Bolshoi-bound teen one of few Brits ever to get into the ballet school
From Gateshead to the Bolshoi: Teen whose parents turned their garage into a studio so she could follow her dream becomes one of few British ballerinas to get into world-leading £17k-a-year Moscow dance school
- Rachel Armstrong, 16, is has applied for a visa and will fly to Russia this month
- Only three British dancers have ever graduated from the prestigious Bolshoi
- Teen’s teacher said top ballet dancers are ‘regarded like footballers’ in Russia
When their younger daughter Rachel wanted to start dance classes at the age of six, Peter and Lisa Armstrong readily agreed. Peter still remembers the end-of-term shows — mostly for the tedium rather than the tutus.
‘Do you remember that bank holiday one that went on for two days?’ he asks his wife. ‘There was a lot of “Do I have to be here?”’
By the age of 12, though, even Peter was starting to see that Rachel (who had by now dropped her tap-dancing classes and was concentrating on ballet) was ‘quite good’. Also, quite obsessed.
It was a regular thing for Peter, 54, and Lisa, 50, who are both head teachers in Northumberland, to find their daughter’s foot on the kitchen counter when they were trying to make toast.
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When Rachel wanted to move from her original ballet school to a specialist teacher (one who had previously danced with the Royal Ballet), they supported her — and paid for the more intensive lessons.
When one lesson a week became two, then three, then six, they whistled a bit but paid up. At one stage, Rachel was invited to train with the Royal Ballet’s junior section in London’s Covent Garden on Saturdays, which meant goodbye to weekends.
‘That was gruelling,’ admits Lisa. ‘I went with her to Covent Garden every week.’
Expensive, too, from the North East. ‘Very,’ says Peter. ‘But what can you do? You support your children. I just thank goodness we both had decent jobs.’
When it was clear there wasn’t enough room in the house for Rachel to practise her pliés and leaps, they converted the garage into a dance studio, with barre and mirrors.
‘When we told people we were installing a barre at home, they got the wrong idea,’ laughs Lisa, who had dance lessons herself as a girl but ‘never to this level’.
They were surprised when word came back that Rachel needed sessions with a personal trainer to work on strengthening certain muscles. Ditto a nutritionist, who suggested fish for breakfast. Fish!
‘Protein is very important,’ says Rachel herself. ‘It’s all about building lean muscle.’
Then, a few years ago, things got very serious indeed. Convinced that Rachel had the physical attributes — and the attitude — to go all the way, her teacher Hilda Affleck suggested she apply for a place at the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow — the most prestigious dance school in the world.
Miss Affleck recorded a 15-minute video of Rachel in action, and sent it off.
Two weeks ago, Rachel, now 17, learned that she had been accepted. Everyone was stunned — except Miss Affleck. Clearly the proudest teacher in the world, today she says she felt just relief: ‘I knew she was good enough. I wasn’t shocked at all.’
Rachel and her parents are now deep in visa application admin but the excitement is clear. Rachel will fly to Russia at the end of this month, and for the next year will sleep in dormitories with other young ballerinas and follow the rigid training plan designed to turn talented hopefuls into stars.
Rachel’s parents, Peter and Lisa, are both headteachers and said they had to make many sacrifices to make Rachel’s dream a reality
In the past 100 years, only a handful of British dancers have been accepted to the Bolshoi — and only three have ever graduated, although one of those girls, Tala Lee-Turton, is also an ex pupil of Miss Affleck. ‘I’ve got a third girl who is preparing to audition,’ she reveals, clearly thrilled at the prospect of a hat-trick.
Why the Bolshoi, though? It’s partly prestige. ‘In Russia, the principal dancers at the Bolshoi are regarded like footballers are here,’ Miss Affleck explains.
Not surprisingly, the regime sounds terrifying: early starts, hour upon hour of dance lessons, gymnastic classes, acting lessons, all conducted in Russian. Young dancers are asked to sign height and weight charts in their contracts, and are told — often in front of the class — if they are too big. Or too small.
Providing she gets through the first year, Rachel will then be invited to continue for another three years. During that time she will learn Russian (she has already started classes, with a private tutor).
So how is everyone feeling? ‘Excited,’ says Rachel. ‘I couldn’t believe it when I got the email. I had to run down and show my parents to check I hadn’t read it incorrectly.’
Her parents are feeling slightly more queasy, but equally proud.
‘It’s a big thing, her leaving home,’ admits Lisa. ‘But at the same time, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime and it’s that dream coming true for her.’
Her parents and sister are all heading out to Moscow to help Rachel settle in.
‘Then it will be up to her,’ says her Dad. ‘But she’s ready. I have no doubt about that.’
The flipside for them is that training at the Bolshoi isn’t free. Or cheap. Fees for the first year will cost the family £17,000 — and it goes up after that. By the end of her training, they will have spent more than £70,000 on fees.
Then there are the flights. And phone calls home (‘Thank God for Skype,’ says Lisa).
‘The good thing is that all the accommodation and food is included,’ Rachel says, glancing at her parents for reassurance. To their credit, they are calm.
‘We’ll just have to find the money,’ says Peter. ‘Actually, if she was going to university here, the sums involved would be similar. All the big dance schools are expensive. Maybe we need to be looking at bursaries and the like, but we haven’t done that yet.’
His wife nods. ‘We might downsize the house. It would make sense because both our daughters are away now, so we don’t need as much space.’
How much have they spent, over the years? They shudder and won’t put a figure on it, but it’s clearly in the tens of thousands. This is parental sacrifice in action, although they’d never use that phrase.
Every lifestyle choice they make, though, is a reflection of their priorities. ‘It’s why I drive a clapped-out Nissan,’ says Peter. ‘It’s why we are going to the Isle of Lewis for our holiday.
‘But it’s worth every penny. It does make you wonder how families with smaller incomes manage, though. I think the answer is, they couldn’t.’
Rachel started dance classes at the age of six and her parents have since put tens of thousands of pounds into her passion. Her teacher said she knew Rachel was special from early on
The most eye-opening part of meeting Rachel and her parents in Miss Affleck’s studio outside Gateshead is discovering just how much work goes into creating a world-class ballerina.
Let’s take Rachel first. A pretty teenager with a wide smile, she — as per Miss Affleck’s rules — attends each dance lesson with her hair smoothed into a bun and make-up expertly applied.
She sits ramrod-straight in her chair as she chats. She’s about as far from the slouchy teenager as you can get. Even when the interview is over and she’s sitting on the floor waiting for the photographer to set up, she has the air of a porcelain doll. Off the dance floor, she is quiet and contained, but lights up when talking about her dancing.
‘I can’t put it into words, but it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do,’ she says. ‘When I dance, it’s like being in a dream. I don’t see it as hard work. For me, it’s like breathing.’
Rachel left school last year after sitting her GCSEs. As head teachers, you might expect her parents to insist on their daughter staying on to do A-levels, but Lisa shakes her head.
‘We could see that it was not a route she wanted to go down. That had been clear for a while. For her, the dancing was everything.’
Rachel nods. ‘I didn’t really enjoy school. It was just something I had to get through so I could get home and dance.’
This makes her sound non-academic, but not so. She gained ten GCSEs before she left — straight As, too. Isn’t it at least sensible to do A-levels, if only to have something to fall back on?
Miss Affleck offers an interesting take. ‘Maybe it is the opposite. If you have something to fall back on, then maybe you don’t want it enough.’
Whatever, it’s clear that Rachel won’t be fazed by the rigid regime at the Bolshoi. For she has imposed quite a tough training regime on herself.
For years now, her family have become used to hearing her get up at 5.30 am to get some training in. As soon as school was over, it was on to formal classes, but even at home in her ‘down time’, she danced.
Rachel left school last year after sitting her GCSEs, of which she got 10 and all A grades
‘She doesn’t stop,’ says Lisa. ‘We have two sofas in the living room and she’ll arrange them so that she can use the backs as barres. We have a rule that she can do what she likes — as long as she puts the furniture back.’
Physically, Rachel is that baffling dancer mix of fragile and powerful. Clothed, there is nothing to her. When she puts a hoodie on, she seems lost in it.
She’s 5ft 4in and whippet slim, but also incredibly strong. ‘She can lift me,’ says Lisa.
‘And she’s got energy you wouldn’t believe,’ says Peter. ‘I run a bit, but when I go out with her she just takes off and leaves me standing. She’s not even a runner, but she’s just so fit.’
At one point, Miss Affleck asks Rachel to stand so she can point out why the teenager has the perfect ballet body. It’s all in the length of the limbs in comparison to the body, and the muscle distribution.
She points to the indent between leg and body and makes approving noises. It’s a little like admiring a prize racehorse, but Rachel is clearly used to it.
‘Before I take on any girls, I examine the body,’ Miss Affleck explains. ‘There is a lot you can do, but there are some physical things that just have to be there to start with. If the hamstrings are too short, for instance, a girl is going to have trouble doing lifts, no matter how good she is.’
Ditto, the feet. Ankles need to have a certain flexibility to start with. It’s why the best dancers start young.
More important than the ballerina body, though, is the ballerina attitude. Rachel always had it in spades, says her teacher.
‘She takes direction. She works hard. And she is incredibly bright. Intelligence is so much a part of it. I’ve never seen a dancer go on to be a Principal unless she or he was clever.’
When did she know Rachel had it in her to go all the way?
‘Oh, very early on. To me, she was a flower in the desert and she just needed water. Now, she brings a dance to life. I can choreograph the moves, but she turns it into art.’
Obviously there are worries: the ballet world is filled with failed dreams and impossible expectations. The combination of driven teenage girls and rigorous physical demands can be a dangerous one — eating disorders are rife at every level in ballet.
It’s a subject that’s never far from the surface, with Miss Affleck pointing out how much emphasis goes on nutrition.
The Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow where academy graduates perform and become regarded ‘like footballers’
When they first come to Miss Affleck, girls are asked to keep food diaries to assess their diets — and yes, sometimes they are woeful. ‘Sometimes I’m shocked at how much junk food there is.
‘I don’t ban that, by any means, but we do work at increasing protein and cutting down sugar.’
Dancers have to regard their bodies as athletes do. So Rachel doesn’t eat crisps or chocolate, and her Dad jokes that ‘it is all about the quinoa now, when it used to be oven chips and chicken nuggets’.
Rachel begs to differ. ‘That was a long time ago. But I don’t see it as a sacrifice. I don’t want to eat junk food now.’
Miss Affleck relates a story about a Bolshoi dancer talking about her dream of retirement — ‘which was being able to eat ice cream’. So when did Rachel last have an ice cream? ‘I don’t like it,’ she insists.
The balance is clearly a tricky one, but both her parents are confident that the environment she is heading into is nurturing, as well as demanding.
‘They take care of them really well,’ says Peter. ‘And everything is on site, so in some ways it’s less worrying than it would be if she was heading to university.’
Whatever the outcome, they’ll be behind her all the way. And when they sit in the audience as she takes to the stage with the Bolshoi Ballet (‘Yes, that’s my dream’), they will be unlikely to look at their watches once.
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