Dancing queen: The Dubliner running a ballet school in London

When Dubliner Therese Schweppe started her ballet school in London, the response was overwhelming

Irish ballerina Therese Schweppe, who runs a ballet school in London called Regal Ballet, with some of her pupils at St Christina’s School in St John’s Wood, North London.  Photograph: Joanne O’Brien

Irish ballerina Therese Schweppe, who runs a ballet school in London called Regal Ballet, with some of her pupils at St Christina’s School in St John’s Wood, North London. Photograph: Joanne O’Brien

 

The entrance hall to St Christina’s Catholic primary school in St John’s Wood in North London is bustling shortly after 3pm as parents come to collect their charges, filled with excited stories from the day.

For some of the children, however, the best part of the day is still to come: the ballet class run by former professional ballerina, Dubliner Therese Schweppe – one of a dozen or more that she now runs throughout London.

Schweppe quietly brings order to the proceedings.

“Let’s all start holding hands in a circle, a big pink bubble,” she declares, before they are quickly brought to galloping and skipping, as she closely watches the movement of each child.

“A straight line with that foot, Penelope,” she tells one girl.

“Now, girls, feet in first position,” she goes on, putting her own in a V-shape, followed by a series of quickly-delivered instructions:

“Then, feet in second position. Arms in open fifth.”

The commands are followed with enthusiasm, before the 31-year-old owner of Regal Ballet breaks her group into “rainbows, shooting stars and butterflies”, declaring: “I want to hear lots of swishing on the floor and beautiful diamond shapes.”

Schweppe, who danced with the English National Ballet, has deep ties with St Christina’s, since its former principal, Nathalie Clyne Wilson was the first to give her a chance when she started to ring principals’ offices in 2007, offering to hold classes.

“I had very little experience of teaching at the time, maybe a year, or two. I was 24. I called lots of different schools, asking if I could come and teach ballet. I offered to do a trial day, told them I had just finished with English National Ballet.

Overwhelming support

“Eventually, this one school said, ‘You can come along.’ For whatever reason, I just pestered her enough. She said all right, I could do it. I just got overwhelming support from all of the mums, the parents and the kids. It was a huge hit.”

“Everybody came to the trial day. My best friend came with me to take names for the register. Classes were full. I had people calling me, saying, ‘When can we come to your classes?’ Rather than turn people away, I said, ‘We’ll start more classes.’ So I found church halls in the area.

“Within a year it had really grown. We were training about 80 kids pretty quickly, or 100,” said the Dubliner, who began to hire other professional dancers in London – many of them appearing in West End shows.

“There are so many professional dancers who are driven, who are really passionate about what they do, really talented and have so much knowledge,” she says. “It’s amazing to put together kids and people who are still performing.

“Some of my teachers at the time were performing in Phantom of the Opera in the West End at that time. They’d teach classes in the afternoon and then they would be the lead ballet dancer on stage at night.” she adds.

Today, Schweppe has 10 teachers on her books, “all of whom have been professional dancers at some point. Some still are. One is in the Sinatra show that is coming up; another is performing in the McQueen show, about Alexander McQueen. ”

Affordable

The communities served vary widely, from the leafy groves of St John’s Wood to less well-off districts such as Stoke Newington.

“We try and keep it affordable. On average, it is about £130 for a term. It can depend. If it is a longer lesson then it can be £156. If we do it outside of prime central London and we can keep the costs down a bit, then we do. If it is not close to a Tube station, for example, then the rents can be lower,” she continues.

Schweppe’s love-affair with ballet began early when she was living in Howth.

“I really wanted to go; I kept asking and asking and asking. School gave out a leaflet saying that there was ballet nearby. I ran out of school saying, ‘Mummy, Mummy, we’re going to ballet, we can walk there.’”

“I used to stand on my dad’s tool-box and I used to twirl around, like slowly,” she says, pointing out that her parents, Rose and Eddie, had earlier been told by doctors that ballet would help their eldest daughter Audrey’s scoliosis.

Later, Schweppe trained at the Dublin Junior Ballet School with Ella Doran.

“She was such an inspiration, a fantastic teacher, with her husband, and then also with Joanna Banks at the College of Dance.”

The College of Dance was full-time, so by then Schweppe had quit school after the Junior Certificate.

“For ballet, you have to go for it really young because otherwise you miss the boat. So, it is a bit of a risk, but it was all that I wanted to do.”

Supportive parents

She goes on: “My parents were incredibly supportive. I was so happy doing it; they saw that I had a talent for it. They were as supportive parents that I could ever ask for, to give me that freedom to follow that dream.”

In 2000, she won a place at the London Central School of Ballet, backed by a grant from the Irish Arts Council.

“It was the most amazing opportunity. The training was life-changing, to be disciplined, focused and motivated about something, even when it was exceptionally difficult.”

Later, she worked for the English National Ballet, dancing in the Royal Albert Hall and the Palace of Versailles, along with the commemoration at Wembley in 2007 marking the 10th anniversary of the death of Princess Diana.

Most of her pupils, but not all, take the Royal Academy of Dance tests as they progress. “It is really tough marking. To do well in their exams is a real achievement. The youngest exam is at age six, and then more advanced stages afterwards.”

However, Schweppe’s primary ambition for students is not that they should become professional ballerinas.“That’s not necessarily my goal. But my goal is for every child is for them to take away a love of self-improvement. That they should have a safe place where they come and they try, and it’s hard and they are going to fail sometimes and it’s going to be difficult. Then they improve and then they get to where they are capable of getting to.

“It is something I realise as I get older that ballet gave me and all of my friends. I see it in several friends of mine who are entrepreneurs; I think it is one of the most important gifts that you have in learning how to apply yourself.

Love of learning

“That’s what I want each child to take away: a love of learning, self-improvement, obviously fitness – a healthy lifestyle and getting into that routine. That stays with people, I think,” she declares.

Many, but not all, of her classes are held in schools: “People love the convenience here of that. It is also beneficial for the school. If they are independent ones they get better reports for offering extra-curricular activities, particularly if they are offering it to the outside community, as well.”

Her youngest pupils, incredibly, are just 18 months old.

“They do it. It is quite amazing. We use the same music each week, so they recognise the music and they recognise what comes next and they follow.”

Each class for the toddlers lasts 30 minutes. “They are mainly copying and following what we do. They learn how to follow a class and take instruction at a young age and learn that they have to sit down and sit still for a certain amount of time.”

Her 18-month-old charges even manage to stand on tip-toe.

“It is incredible that at such a young age they can, but they do. After four weeks they remember the music, what comes next. Extraordinary, really.”