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Feather of Hope talks to Emma

The month April is all about dancing on Feather of Hope. This week we talked to Emma. Emma is a ballet dancer and teacher for whom dancing is a whole world. FoH talked to her about ballet, dealing with bullies and about what you do when real life makes that you cannot entirely follow your dream.

1.     First, tell us a bit about yourself. Who are you, at what age did you start to dance, and what is it that made you continue to pursue this professionally?

I started dancing at the age of 7, which is actually quite late in this world. I went to a ballet school in my hometown with my best friend and enjoyed my class a week.
Not until later, when I was 14, and had gone to a different ballet school, I started think of ballet as more than a hobby. To be honest, it was quite the cliché actually, we went to see Swan Lake and I fell in love. I had decided I wanted to be a classical ballerina. But no one gets to go to a professional ballet school at that age, not unless they have the ‘perfect’ body. And I didn’t.  I started doing more classes a week and working harder than ever. When I was 17/18 I did at least 5 classes a week in Amsterdam (after school) and also had rehearsals for the Nutcracker in The Hague. Thinking back on that time I can’t imagine how hard I must have worked, being in the last 2 years at school and doing so many ballet classes. Everyone at school started thinking about what they wanted to study and what university they wanted to go to. I just wanted to dance.

2.      You often hear dancers say that they can express themselves through dance, and that it helps them to deal with certain things in life. What does dance mean to you? Why is dance something important?

Dancing definitely means a lot to me. I am a very dramatic dancer and find it easy to put things in there in way that would usually share with the world. Maybe that is part of why I love dancing, I find it scarier to express myself with words than with dance. When you are very angry, or happy, in your daily life, you don't only share that in a verbal way, but also in a physical way. The more extreme an emotion, the more satisfying it is to use body language. Maybe that is the best way to describe it. You can put your emotion in the dancing and let it all out.

3.      There is a lot of competition in dance, which can also easily change into bullying. Did you ever have to deal with that, and if so how did you deal with that when you were still in school?

I have, fortunately, never had to deal with actual bullying. Sometimes there is some competition, but because you basically all live together, you also form a connection as a group. I have sometimes felt left out or talked about behind my back, that is never easy. A lot of girls at my dance school were younger, so I didn't always fit in, but it felt more like they just hadn't matured as much. I mostly ignored it.

“I feel the responsibility to discipline them and teach them how important it is to be nice to each other. I try to create a fair and save place for everyone.”

4.      And now that you are a dance teacher, do you/how do you try to make sure that any competition there is, does not convert into bullying?

Every ballet class I teach I get very different personalities. Sometimes they clash, sometimes they work very well together, sometimes too well. I mostly teach younger children (age 4 to 7). They have, I believe, not (yet) a very strong knowledge of how to really hurt someone mentally in a direct way. Nevertheless, you do see certain people get shut out and pushed to the back. I never take lightly to those who visibly hurt someone. I think, even if it is for an hour a week, I feel the responsibility to discipline them and teach them how important it is to be nice to each other. I try to create a fair and save place for everyone. It's not always about bullying at that exact moment, it can also be about a situation at home or at their normal school. You see a lot just looking at them when they are dancing. The shy ones sometimes need an extra push. I let them stand next to me or in front of the line, this way they feel more important and appreciated. Ballet is very sensitive and has a lot of different effects on different children. You can see someone get a lot of confidence within the span of just one class.

Even though I try my very best, it is impossible (frustratingly so) to discipline the bullies and keep save the ones being bullied in just an hour a week. That's also the job of their parents and school teachers.

Sometimes you see something is wrong but you can't do anything about it, because it's not your place. That, I think, is one of the hardest things about teaching. You need to learn not to care too much, which I know sounds horrible.

5.      A stereotype about the dancing world – as with the world of musicals or theatre – created by society is that the LGBT community is richly represented: “Boys who dance have to be gay.” Leaving this dubious statement in itself for what it is – the word stereotype being already self-explanatory as to how ‘true’ that statement can be; I do want to ask you the following: How is LGBT acceptance represented in the dancing world? Do you feel like people in dance are more tolerant towards the LGBT-community?

Are all boys that do ballet gay? No. Some of them are, probably more than you would find in a different sports world. Ballet is hard to understand for people that don't live in this world. For them it's mostly about little girls in pink tutus doing pirouettes. That's not at all how it is; where I teach girls aren't allowed to wear tutus to class and pirouettes aren't done until you are much older. Same with plies. Ballet is very, very hard work and can solely be understood by doing it, or by being surrounded by it. If you see what girls and boys have to go through before reaching a professional level, many of you wouldn't look at it the way you are now. It's literal sweat, blood and tears every day. Male dancers are stronger (physically and mentally) than most non dancers. They have to work through a lot of difficulties, one of them is being accepted by people around them. It takes a lot of willpower to show the world that this is what you want to do and can do. Within the dance world gay dancers, to my experience are totally accepted. We love to have boys in our classes, doesn't matter if they are gay or not!

“It's very easy to dance and ignore the pain, but it is the worst thing you could do with an injury.”

6.      You have studied in England at the Northern Ballet School in Manchester, to become a ballet dancer but had to leave the school earlier. How did you cope with the fact that the dream you had, suddenly didn’t work out the way you planned it to? 

After I finished high school, I went to the Northern Ballet School in Manchester (UK). The school has two different courses, classical and jazz. In the first year you do both and after that you pic a focus. In October of the first my knees started hurting and ever since then my knees have not been the same. They got better for a while and worse again after that. I couldn't do a lot of my classes, which made me very pessimistic. Injuries are one of the hardest things to get through. You want to dance so bad, but you know you shouldn't. The worst days weren't the ones when my knees were really bad, the worst days were the days when they weren't that bad, but also not fully recovered. It's very easy to dance and ignore the pain, but it is the worst thing you could do with an injury. You have to learn to know which plain you can work through and which one is the warning from your body. I have yet to master that skill, but I suppose it will take a lifetime. For the second year I chose classical focus, against the school directors wishes. It was very hard and I didn't enjoy it as much as dancing. For the last term I made a very hard decision to join jazz focus, mostly to confirm what I already knew: I wanted to dance ballet or nothing at all. At the end of the year I made the, weirdly less hard, decision to not come back after the summer. I went back to my old ballet school in Amsterdam where I have always felt welcome and buried myself in the job of a teacher. I didn't dance a lot last year, as I felt I wasn't ready for it yet, but this year I started taking more classes and more teaching and I enjoy it more than I thought I would. Teaching is a very different approach within the same world, but what is better than sharing and teaching about your truest passion, right?

7.      Do you have any advice for those people out there who dream to become a dancer?

The only thing you can do is work very hard and try to remember why you want to do it if times get hard. Be honest with yourself. As a dancer you need a lot of strength physically as well as mentally. If you are injured or feel an injury coming up, give yourself time to heal. If you are exhausted, give yourself the time to step out of the spiral you worked yourself in and look at it from a different angle. This can be very refreshing. 

And last, but not least, don't let anyone tell you you can't do it. You may not have the perfect proportions, feet or turnout, but anyone would prefer looking at someone who loves to dance over someone who doesn't but happens to have the perfect body.

I improved more than anyone would have thought, and although I did not become a professional dancer, I made my own decisions and live without regrets know I lived my pre professional life as a dancer to the fullest extension.


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