Birmingham Royal Ballet look out for former students

Diane Parkes writes about how BRB will be marking their anniversary.

An innovative project which provides free training to children with a talent for dance celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2022. And to mark the occasion, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Dance Track is inviting everyone who has been through its programme to a celebration.

Launched in 1997, Dance Track offers specialist dance training to hundreds of inner-city children aged between six and 11, providing free classes, uniforms, the chance to see live performance and the opportunity to be in an end-of-year show.
Run by BRB’s Learning, Engagement, Access and Participation department, the programme aims to reach into the community and support children who may not have access to high quality dance education.

“We go into 45 schools every spring and see about 2,500 year one students,” says BRB Learning and Participation Manager Rebecca Brookes. “We are looking at flexibility, coordination, rhythm, posture and concentration. We also look at feet and hamstrings and whether they have the turn-out for the specifics of dance.”

From these classes, around 500 students are invited to audition and around 100 students are offered a place each year. Children who progress during their first year are then invited back for a further year of Dance Track with the aim of training them to gain a place as a Royal Ballet Junior Associate or Elmhurst Young Dancer. Youngsters accepted onto these programmes are then offered a further three years of free training through Dance Track Plus.

Dance Track currently has programmes in the North, South and Central areas of Birmingham reaching into schools in diverse neighbourhoods. The programme has seen children join the Royal Ballet and Elmhurst Ballet Schools and go on to dance professionally but the team believe all the participants benefit.

“I am so passionate about the programme because we are changing lives – it’s not just about teaching dance,” says Rebecca.

The Nutcracker

“It’s about teaching social skills, self-development, independence, how to interact and communicate with each other. It’s also about understanding how to work as a team, how to perform, be an appreciative audience member and learn to be a critical thinker to enhance their ballet skills.

“There are so many elements in the Dance Track programme that we like to think they come out of the programme, whether they’ve been with us one year or six, with the social skills to take what they have learned in Dance Track and go into whichever path they want to go.”

Since its launch, Dance Track has supported 3,500 youngsters and now the team are keen to hear from as many former Dance Track students as possible for a commemoration book and the 25th anniversary celebrations.

“We want to reach all those people who remember Dance Track, remember their teachers, remember what it did for them – however big or small – to know what that impact was. Maybe it changed their life choices,” says Rebecca.

And this spring the team are organising a celebration event for all the alumni.

“We would like to celebrate the achievements of everyone, students and staff, who have been involved in the programme and those who have gone on into the profession but also those who have followed other pathways.

“Dance Track for BRB is such an important aspect. It’s passing on that passion and that knowledge, empowering children to love ballet and to grow and flourish and develop.”

Dance Track would not be possible without its many supporters. The programme’s 25th anniversary activities will be supported by HSBC UK and Birmingham Royal Ballet is totally committed to the project.

“Five years after the company came to Birmingham we were setting up this talent identification programme and at the same time breaking down all those stereotypes about ballet,” says Rebecca.

“We pride ourselves on the fact it’s 50/50 gender split and we welcome all aspects of society regardless of race, culture, identity or gender. We are breaking down the barriers to get people to love dance.

“Dance Track is a commitment to the city of Birmingham, it’s an investment. We committed that pledge 25 years ago and we’ve continued to do that and it’s grown – it’s gone from 43 to 204 students in the current cohort.

“There is also a commitment by the schools and we would like to say thank you for their enthusiasm and support.”

One youngster for whom Dance Track has made the world of difference is nine-year-old Joshua MacKenzie of Handsworth Wood.

“We didn’t know about the Dance track programme before but then they came to his school, St Teresa’s Catholic Primary, when Joshua was five,” recalls his mum Pei. “They had a little workshop for kids, it was about the kids having fun and doing the moves, I remember Joshua coming home that evening telling me about the nice lesson he’d had.”

Joshua was picked for the programme and has excelled, becoming both a Royal Ballet Junior Associate and an Elmhurst Young Dancer. He is also a talented musician, playing piano, violin and drums.

“It’s a life-changing experience for him,” says Pei. “He is very boyish and very musical but we didn’t know that he would find that ballet was something he would go on to become really passionate about. He has talent but also he works very hard. He has a very good attitude and they look for kids that are disciplined, willing to take instructions and to practice.

“Before this he was someone who liked to be in the background but ballet has changed him and given him so much more confidence. He now enjoys being in the spotlight.”

Joshua was certainly in the spotlight This Christmas, dancing one of the child roles in BRB’s The Nutcracker at Birmingham Hippodrome.

“He was so excited about being in the Nutcracker. He doesn’t get nervous about being on stage, he just enjoys it,” says Pei.

“He loves performing. Even though it’s hard work, he always looks forward to it. It’s such a big achievement for such a little boy but he loves ballet, his eyes sparkle when he talks about it.”

In September Joshua’s seven-year-old sister Kimora was also offered a place with Dance Track.

“She has been showing an interest in ballet since she was very small. When she was two or three she would perform ballet and she is very natural as a dancer,” says her mum. “Joshua is setting a very good example to her so she knew what it takes. She loves it so much – she complains the lessons are too short!”

Pei says Dance Track is offering both children opportunities they may never have experienced.

“The Dance Track teachers are excellent, the best the children could have, and we wouldn’t be able to afford for our children to go to such good teachers.

“Dance Track is a place where everyone comes together and we feel we are valued. It is free and they get the best. They give the kids the leotard, the shorts, the socks – they provide everything which makes it possible for families who cannot afford it.

“I hope the people who are the donors to the programme know that what they have done is really amazing. Dance Track is part of our lives now and we are very thankful. Everyone is so wonderful, it’s the best programme in the world.”

If you are an alumni of Dance Track, the team would love to hear from you at [email protected]