Established in 1997 as a commitment to the city, Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Dance Track started with just 15 children enrolled. The programme, run by the company’s Learning, Engagement, Access and Participation (LEAP) department, has since auditioned an impressive 36,000 children, of which 3,244 have been successful in obtaining places. As it reaches its silver anniversary, 100 youngsters are now invited to join each year, with the annual cohort standing at just over 200 from 45 schools.
The impressive numbers keep coming. Some 130 students have gone on to secure training with The Royal Ballet School Junior Associates or Elmhurst Young Dancers at Elmhurst Ballet School, with 27 graduating into vocational training at age 11 with those schools.
Among those who have gone on to perform with professional companies is Jakob Myers, now with Ballet Cymru, who says, “Dance Track gave me a life path that I never would’ve thought or dreamt of. Every memory is full of happiness, enthusiasm, and excitement for what the future could’ve held. Dance Track is an amazing scheme which changes children’s lives forever, and for that I cannot thank them enough.”
Other graduates who made it into companies include Tim Hill and Luke Francis, previously with Ballet Cymru and Northern Ballet respectively. Like Myers, they later also studied at Elmhurst. Soon to join them is surely Oscar Kempsey-Fagg, now in his final year at The Royal Ballet Upper School, who also has two very talented younger brothers.
Dance Track’s achievements will be marked at a celebratory performance in Birmingham in May 2022 that will bring together past and current students, some in specially choreographed pieces. Also present will be teachers, staff and schools, without whom none of the programme’s successes could have been realised. More details of what promises to be an uplifting event will be released soon.
BRB Director of LEAP Pearl Chesterman and Dance Track Programme Manager Rebecca Brookes explain that Dance Track is very specifically a Birmingham programme, its participants talented children from the city’s primary schools who would otherwise be unlikely to engage with the arts.
The programme recently received an extra boost with the news that it will benefit from extra support through HSBC UK’s sponsorship of the company in 2021/22.
The youngsters are initially accepted for a year, but if they show that their talent has developed, that they have the required attributes for ballet, a further year is offered in which they work towards auditions for the Junior Associates or Elmhurst Young Dancers. If they get places on either of those programmes, they automatically also get one on Dance Track Plus, which is a further three years.
Accessibility is key. Weekly hour-long lessons with a teacher from the company and a live pianist are held in the students’ home areas or at Birmingham Royal Ballet. Besides ballet, those dance lessons now also extend to tap, modern, contemporary, jazz and mime, something that started over Zoom during lockdown but that is set to continue. As Chesterman says, “As we all know, to be a ballet dancer today, you can’t just be good at ballet.” All classes and student uniforms are free, and participants also get the chance to see a Birmingham Royal Ballet performance.
The youngsters also get the chance to achieve their Arts Award. Validated by Trinity College London, this aims to inspire young people to grow their arts and leadership talents. Besides participating in arts activities, as part of this, children have to research artists and their work. For Dance Track students this may be a dancer or a member of the orchestra.
Brookes emphasises that while Dance Track is a ballet talent identification programme, it’s not just about teaching dance. “I often say that it’s very much about strengthening muscles and strengthening healthy minds, whether you then take that into athletics, football, rugby, any sport, as well as educating and stimulating little brains, then you get much more from it than just the ballet. I am so passionate about the programme because we are changing lives. It’s also about them coming out as well-rounded individuals. It’s about teaching social skills, self-development, independence, how to interact and communicate with each other; all those skills they can take through life into whatever career they choose.”
There are still barriers to overcome, though. Dance Track is often a learning experience for parents too, many of whom come to the programme with less knowledge than the children, who have already taken part in workshops. Chesterman says that, with the demographic of many of the schools they go into, there is sometimes a feeling that ‘dance and ballet is not something for them’. But, while many of the parents are unsure at the beginning, they soon become very proud of what their son or daughter is achieving, she adds quickly.
Returning to May’s celebration, Birmingham Royal Ballet is looking to reconnect with as many Dance Track alumni as possible. “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 Brookes. “We would like to celebrate the achievements of everyone, students and staff, who have been involved in the programme.”
If you are an alumni of Dance Track, Birmingham Royal Ballet would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.