Ballet school is helping rural areas to keep step with the times

Once considered urban and elitist, ballet is being widely taught in rural areas thanks to teachers who believe ballet should be open to all, writes Ailin Quinlan

LUKE Murray is tough, fit and disciplined — since the age of nine he has undergone a rigorous physical training routine and had team-work and deportment drilled into him.

However, this chatty 16-year-old is not in a top US military college — he is a ballet dancer in rural County Cork. On Wednesdays, in Skibbereen, he has a six-hour a training session; in Bantry, on Friday nights, he has a two-hour session.

“I’m the only guy in the school, but I don’t care,” he says. “I’ve always loved dance, and ballet is great for posture, fitness and muscle strength. The amount of technique involved is huge; even to stand on the balls of your feet needs every muscle in your body to do it correctly, and look well while you’re doing it. It’s a tough discipline. You have to do everything right or else it’s wrong. There’s a lot of core work. You do sit-ups and plank work to strengthen the core and around your hips. It’s about muscle strengthening.”

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Luke wants to train in London for a career in ballet and later open his own school of dance. He literally hopes to follow in the steps of 15-year-old Dubliner, Gearóid Solan, a student at Castleknock College, who in recent weeks became the first Irish male dancer in 30 years to be accepted at the Royal Ballet in London.

Luke is one of hundreds of children and teenagers attending ballet classes in rural towns in Ireland. In Cork, classes are held in Skibbereen, Bantry, Clonakilty and Carrigaline by the charismatic Alan Foley, artistic director of the Cork City Ballet.

A protegé of the late, renowned Joan Denise Moriarty, Foley has been dancing since the age of 16. Now, aged 46 and a native of Fountainstown in Co Cork, he’s passionate about bringing the dance form to rural Cork. “Ballet used to be elite,” he says, “but I don’t see it as the preserve of the privileged. I grew up in Fountainstown, where I’d a lovely ballet teacher,” Foley says. That’s how his love of ballet was born — a good teacher in a rural area. “I wanted to go back out to rural areas and give back what I got to children who would otherwise not have good, well-qualified training,” says Foley, who provides weekly classes for ages three to 18 around the county, and in the Firkin Crane Centre in Cork City.

But ballet suffered during the recession. With classes costing between €8 and €10, some parents were unable to pay. “The last few years have been tough, because a lot of people were not able to pay their fees,” says Foley. “I notice this particularly in the younger classes. If the older children have a strong background in ballet, they kept coming, but if a child was relatively new to it, they pulled them out.”

But the tide has turned. “It was difficult to keep your head above water, but those of us who managed to survive will come out all the stronger for it,” says Foley. Cork City Ballet gets no government support and just €7,000 annually from Cork City Council.

“There are three ballet companies in this country and only one gets State funding,” he says, adding that the Cork City Ballet has not received funding from the Arts Council since 2011. That doesn’t help, particularly when 20% of parents won’t pay the fee. “I’m beginning to feel that some people think I’m running a resource centre,” he says.

Ballet school is helping rural areas to keep step with the times

But the many parents who appreciate the opportunity being offered to their child make it worthwhile, he says. “Loads of parents will do anything for their child,” Foley says.

Tara Dore, who started ballet at the age of three, now runs the Kerry School of Music Dance Academy, with her business partner, Colette Maguire.

The school holds dance classes in Tralee, Killarney, Listowel, Castleisland, Killorglin and Dingle, teaching ballet, jazz and tap to 300 students.

“There’s a big demand for it,” says Dore, who says that while there was some fall-off in demand during the worse of the recession, there’s been a significant turnabout in the last six to eight months.

“We froze our fees since 2010,” she says — currently, a year’s classes for a five-year-old is €300 for 30 lessons.

Parents are dedicated — Dore says some will drive for two hours to get their children to performances and back.

On the subject of parental commitment, Foley has stories that would break your heart.

“I had one lovely mum whose children were in my school,” he says. “Sadly, she passed away when her children were still young and her husband, who was a farmer, tried his best to take over.

“He always brought his children to their classes, and, on one occasion, he even tried to wash their dance costumes.

“Unfortunately, he was no laundry expert and he was utterly devastated when he realised the costumes had been ruined by putting them in the wrong wash.

“All I could think of was the struggle that poor man was going through to keep his girls going and I was utterly filled with admiration for him.”

There is a substantial drop-out rate in ballet schools — which is not surprising, given the wide range of activities on offer to children nowadays, the availability of the internet, a falling boredom threshold and the fact that their fitness levels, according to Foley, are significantly lower than they used to be.

Foley says that the drop-out rate is 50% although some of those children come back later on.

“They might go to karate or disco dancing, but I have had a lot of kids who have been with me for years, since they were three, and they are now in college and coming back to do the adult classes.”

Eleven-year-old Shona Murray, sister of Luke, has been attending classes since she was four.

That’s a four-hour class in Skibbereen on a Wednesday night and a two-hour class in Bantry each Friday.

“The hardest bits in ballet are learning new words, like jeté, and it can be hard doing things at first — but when you practise, it gets easier. The nicest bit is being with your friends, and you also get to appear in great shows — we’ve been in the Opera House and the Everyman Palace,” she says.

Alex Dalton, who runs the Alex Dalton School of Classical Dance, in Limerick, set up her school seven years ago, and now runs classes in the Raheen Business Park, for up to 200 students of all ages who come from as far afield as Clare and Tipperary.

“ I find there is a bit of a drop out at around the age of nine, as most children will be doing a variety of activities — music, ballet, sports. Parents get to the point where they tell them to choose.”

But, then, the benefits of ballet are extraordinary, says Foley — students who stick with it develop “magnificent deportment and grooming, strong, lean muscles, flexibility, coordination, musicality,” as well as team-work, self-discipline and self-confidence.

“Ballet is one of the things that you can’t learn in six easy lessons. If you want to work in this art form, it is a lifetime dedication,”says Foley.

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BALLET BECOMES BALANCING ACT FOR BALLYDEHOB BALLERINAS’ DEVOTED MUM

Ballet school is helping rural areas to keep step with the times

Ruth Levis constantly juggles life between work, school, home and dance class. All three of her daughters, Saoirse O’Donovan (10), Shonagh (8) and Tegan (7) attend classes in Bantry, 11 miles from their home in Ballydehob, West Cork.

Although Tegan and Shonagh attend the same class on a Friday which runs from 4.45-6pm, Saoirse’s class runs from 6-8.30pm.

“We’re doing quite a lot of driving,” she says, adding there is “quite a financial commitment” involved — around €1,000 a year.

““I really like the dancing. Some of it is hard but I can do it,” says Shonagh. “I’d really like to get better and I think I’ll keep doing it until I grow up, probably.”

Ruth appreciates the teachers’ commitment too: “It’s enormous. They drive from Cork to Bantry through the most terrible conditions, flooding, ice, and even when they aren’t feeling well.

“Also they have a great relationship with their teacher, it’s great she is so young and with-it, and they really look up to her.

Levis is convinced of the benefits to her girls.

“Ballet instils great confidence — I think it’s that they can get up to perform in front of an audience. The girls are also supple and limber. It’s superb joint mobility without any unhealthy emphasis on body image”.

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