THE BABY BALLERINAS HOLLY
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