executive for Turning Point, looking after their Western Cape clients.