Behind the scenes at a Portsmouth ballet school

Southsea School of Dance at Priory School in Fawcett Road, Southsea. Picture: Sarah Standing
Southsea School of Dance at Priory School in Fawcett Road, Southsea. Picture: Sarah Standing

From pirouettes to arabesques, hundreds of dancers practise ballet every week. But it’s not as easy as you may think...  

And point…

In unison, 14 ballet dancers shoot out their feet, curling their toes to create the classic balletic position – arms and heads poised, their fingers resting on the barre. 

‘Arms in bras bas ladies,’ calls the teacher as their hands flow gently in front of their hips. She calls the young dancers to rest and immediately they melt out of their rigid positions. 

‘There’s something funny about seeing dancers suddenly relax,’ says Carol Vasko, the principal of Southsea School of Dance. 

These are just some of the hundreds of young people across the area who practise the ancient art form of ballet every week.

Giggles, chatter and whispers suddenly fill the dance studio at Priory School, Southsea, as the students huddle into friendship groups. An hour before, Carol and I were sitting in an empty studio waiting for the school bell to ring so her dancers could file in. 

‘I teach all of the ballet classes here – ballet was my first love,' she laughs.

‘I like the rigour, the discipline and its rich heritage.’

Carol, 49, is one of Southsea dance school’s very-own as she trained with its founder Audrey Brown when she was six before she left for the shining lights of London.

‘Dancing is my way of life.’ 

Carol, from Clanfield, teaches 100 students a week – some starting at just three years old. Many continue into their teenage years. But whatever age they are, they all have one thing in common. 

‘They have to be committed. Repetition and attention to detail is the bedrock of all dance training. But that only comes with continual perseverance and the dedication to improve.

‘A body that can physically cope with it is god-given really – there’s only so much one can do,’ she says.

‘But the trouble with ballet is even when you have all of those things, sometimes it’s still not enough. It is such a rarefied art form.’

This is echoed by one of Southsea’s stars, Beth Relf, who has made it in London’s West End and is part of the smash-hit musical Mamma Mia. 

‘It takes hard work, passion, commitment and a certain amount of confidence. You just have to love it,’ she says, as we speak on the phone during a break in rehearsals. 

The 20-year-old started at Southsea School of Dance when she was three until she left to study musical theatre with Laines Theatre Arts company at 17. 

‘The ballet at Southsea was fantastic. They’re strict but they have to be – it’s what makes a dancer. The dance school really gave me my foundation training and boosted my confidence.’

‘It can be very hard and definitely has its drawbacks, but it’s a wonderful career,’ adds Beth. 

But the glamour, glitz and glitter is not always what it’s cracked up to be. 

‘It’s a very hand-to-mouth existence. As a professional you might land a job for six months but then you are back on the audition circuit again,’ says Catherine Ingram, the principal of Giselle Dance Academy at Landport. 

Catherine, from Hayling Island, founded the dance school in 1989 with six students at North End. She now teaches 350 girls and boys. 

‘There are not any shortcuts in the dance industry. You have to make sacrifices.’

Despite Carol and Catherine running two different dance schools, their experiences as teachers are similar.

‘It’s very rewarding. Some dancers get nervous before exams and come out wanting to do it all over again – it’s great to see,’ says Catherine.

‘The greatest reward is actually less about what they achieve – although that’s always gratifying – it’s seeing them enjoy themselves and becoming aware of their improvements,’ says Carol. 

And while their dance students prance, plié and pirouette several times a week, don’t forget the vital role played by parents. 

Bethany Ternan, nine, and her mum Alison are regulars at Carol’s studio.

‘I take tap, ballet, modern classes and have just started a conditioning class. But I love ballet most,’ says Bethany. 

Alison adds: ‘It’s a social activity for me too. I have met really great mums and it’s a different network of friends for Bethany and me.’ 

That’s the consensus among all the parents who spend their evenings sorting out dance kit, tying up ballet shoes and gathering hair into tight buns. 

‘I used to dance – I loved the opportunities and wanted the same for them,’ says Hannah Harman, looking at her two daughters Ria, 13, and Amy, 10. 

‘It is a commitment and there’s the expense too – shoes can cost up to £40. But seeing them train for an exam and then get their results is lovely.’  

Ria, who dances with Carol four times a week, has just started going up on pointe [dancing on your toe tips]. But mum Hannah can relate to sore toes. 

‘It’s rewarding because you become a better dancer,’ says Ria.

Whether they’re planning a dance career or simply going for fun, the enjoyment on each dancer’s face is clear. 

‘I just feel free – all the stresses at school can be taken away through dancing. You just use your emotions,’ says Isabella Glass, 14, from Southsea. 

‘Ballet is very technical. It’s precise and there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it and you don’t want to get it wrong,’ laughs her friend, Kate Nitch of Drayton.

‘I love coming. It doesn’t matter what’s happened throughout your day, you can come here, be with your friends and relax,’ says the 12-year-old. 

And when the clock strikes, the young dancers pile out of the doors. With their ballet shoes in tow and casual clothes chucked over their white tights and leotards, they leave knowing it won’t be long before they're back doing what they enjoy most, dancing. 

Where it all began…

Ballet as we know it today began during the Italian Renaissance. When Catherine de Medici of Italy married the French King Henry II she introduced early dance styles into court life in France.

The official terminology and vocabulary of ballet was codified in French in the 17th century. During the reign of Louis XIV, the king himself performed many of the popular ballet dances of the time.

From Italian roots, ballets in France and Russia developed their own stylistic character. By 1850, Russia had become a leading creative centre of the ballet world. Dancing en pointe (on toe) became popular during the early part of the nineteenth century.

Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Anna Pavlova and Darcey Bussell are just some of the most famous names in the ballet world. 

The health benefits of ballet

There is a lot more to ballet than picking out leotards, putting on tights and tying up ballet shoes.

It involves core strength, balance and motor skills which come with practice. Here are the top three health benefits of practising ballet:

Better posture: ballet helps you achieve postural alignment. Each movement requires an awareness of how you carry yourself from one stance to the other.

Builds muscle: ballet is a combination of pilates and endurance training. It also entails breath coordination throughout your dance sequence.

Sharpens cognitive functions: dancing challenges your brain to multi-task. A meta-analysis study has proved that ballet helped limit age-related mental diseases such as dementia.

Ballet is not limited to young people. There are many dance schools across the area that offer adult ballet and dance classes. Here are just a few…

Giselle Dance Academy, London Road, Portsmouth: Offers ballet and tap classes. (023) 9269 9988/info@giselledance.co.uk

Classique School of Dance, Fratton Road, Portsmouth: Offers adult dance classes in Fratton and Waterlooville. (023) 9282 1001/classique_enquiries@yahoo.co.uk

Funk Format, Fawcett Road, Southsea: Offers adult street dance classes. 07400 976 284/funkformat.com

Keal School of Dancing, Wymering, Portsmouth: Offers ballroom, latin, sequence and disco classes. (023) 9232 4212/info@ballroomdancing-portsmouth.co.uk