Áilin Quinlan charts a day in the life of four of Ireland’s up and coming ballet dancers — and discovers what it takes to make it to the top.
Melissa Hamilton (27)
NOW 27, Melissa Hamilton has been dancing since the age of four. She’s been a member of the Royal Ballet Company, London, since 2007 and is currently a First Soloist.
For the 2015/16 season, however, Melissa chose to take a leave of absence to work as a Principal with Semperoper Ballett Dresden which began in October.
“The main thing to explain is there is no daily routine, because our demands and aims are different every day,” says Hamilton, from Dromore, Co Down.
“We can’t plan because unfortunately we can’t programme our bodies like robots and our bodies are our tools for ballet,” says the ballerina, who left Northern Ireland for England at 16 to train in ballet.
“I work a six-day week, made up of daily ballet class and rehearsals. A class is what we use as our way of training our muscles, to warm up for the day ahead, to work on constantly improving our technique.
“In class we start slowly, holding on to a barre we do a series of exercises to get us “on our legs” to then dance without the support of holding a barre.
“As the body warms up more, we start to move faster, lift our legs higher, spin, and by the end of the class do grand allegro (big jumps) to get our bodies prepared and ready to tackle the day ahead.
“Added exercises and stretching are essential in the maintenance of our bodies to prevent against injury and to build up strength and stamina.
“There are exercises for every part of the body dependant on the individual weaknesses of each dancer.”
Hamilton eats what she describes as “a varied diet” aimed at providing the fuel for her demanding day. Keeping hydrated is also, very important she says: “We sweat a lot.”
“A day with the Royal Ballet company consists of a ballet class from 10.30am to 11.45am. Then it would be rehearsals for varying productions (regularly up to five different ballets) from noon to 6.30pm if there’s no performance.
“If a performance is scheduled - starting at 7.30pm - company rehearsals would finish at 5.30pm leaving two hours to rest, eat, apply make-up, put on costumes and re warm-up for the show.
“Ballet gives the dancer constantly something to aim for. There is always something new to learn, something to strive for, roles to work on and develop. There is no limit.”
Gearóid Solan (15)
Gearóid Solan is definitely one to watch.
After finishing his Junior Certificate last year, the teenager from Dunboyne Co Meath, who has been studying ballet since the age of seven, applied for the Royal Ballet School.
“This is the school I always wanted to attend,” he recalls.
“I’ve always wanted to go there.” After being accepted, he’s now — at the tender age of 15 — living in student accommodation in London.
Gearóid shares the digs, a three-story house, with a house-parent and several students from his year, flying home for short visits to Dunboyne every three or four weeks.
It’s a case of two to a room, and you get your own dinner, and do your own washing and cleaning, he says.
“I’m getting used to it. It’s tempting to eat fast food, but I’m dancing from 8.30am to 6pm and you don’t survive on burger and chips.
“You have to eat good food. I know from experience that if I don’t eat well I will feel sluggish and tired and will not do as well the next day.” “He’s the only Irish student in his house, and, he’s been told, the first Irish male pupil to attend the school in 30 years.
“I’m very proud of that!”
He doesn’t just study dance he says; the school also provides classes in English “and a subject called BTEC which is the study of the world of dance.”
An average day begins at 6.40am.
“I have breakfast — usually porridge or granola with milk along with orange juice and sometimes coffee.
“I catch the tube to school every morning with some of the guys from the house.
“I get to school round 7.50am and change into a tracksuit, t- shirt and runners, and do my warm-up until 8.30am, when my first dance class starts.” For this class, which runs for an hour and 45 minutes, Gearóid changes into the ballet uniform of white socks, blue unitard and ballet shoes.
After that it’s English or BTEC for another hour and a quarter, followed by lunch.
“I bring in pasta and heat it up or I go to M&S for a few sandwiches.” From 2pm to 6pm it’s nothing but dance: “It can be a mixture of contemporary dance, fitness, such as stamina training and weight lifting, or character dancing which is learning dance from different cultures such as Hungarian or Cossack dancing.” Around 6pm he catches the tube home, and starts making dinner:
“I try to balance different foods. I make rice or pasta with meat such and vegetables like carrots or peas. You get used to it, but sometimes I do miss Mum’s cooking!” At 7.30pm there’s roll call:
“You have to be in the house for then and the house-parent checks everyone is in.” After this he generally eats his dinner, and gets on with his homework, usually until about 9pm.
“You have to be in your room for 10pm and then it’s lights out for 10.30pm. I didn’t really know what to expect, but it’s kind of what I had in mind,” he says, adding that he has less free time at ballet school than he would as a transition-year student back in Ireland.
“It’s a lot of hard work and at the end of the day you are really tired, but you feel good after the day. You’ve gone through it and worked hard!” He likes sharing a room:
“It’s companionable and I was happy once I found that my room-mate didn’t snore!” His future career? “I’d love to join a ballet company anywhere in the world. I just want to dance!”
Isobel Greene (16)
A fifth-year student at Bandon Grammar School in West Cork, Isobel has been dancing since the age of three.
Her day starts at about 7am: “I try to do core exercises myself every morning for about 30 to 45 minutes when I get up. Then I shower, have breakfast and attend classes at Bandon Grammar School.”
Her evenings are busy, and mostly given over to dance classes – so around 4.30 pm, after school finishes for the day, Isobel will often either catch a bus to Cork to attend dance class or attend a dance class, locally in Bandon:
“I am a student at the Fragolini School of Dance in Douglas, Cork. I attend a group class for up to two hours once a week, and another, smaller class, once a week for up to two hours.
“I also attend classes run by the Sarah Callanan School of Dance in Bandon once a week.”
Weekends are equally busy: “ I travel to the Irish National Youth Ballet in Dublin on Saturday mornings.
“I leave Cork at 6am, and arrive at 9am and spend eight hours training before getting the bus back from Dublin.”
Although Isobel is careful about what she eats, she doesn’t follow any particular meal plan: “I eat a big breakfast,” she says — usually something from the selection of porridge, egg, fruit or yoghurt.
“Lunch is usually our big dinner of the day — it’s meat and vegetables and potato or pasta. Tea is usually a salad — I would eat a lot of salads!
“I steer clear of things like jelly sweets and fizzy drinks most of the time, and I don’t smoke. I have a serious thing against smoking.”
Eventually, she says, she hopes to attend one of the big schools in London, Amsterdam or Barcelona.
“I’ll probably go to the UK to train — there’s a tradition in Ireland that to be able to have a career in dance you need to be leaving the country. “I’m ambitious; I’d love to be able to dance as a career,” she says, adding that she’s also interested in the areas of Sports Science, Dance Psychology or Physiotherapy as potential careers “for when my career as a dancer finishes”.
Ryan Lucey (23)
A third-year student at the Millenium Performing Arts College in London, Ryan is studying for a diploma in the Performing Arts.
A former student of Alan Foley, Artistic Director of Cork City Ballet, the Killorglin, Co Kerry man’s aim is to work as a dancer in videos, commercials, musicals.
“I’m also interested in personal fitness training because down the road I feel that setting up a business in personal training would give me the freedom to pursue my real ambition which is on the stage.”
Ryan’s day begins at 7.30am with one pint of cold water to hydrate.
“I have a light breakfast of Weetabix. I eat quite well, although I would occasionally enjoy a bowl of Coco Pops.
“I also take some supplements — multivitamins and Vitamin C — I’m allergic to all fruit, so this is how I get my important vitamins.”
8am: Pack ballets tights, tank top and lunch. “I keep my dance shoes in college because we have to have so many different kinds — ballet shoes, jazz shoes, tap shoes and so on.”
8.25am: “I change into my warm-up gear, and start the warm-up, which involves a number of exercises.
“I do some jogging and sit-ups, little jumps and some jumping jacks.
“Plank and sit-ups are to get my core fired up and I do press-ups for upper body and jogging for aerobic work.”
9am-6pm: Dance classes; ballet, jazz, contemporary, commercial, tap, as well as acting signing and fitness classes.
“The standards in the school are very high and you have to work extremely hard to stay on top of your game here.
“There’d no official lunch break — you grab your lunch between classes when you can.
“I sometimes bring in my lunch and it’d usually be leftovers from my dinner the night before which I bring in and warm up.
“It has to be a good filling lunch because I need to keep going all day; it’s all very physical so it would be chicken and vegetables, so I grab that when I can.
“I usually try to eat lunch after my acting class, generally sometime between 1pm and 3pm.”
5pm-6pm: Finish classes.
6pm-7pm: “I either head straight home or to the gym where I do strength training and core body. I do weights as I find them very useful, especially when I’m partnered with girls and need to lift them.
“Strength training makes it much easier. You need to look the part — it is very important for male dancers to look fit and strong and you have to put the work in to achieve that.
“It takes time and effort, and physically I look muscular and strong and fit.”
7.30pm: “Dinner, which is often baked chicken breast with peppers, carrots, onion and garlic, all of which I cook together in the oven.
“It gives me everything I need and at the same time it’s quick and not too difficult to make — this is what you need as you’d be wrecked after the long day.
“While dinner is cooking I will have a shower and do my homework. Sometimes we have to work on projects such as dance style or anatomy or there might be a song to learn for a performance I am involved in.
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