THE BABY BALLERINAS HOLLY

Daily Mail - - News - By Jane Fryer

STU­DIO 17, sit­u­ated down a pot­holed road on an in­dus­trial es­tate in Southamp­ton, isn’t the most salu­bri­ous of set­tings. But in­side at the Starz Bal­let’s 10am class, stan­dards are very high in­deed. Pink leo­tards are smoothed and spot­less; tu­tus are crisp. Teeny bal­let shoes hold plump lit­tle feet and pink tights cling to cute chubby legs (and, in some cases, dan­ger­ously bulging nap­pies).

Oh, and the hair­styles! There are pig­tails with ringlets, swing­ing pony­tails, high bunches, low bunches, top knots — but, most of all, buns. These bob and gleam like var­nished pom­poms, held in place with lash­ings of hair­spray. (For those with enough hair, that is). The at­ten­tion to de­tail is amaz­ing. But the first thing that hits you as you walk through the door is the noise.

Be­cause while the 19 ded­i­cated ballerinas (and a lone male called Isaac) are im­mac­u­lately turned out, they are chil­dren. Very, very young chil­dren. Half of them are still in nap­pies. Many can only speak ‘ baby’. Sev­eral can’t yet walk.

But here they are, kit­ted out like mini Darcey Bus­sells and still buzzing from their an­nual show last week­end — a two-per­for­mance, to­tally sold-out ex­trav­a­ganza full of pom­poms, se­quins, tu­tus and anx­ious par­ents in a 750-seat au­di­to­rium in Fareham, Hamp­shire.

I ar­rive in time to find them lim­ber­ing up for their class with Miss Sarah, aka Sarah Wolfe, a pro­fes­sional dancer who won a bal­let schol­ar­ship aged 11 and later trained at the pres­ti­gious Doreen Bird Col­lege of Per­form­ing Arts.

While bal­let classes for pre-school­ers are noth­ing new, what makes Starz dif­fer­ent is that the baby ballerinas here are of­ten just that — ba­bies. The school ac­cepts chil­dren from just a few months old.

‘You’ll be amazed what they can do at six months,’ Miss Sarah tells me. ‘ Once they start recog­nis­ing the mu­sic, re­mem­ber­ing what they have to do with their hands and feet, you’ll be as­ton­ished.’

Frankly, I would. Af­ter all, one gor­geous lit­tle girl called Lily is just seven months old and can barely sit up on her own.

But over the next half an hour, Miss Sarah — who is now 48 but still boasts per­fect pos­ture, very pointy feet, amaz­ing curly lashes and a re­lent­less smile — takes them through their paces.

Their at­ten­tion span is in­cred­i­ble. As Miss Sarah runs through drills — ‘ good toes and naughty toes’ ( pointed and flexed), mon­key wrig­gles and arabesques to the strains of Nel­lie the Ele­phant and Row Row Row Your Boat — some­how they pay at­ten­tion. THEY

also stop cry­ing, whing­ing, bick­er­ing and squawk­ing, start smil­ing and ac­tu­ally do what she says. Even the tiny ones wriggle hap­pily and point their fat lit­tle toes.

‘Well done!’ she praises. ‘Beau­ti­ful, Bet­sie.’ ‘ Raise your arms, Holly. Lovely. Just beau­ti­ful.’

Round the edges of the stu­dio, mums and grannies sit and watch, en­tranced as their dar­lings sashay, point and flex, mas­ter first po­si­tion (heels to­gether, toes pointed out or, as Miss Sarah calls it, ‘smi­ley feet’) and at­tempt a plié. Or, in some cases, just lie there and gur­gle.

‘It’s never too young to start,’ one mum tells me. ‘We had a six-mon­thold baby in one show. She couldn’t crawl, but she wore a lovely frilly skirt and her dad brought her on stage and swooshed her up and down. It was beau­ti­ful.’

Abi­gail Rogers will be two in June. She first came to watch her sis­ter Holly, now four, in her class when she was just a week old and has been at­tend­ing her­self — in full bal­let kit, com­plete with cross­over cardi­gan — since she was eight months old.

‘At first she just used to sit on the floor,’ says her mum He­len. ‘But very soon she could wriggle and point her toes.

‘Though ob­vi­ously for the tippy toes and side­ways gal­lop I’d carry her.’

While the 21st-cen­tury mum­mies take it all in their stride, the grannies are a bit star­tled. Heather Fraser, 63, is here with her grand­daugh­ter, Freya, who is 15 months old and has been at­tend­ing Starz Bal­let for two terms al­ready, de­spite the fact that she only learnt to walk three weeks ago.

‘When I had chil­dren you went for a walk in the park, you met friends or made dens un­der your din­ing room ta­ble,’ says Heather.

‘There was noth­ing like this. Freya can’t re­ally talk yet, but she gets ex­cited when her mum gets her bal­let bag out.’

Of course she does. She’s a lit­tle girl who’s dress­ing up with her friends and danc­ing around to the mu­sic.

Starz Bal­let was set up eight years ago by two friends, Lianne We­ston- Momm­sen and Ch­eryl Dodd. Both had daugh­ters and both had been dancers.

While Ch­eryl dab­bled, Lianne, 43, has been ob­sessed since she was 18 months old and al­lowed to join in with her big sis­ter’s dance class.

She went to stage school then be­came a pro­fes­sional dancer. She spent ten years danc­ing on cruise ships be­fore she met her South African hus­band in the on-board duty-free shop and fi­nally set­tled down on dry land.

Both Ch­eryl and Lianne wanted their daugh­ters to learn bal­let as soon as pos­si­ble, but couldn’t find a class that took ba­bies.

‘ Ba­bies love mu­sic and we thought, “Why limit them just be­cause they can’t walk?”’ says Lianne. ‘They can do “Row your boat” with their mum, they can kick their legs. We can build on that.’ So they did. But in­stead of do­ing the usual old mu­sic and move­ment with un­trained teach­ers armed with bas­kets of mara­cas and tam­bourines, they did it prop­erly. They had a full bal­let uni­form, a de­tailed syl­labus (yes, re­ally) and pro­fes­sion­ally trained bal­let teach­ers like Miss Sarah. The com­pany took off like a rocket. (Most mums here to­day did bal­let them­selves when they were chil­dren — if not quite so young — and were keen for their daugh­ters to fol­low in their bal­let shoes.)

Within a year it was of­fer­ing 33 classes for dancers from six months to six years, in 12 lo­ca­tions across Hamp­shire. To­day, it gives more than 70 classes a week, has a team of 15 and teaches 750 pupils, in­clud­ing about 20 boys.

‘There is such a stigma about boys and bal­let. I wish more boys would join,’ says Lianne.

To­day, there is just five-year-old Isaac, who also does gym­nas­tics and swim­ming.

He joined with his sis­ter Taliyah

when she was 13 months old, still breast­feed­ing and ap­par­ently a bit shy. Isaac looks very dash­ing in his white leo­tard and navy shorts and, even to my un­trained eye, is re­ally rather good. His pliés put most of the girls to shame.

For the grand show last week, he and Taliyah per­formed to­gether — she was a flower, and he danced around her dressed as a bum­ble­bee.

To­day, their mother, Sarah- Jayne Clarke, 29, gets emo­tional think­ing about it. ‘I was so proud of them my heart just burst,’ she says.

For many, it’s all about the show. It takes a full term to pre­pare and couldn’t be fur­ther from an am­a­teur vil­lage hall af­fair — it’s all highly pro­fes­sional.

Tick­ets sell out so quickly they do two per­for­mances, one af­ter the other. They give a chunk of the tak­ings to char­i­ties close to their hearts, such as brain tu­mour char­ity Head­S­mart.

‘We lost one lit­tle bal­le­rina to a brain tu­mour,’ ex­plains Lianne. ‘She was only five and had been with us right through since she was a baby.’ ON

SHOW day, hair and make-up — just lip­stick for some, but the full works (eye­shadow, foun­da­tion and blusher) for most — started at 7.30am for a 1.15pm cur­tain-up.

Sarah-Jayne and her mum, both hair­dressers, did 60 buns be­tween them each morn­ing. With buns, pre­sen­ta­tion is ap­par­ently ev­ery­thing. Hair­nets, hair­spray and plenty of hair­pins are a must, even

if you’re not yet old enough to brush your own hair.

If it all seems a bit twee, pre­cious and al­most ridicu­lously am­bi­tious, it’s be­cause it is. Sev­eral staff mem­bers are fully trained ballerinas — to teach ba­bies, for good­ness’ sake.

But it is sur­pris­ingly af­ford­able at £5.50 a class. And yes, the bal­let kit is all avail­able on the com­pany web­site’s shop, but can also be picked up in Sains­bury’s for less than £30 for the lot.

More im­por­tantly, it ac­tu­ally seems to help. Ev­ery par­ent I talk to in­sists baby bal­let has made a huge dif­fer­ence, not just with walk­ing, bal­ance and co­or­di­na­tion, but also fo­cus, con­cen­tra­tion and tem­per tantrums.

Miss Sarah her­self took up bal­let aged three, when her granny took one look at her and said: ‘That child needs to go to bal­let to learn co­or­di­na­tion.’

Over the years she has per­formed ev­ery­where from the West End mu­si­cal 42nd Street, to panto in Red­hill, Sur­rey, to cruise ships. In 2011, she took her niece Evie to a Starz Bal­let class and loved it so much she joined the staff. ‘I started with one bal­let class a week — now I teach 17,’ she says.

And she’s cer­tainly good at it. Not many of us could cor­ral 20 kids of dif­fer­ent ages and abil­i­ties and some­how make a co­her­ent les­son out of it, while stick­ing to a syl­labus.

No won­der half the par­ents seem to wor­ship her.

Back in Stu­dio 17, the whole class is now at­tempt­ing a side­ways gal­lop across the room, teeny hands on teeny hips, lead­ing with pointed toes. The chil­dren clearly love it and the par­ents are al­most as ob­sessed. Holly and Abi­gail’s mum He­len is a pae­di­atric in­ten­sive care nurse who tells me she doesn’t work Fri­days just so she can take her girls to bal­let.

To­day, she has come di­rect from a 13-hour night shift rather than miss out on the ex­cite­ment.

Now that the tu­tus and se­quins of the an­nual show have been packed away for another year, the main fo­cus is on com­pe­ti­tions.

This week the Fes­ti­val Squad, which in­cludes Taliyah, three, and Holly, four, will com­pete with two dances. Last time they won.

‘Head up, Taliyah. Head up,’ calls Miss Sarah, as those who can walk in a cir­cle on their tippy toes. The rest are car­ried.

‘The pres­sure’s on,’ says SarahJayne. ‘Miss Sarah is hard on the chil­dren but she gets re­sults and they all love her.’ Even so, it must be try­ing — 17 classes a week! Rather her than me.

Af­ter all, what about all the haz­ards — the cry­ing, the smelly nap­pies, the fact that half the class are so young they’ll never even re­mem­ber the lessons?

Not to men­tion the tots so teeny they nod off in their prams on the way here and sleep through the whole class.

She looks at me as if I’m mad and brushes it all away with a pointed toe and a bal­letic sweep of her arm.

‘I’ve done classes through cry­ing tantrums, potty train­ing and breast­feed­ing mum­mies, but you just get used to it,’ she says. ‘This is the best job I’ve ever done and I feel priv­i­leged to do it.’

Some can barely crawl while others are still in nap­pies. But the starry-eyed mums of these lit­tle dar­lings in­sist you’re never too young to per­fect a pirou­ette

Pic­tures: DAMIEN McFAD­DEN

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