My son has always danced. My God, he danced in the womb. (This is true; when I was pregnant the doctors couldn’t understand why I was losing so much weight. When they put my baby on a trace, they saw just how active he was. In 30 minutes he rested for just 18 seconds. The obstetrician said “If this baby doesn’t grow up to be a dancer, I’ll hang up my white coat.”) All his moves – even from being a very small child – have been balletic. He’s not shown much interest in street dance or modern or tap – but ballet transfixes him. And even though he was adamant from being tiny that he wanted to be a dancer, a dance teacher or a choreographer, he point blank refused to have ballet lessons.
“I’ll feel stupid. I’ll be the only boy. I don’t know what any of the steps are called.”
“Son, if you want to dance, you’ve kind of gotta have lessons.”
“Not yet, mum,” he said.
I danced when I was younger. My mother was a dance teacher, so dance is in his blood, in his body. I felt that rather than force him to go to a lesson, I’d wait and let things unfold. My worry was that if I pushed him too soon, he’d be put off. He had to feel ready. He had to be enthusiastic. He had to want to do it.
In July 2015 he did a music theatre workshop at his school. He’d loved watching The Next Step and had copied the male dancers routines over and over in our living room. Seeing male dancers move with such cool confidence inspired him. Quickly, the teachers – who were just brilliant with him – saw how good at dancing he was and encouraged him to have lessons. Eventually, he agreed and was excited. I booked a private lesson for him at our local dance school. I thought that this way he wouldn’t be in a class feeling self-conscious. I bought him some ballet shoes in readiness. When they arrived, he just loved them. He went to bed in them. Refused to take them off.
I was lucky enough to sit in on his very first lesson. When his teacher asked him to put his hand on the barre and prepare his arm it was honestly as if he was remembering ballet he’d forgotten. As if it was speaking to him from another lifetime. It was the strangest thing to see. The ballet was in him. Instinctively he knew what to do with his feet, his arms, his head. His line was extraordinary.
After his first lesson the teacher suggested he join a Grade 4 class. So he had his first ballet class in September 2015. At half term, his teacher said he should also do Intermediate Foundation, a more challenging course. In November 2015, she suggested we apply to the Royal Ballet Junior Associates Programme. So we did. The JA programme is an elite programme where kids have specialist training for a couple of hours a fortnight to compliment their usual ballet.
He was offered an audition in May 2016. Throughout that time my son had danced pretty much all the time. He’d pirouette his way around the classroom. On the football field he’d do fondu pliés instead of passing the ball. He’d jeté around the house and when he thought I wasn’t looking, he’d do side aerials in the garden.
He just loves dancing. When he dances it’s as if he becomes his truest self. Joy radiates out of him. It’s incredible to see.
So along we went to the Junior Associate audition at Centre Pointe in Manchester. There were lots of other boys there and I had no idea what kind of chance my son had of getting in. It was all a bit of an unknown quantity but I knew it was very competitive and very tough to get in.
When he came out he was convinced he wasn’t going to be offered a place. He thought he’d botched it. He’d been given lots of corrections by the teacher and had to demonstrate his flexibility. He’d also done some improvisation, which he loved. He’d really enjoyed the audition and I was philosophical about it – I thought, if it’s going to be good for him and he’s ready for it, he’ll be offered a place.
But three days later I got a phone call from The Royal Ballet’s Head of Outreach. He told me the panel had been very impressed with my son. In fact so impressed that they wanted to offer him a full-time place to train at the Royal Ballet Lower School at White Lodge in London.
Well, you can imagine my face.
I blubbed. I burbled. God knows what I said to the poor man. I said we’d talk about it, think it through and reply in a few days.
We hadn’t auditioned him for a full-time place. A full-time place hadn’t even been anywhere in our thinking! I’d never even thought I’d send any of my children away to school. It was a helluva curved ball.
We learned that it’s very difficult to get into White Lodge. Only 12 places are offered to boys in Year 7 (with another 12 places going to girls) and applications come from all over the world. There’s a lot of competition. The Royal Ballet School is one of the most selective schools in the world, and it’s known as one of the world’s best ballet schools.
But after much discussion, my husband and I decided we should wait. Our son had only been dancing for a very short time (at that point, just seven months) and we didn’t feel he was ready. It felt like too much too soon. And we didn’t feel he was robust enough to cope. If ballet really was a prospect for him, we needed to know he had the resilience handle it. It’s a tough world.
So we turned down the place. We needed to ‘stress test’ his love of dance and see if it really was for him. We moved him from our local dance school to Centre Pointe where he received training from Royal Ballet teachers. He had body conditioning classes and private lessons with Simon Gray. He started the Royal Ballet Junior Associate programme in September 2016 and he went from strength to strength. And he loved every second.
I know parents say that and it can sound jaded, trite, even deluded. As if the parent is projecting their own vicarious dreams onto their kid. Just how much can a child love something? Is it possible for a child to really feel passionate about an activity? All I can say is that my son loves dancing. From the bottom of his heart.
We spent those months preparing my son for living away from home. Helping him become more efficient. Taking a shower within a couple of minutes. Learning how to sew name tags onto clothes. Keeping his room tidy. And above all, talking listening talking listening talking and talking about how he felt, if it’s what he really wanted and how he’d cope with homesickness. We spent a lot of time working with school building up his confidence, preparing him as best we could. The emotional and psychological preparation was our main concern.
We applied for White Lodge in January 2017 and he was offered an audition in February. A few weeks later we were notified that he’d been selected for a Final Audition at White Lodge in March.
He did the audition – a classical ballet class, an academic assessment, an interview, a physio examination – and came out beaming. He’d loved it. As we were gathering our stuff together to leave and hit the motorway, one of the staff called me over. Could I stay later to meet with Mr Powney the Artistic Director? He wanted to speak with me.
So we waited. Mr Powney was still busy auditioning. The kids who’d been in the first wave of auditions left. The kids who’d gone through recalls left. Most of the staff left and me and my son were waiting in reception. I think some of the remaining staff thought we were never going to leave and a couple of them politely asked if we needed them to call us a cab.
Eventually I was called in to Mr Powney’s office. My son waited outside with a drink and a plate of biscuits.
Mr Powney said: “Are you honestly telling me this child has been dancing just 17 months?”
I nodded, probably looking a bit daft.
He told me that Joe has exceptional ability. He said all the staff who’d auditioned him were in agreement. He said that he didn’t want to offer my son a place in September. He was offering him a place now.
“What? NOW, now??” I said.
“As soon as possible.”
After some more talking, we called my son in to sound him out. Mr Powney told him he was very good at ballet and that to make the most of it, they’d like to start working with him now.
“So what do you think about that?” asked Mr Powney.
“I don’t know,” said my son. “Can I have a think about it?”
So we did. His main worry was fitting into a group where everyone had already made friends. He was also very sad to leave Cheadle Hulme School and Centre Pointe. He has lots of friends and it would be a massive wrench. We’re also a very close, very small family. For my son to live away from home is a massive deal.
We drove back up the M6 talking and talking about it. I stopped at the first services I came to to ring my husband. He was overjoyed. Even though it was happening sooner than we’d originally planned, it wasn’t a total shock.
We thought that it’d be good if he joined the Royal Ballet in spring rather than in September for a few reasons. The lighter nights and warmer days in Richmond Park would be glorious and better than starting when the days are getting shorter, wetter and darker. The other kids would be over their first homesickness and any yearning for home from the others would be less ‘catching.’ There are performance opportunities to look forward to in the summer term. And there are lots of holidays to ease him in gently.
We decided to send him. He was over the moon. His school was incredibly supportive and agreed that this would be the best thing for our son. His dance teachers were stunned and delighted. The admin people at the Royal Ballet School moved mountains for us and we had everything completed very quickly. I did lots of online shopping. I sewed in more labels than I’ve ever sewn in my whole life. There was a lot to do.
And last Saturday we dropped him off. It was incredibly difficult to say goodbye to him, but he’s in the right place to grow and thrive. We can see him each weekend and he comes home every third weekend. We bought him a phone so keeping in contact would be easy.
I got his first text on the Sunday morning, telling me he felt bad because he hadn’t felt homesick. Some of the other boys had very kindly opted to stay at school for the weekend to help him settle in. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to them and their generous parents for helping us on this first weekend. Later that day there was a picture of him and a new friend larking around in the pool with a massive inflatable crocodile. He looked so, so happy.
He has a Year 7 buddy and a guide in Year 8 too. The House Parents in Junior House are just *fantastic* and I’ve had pictures, updates and quick replies to emails. Honestly, we couldn’t ask for a better welcome.
I don’t believe any parent finds it easy to send their child away to school. For me, it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. But if I denied my son this chance, this amazing opportunity, I don’t think he’d forgive me. And I wouldn’t forgive myself.
Some parents have said to me that they couldn’t send their children to boarding school because they love them too much. That’s painful to hear, as it implies I love my son inadequately. Having spoken to a few White Lodge mums now, I know the reverse is true: it’s because we love our children so much we’re prepared to give them this incredible opportunity, even though being away from them really really hurts.
And it’s because we love them so very much that we’ll do everything we can to help them fly.
This blog has also been published on Huffington Post. Read it here.