In a light, airy studio at Kings’ Dubai, the afternoon sunshine slants through the skylights and casts a pearly glow on a cluster of tiny ballerinas. Decked out in pink and white tutus, which are sticking out at all kinds of crazy angles, they look like little cupcakes.
Other than a few ill-fated aerobics sessions, this is the first dance class I’ve been to since age eight, when I abandoned ballet for the piano (back in the days when being involved in two extracurricular activities was considered extravagant, and my mean mum made me choose).
Organised by dancing school Turning Pointe, the teacher, Miss Lara, is brilliant – and a total caricature. Using the exaggerated facial expressions of an animated character, every step she takes is dramatic, her out-turned feet giving her the air of a penguin (albeit a very elegant penguin). I wonder if she walks this way when she’s alone at home, or out shopping. Miss Lara talks to the children as if they’re three – which is fair enough, as most of them are – but when she talks to me in the same manner I can’t help but conclude it’s a very good job she doesn’t work in an office. This woman was born to teach children, and they are clearly in awe of her.
As the pupils drift in, Miss Lara sits them down in a circle and asks, ‘Have you brought me a present?’ I try to mask my shock – I thought kids only took their teacher an apple in American films – and I’m relieved to learn that all she wants from the little dancers is good toes and nice straight backs. Next she asks, ‘Shall we say hello to Mr iPod?’ She whips a Nano from beneath her leotard’s shoulder strap and cranks up a nursery rhyme. Considering she has to listen to these songs all day every day I don’t blame her for being slightly mad.
At one point Miss Lara gathers the children in a line, firmly moving one cheeky queue-jumper to the back, declaring that ‘superstars always come last’. The ballerinas pair up and are sent across the length of the room so they can demonstrate their best sideways gallops. One young dancer gets slightly too enthusiastic, careening across the studio at breakneck speed, dragging her poor partner along in her wake (this particular tot is more than a little bit mischievous, loves looking at herself in the mirror, and is right at the top of my ‘I want to take one home!’ list). Towards the end of the session Miss Lara announces that it’s time for the pizza test. My hunger-induced excitement quickly fades when she reveals that it’s a fun name for checking whether the girls’ feet are turned out at a wide enough angle for first position.
The session I’m observing is all about the weather: the girls pretend to be sunshine, they stomp around as angry rain clouds, and at the end, they catch stars from the sky and go to sleep (which must be the teacher’s favourite part). This is because, as Miss Lara tells me (using every muscle in her face), ‘Little children need a story to help them understand.’ Later, when I meet the school’s principal Donna Dempsey, she seconds this, as she points out that using a storyline keeps little ones focused, which in turn enables the lesson to maintain some semblance of structure.
So what are the benefits of ballet lessons? Obviously, it’s a great way of getting kids active, but it’s also a means of developing their musicality. Donna says, ‘We have special music that’s specifically written for the young dancer, so they can hear the rhythm and the beat.’ The popularity of Angelina Ballerina can’t have done ballet any harm either, I venture. ‘Yes, it’s great. They also had the Barbie Nutcracker, and now if I put on a piece of Tchaikovsky they’ll say “I know that!” Children are listening to classical music without even realising.’ Donna also points out, ‘To be a dancer you’ve got to be intelligent, as you have to learn a sequence of steps – so it stimulates the brain as well.’
Turning Pointe doesn’t just teach tiny tots: kids aged up to 18 are catered for, with over-fives being taught the Royal Academy of Dance syllabus, but exams certainly aren’t the main focus. As Donna explains, ‘The aim is to get them to dance to the best of their ability and to really enjoy what they’re doing. The more somebody enjoys what they’re doing, the better they will do.’
Ballet classes with Turning Pointe at Kings’ Dubai cost between Dhs400 and Dhs650 per term, depending on the level of the student and the length of the term. Registration for September opens on August 30. Call 800 32623 or check out www.thedancecentre.ae for more information
Ballet of the sexes
Of Turning Pointe’s 1,500 students, only five are boys. But why is ballet seen as such a girly pastime? Principal Donna Dempsey says, ‘If you look at the old Russian ballets like Swan Lake, the role of the male dancer was to support the ballerina, but it’s very much a cultural thing. Eastern Europeans don’t see ballet as being girly at all, but Brits and Australians, for example, have the mentality that it is.’
This is not least, we suspect, because of the tutus. Sure, they’re adorable on little girls, but most boys would rather eat broccoli than be associated with anything pretty. ‘The thing is,’ says Donna, ‘the boys wear plain clothes and do completely different moves – it’s far more masculine. Plus if you put a guy who does ballet next to the average football player, the dancer would be far fitter and stronger.’
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