For young dancers looking to make the transition from having some fun in dance classes during the week to having some fun in dance classes with the added bonus of studious technique training, health monitoring, summer intensives and regular performances then the establishment of the Centre For Advanced Training programme more than 10 years ago in London was a bit of a godsend.
From the initial pilot project at ThePlace in London the CAT programme now runs across England in 9 different locations with the singular aim of preparing young dancers from the age of 10 for a possible run at making a career for themselves in the wide world of dance.
Thirteen year old Alanna and seventeen year old Connor Scott are two such dancers within the Newcastle CAT based at Dance City, one of the UK’s National Dance Agencies. Both of these young dancers came into the wide world of dance through a chance encounter when they were small children, they dipped their toe, so to speak, and kept on coming back for more.
For Alanna it was her father bringing her along to a Hip-Hop class at age 7 and she describes the experience as making her feel very comfortable, like she belonged in the class. She admits to, at first, being a touch scared since she didn’t know anybody there. The teachers and other class members however made the class a “comfortable place to be” for Alanna. The young dancer continued with regular classes for a couple of years as well as spending some time on more advanced training programmes within Dance City before, at the age of 9, auditioning for the CAT programme.
The Youngest of Them All
Interestingly, Alanna was actually too young for the CAT scheme since the regular starting age is 10 years old but given her progression in regular classes she was actively encouraged to audition;
“Quite a few people were saying don’t be sad if you don’t get in because you are really young and when I did get in they [told me] that [I was] the youngest that had ever been accepted”.
Neville Campbell is a former dancer and Artistic Director of Phoenix Dance Theatre and Scottish Dance Theatre. He has taught on the CAT for many years and recently became the Head of Centre for Advanced Training.
He shares his experience of watching Alanna and Connor grow as young dancers during their time on the CAT programme and explains his hope for their futures in the profession as Connor heads off to Rambert school and Alanna continues her training.
Alanna does remember feeling a somewhat out of place to begin with because she was so young compared to the rest of the class but, once again, the group and the teachers provided the necessary support and encouragement to make her feel a part of the group.
For Connor Scott the path into dance was similar. Accompanying his sister to her dance classes, along with his mother, he describes himself “bopping along on [his mother’s] knee” so Mrs Scott decided that Connor might also enjoy some dance classes as well. At the age of six he began taking part in dance competitions, concluding that the main draw was the thrill of the competition and performing in front of a live audience. These initial years were spent primarily doing Latin and Ballroom techniques, vestiges of which you can still see in Connor’s very fast, sharp performance style.
His path to auditioning for the CAT programme came via an audition for the musical ‘Billy Elliot’. Upon being told he was “too tall and growing too fast” for that particular role the casting people referred him to the CAT at Dance City, something he had never heard of. His first audition was less than successful, from his personal point of view. He thought the styles of dance (contemporary and ballet) were not really for him and but in spite of this he did get a call back to the second audition.
“I actually got a call back to the final audition and I though, you know what it is, I’ll take it as it is, give it a go and I absolutely loved it. It was completely different. I think it was just because I was going into it thinking, [being] narrow minded, this is not the style of dance I do. I though ballet wasn’t for me, contemporary wasn’t for me.”
Taking A Class
The first classes with he CAT were very different experiences for Alanna and Connor. Alanna's first time out was in contemporary class followed by some creative work that, for a nine year old, was something very new,a not a little unnerving, but she soon settled into the timetable of classes and teachers all providing different techniques and different challenges. Currently, Alanna is partaking of pointe classes for the first time.
Among the many teachers with the CAT One in particular stands out for Alanna, the head of the CAT programme, Neville Campbell who says of her;
“Alanna, from day one, was an absolute joy to work with. [A] bundle of energy and hungry, she’s always been hungry, she’s kind of insatiable really, you can’t give her enough and she [always] rises to the challenge. She’s very young [and] has an amazing career ahead of her as long as she still feels the passion. Of course she could fall out of love with dance tomorrow morning and there’s nothing you can do about it but I can’t see that. I see her having an amazing career”.
Alanna takes part in ballet lesson with other students during a regular class for the Centre for Advanced Training programme at Dance City in Newcastle upon Tyne | photo by Article19
Connor’s first class was a very different proposition. He recalls a ballet class where he walked in with his water bottle and a pair of ballet shoes, that he had never worn, he didn’t know anyone in the class and he remained completely silent throughout the whole session. First time classes are often a struggle especially for new dancers and in some cases they might be put off completely by the experience.
“It was the worst hour and a half of my life, I hated it” he says laughing “I came home and I was like ‘I don’t want to go back’, that was my first experience.”
For the the first year, when Connor was 11-12 years old, he didn’t take the training as seriously as he did during the following years. He put this down to simply getting used to the structured approach, the teachers and the rehearsal process for performances and it was an end of year performance, that Connor says was one of his favourites, that really pushed him to make the most of the following few years he spent with the CAT.
Keeping in mind that felling isolated in class can be a significant issue for a young person holding their nerve in unfamiliar classes both Connor and Alanna cite the importance of the students they train with as a hugely significant part of the experience and an influence on the way they developed as both dancers and individuals.
“You’ve got to be focussed but you’ve also got to have relationships between the class [members]. You’ve got to help other people then let them help you. It’s not just about the process of getting better ability wise but also as a person as well in dance because I don’t think anyone could progress in technique or their abilities as a dancer without developing relationships within dance. I’ve actually built really close relationships with people who are my best friends now through the CAT, through dance, so 100% so important”
For Alanna the feeling is the same. The importance of the other students and friends within the CAR is particularly telling when you just don’t want to come in a do class;
“Sometimes, when I’ve got a lot of homework and stuff from school its hard and I’m like ‘I really don’t want to go but them I’m thinking, if this is really what I want to do in the future I’m going to have to do this every day and I’m not going to be able to say that I can’t be bothered.”
Connor has a similar approach that also involves a great deal of self motivation. For the time when you just don’t want to do a class or session he recommends simply getting it over with and then taking a step back to recharge arguing that it’s better to do the class than it is to sit on the sidelines even if you are not feeling your best.
The Next Step
For the time being Alanna, at 13 years old, has some way to go before she takes the next step to full time professional training, something at the moment she is very keen to do.
Connor, now 17 years old, is about to take his next big step to the Rambert School in London for three years of intensive training having secured his position at the institution a year before most others students would apply. For this particular dancer it is absolutely the right time to move on and experience new things.
“I didn’t realise how much I wanted it until after the audition”, he says, “I was like, If I don’t get this I am going to be so gutted [but] if it’s a no then it’s a no. But when I found out [that I was in] I was jumping up and down, I was in the studio, that was definitely one of the days that I wanted to get up and move, I was thrilled and so privileged to have the opportunity to go to a school like that.”
For both dancers though the message to others is very clear. Taking part in dance is a good thing even if you don’t want to of as far as organised training programmes like the CAT. The benefits in terms of building friendships and confidence, in enhancing the participants ability to work and communicate with others are clear from simply spending some time with these students in classes, workshops and performances. It is also abundantly clear from talking with both Alanna and Connor just how well adjusted and personable they are as they articulate their enthusiasm for dance, their hopes for the future and their respect for their peers and teachers.