THE REGINA Rogers School of Ballet has long been a valued presence on Galway’s cultural landscape and next weekend it celebrates its silver jubilee with three gala dance performances in the Town Hall Theatre.
Audiences can look forward to a richly varied programme featuring excerpts from such favourites as The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, and La Sylphide, as well as jazz and folk numbers in a colourful and thrilling dance showcase.
Rogers takes justifiable pride in the great progress that her ballet school has made over the years and, taking a break from preparations for the upcoming gala, she reflected on the school’s modest beginnings.
“When I started 25 years ago ballet was virtually non-existent in Galway,” she recalls. “I’d been working as a schoolteacher in Dublin, teaching history and English then we moved back to Galway and two very persistent friends kept asking me to start a ballet school.
“I was hesitant at first because I hadn’t danced in years, even though my whole life from the age of four had been immersed in ballet. Eventually, I decided to give it a go and what started out as a very small enterprise turned into a full-time occupation. I had about 20 students when I started out and today I have about 120.
“For me, ballet has always been about much more than just teaching them the steps of a dance. What is really crucial for me is that you hand on a love of the artform.”
Rogers has always been particular about the youngest age at which she will accept a child into her school.
“I could have many, many more students if I opted to take all the three-year-olds whose parents would like to enrol them but I’m one of the few teachers who won’t take them at that age,” she tells me.
“In my experience, if children start out doing dance at three or four they’ll do it for a few months and then give up whereas if they start at five or six you have a good chance of them keeping at it for years. Many of my senior students have been with me for 16 years for example. The difference between a six-year-old and a four-year-old is huge.”
While classical ballet still comprises the greater part of the school syllabus, room has also been found for other dance styles.
“Ninety per cent of what we do is classical ballet and we also do what we call ‘character dance’, as will be seen in the gala concert,” Regina says. “It’s a fancy word for folk dance and in the concert we’ll have Arabian, Spanish, Russian, and Israeli dances. Students have their own likes and dislikes; some prefer classical ballet while others like the energy and passion of a Spanish or Russian folk dance.
“We’ve also introduced jazz dance which the students absolutely love. The styles complement each other hugely because for jazz dance you really work on aspects like their flexibility, stretching, elevation and power, and that helps their classical ballet hugely.
“Very often if a dancer only adheres to classical ballet they can be a little bit rigid and reserved, in a lot of classical ballet you don’t have to imbue it with the same power and energy you need in jazz dance so those two forms complement each other beautifully.
Making ballet cool
Regina contends that classical ballet is the basis from which all the other dance styles spring.
“If you look at its history, it emerged in the 14th/15th century in the Italian and French courts where a nobleman had to be able to dance and to fence,” she says. “In fencing you need very good poise and agility and core strength, all of which are part of classical ballet training. The turned-out feet and ‘on guard’ fencing stance is where ballet started. It makes me laugh when you hear these red-blooded males sneering that ballet is only for sissies; they are making a huge mistake because you have to be very strong to do it.”
A landmark event in the development of dance here was the visit of Russia’s feted Perm Ballet Company, and Rogers was instrumental in making that happen.
“If you had said to me 25 years ago that some of my dancers would be able to see a future for themselves in the world of dance, be it ballet or jazz, I’d have thought ‘dream on!’ because back then it wasn’t possible,” she says. “Dance culture in the west of Ireland was minimal and there was nothing for dance students to aspire to.”
“That was one of the real reasons I set out to bring the Perm Ballet to Galway. I had found that once girls hit their teens they’d start to think ballet was uncool or they’d be teased at school about doing it. It really frustrated me that children who had talent left simply because it wasn’t cool to do ballet.
“I felt if they could see a real professional company that might change their mind and so with the help of Mike Diskin we managed to get the Perm Ballet to come and perform here. Since then the whole attitude to ballet has changed in Galway.
“The Town Hall was packed out for their run, people loved it but more importantly the younger generation could see that ballet was something fantastic and cool to do. Also, for students who were talented and wanted to do something with that it suggested to them there was a possibility of getting somewhere with it.”
In recent years, Rogers has had the great pleasure of seeing several of her students being accepted for prestigious international academies - key steps toward making dance careers for themselves.
“It’s still the case that if you want to have a career in dance that you have to leave Ireland,” she notes. “Catherine Walsh has gone on to Ballet Central in London which would have been unheard of a few years ago and she is doing very well there. Just a few weeks ago Darragh Keaveney was accepted into the Broadway Academy of Dance so she is doing the gala show and then leaving two days after it to take up her place there. Things like that show the development we’ve achieved.”
And so to the celebratory gala concerts; Rogers outlines what audiences can look forward to.
“The show is a huge undertaking,” she says. “It involves the whole ballet school, 120 students aged from five to 22. We’ve been rehearsing every Sunday since December as well as having class each weekday. It is going to be a very colourful production and a performance of terrific variety.
“Act One will be all classical ballet and there will be numbers like ‘The Dying Swan’, and pieces from Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Coppelia. Then in Act Two we have character dance opening with a gypsy dance then a Spanish dance and two lovely Arabian dances, one from Cinderella the other from The Nutcracker. And we have jazz numbers which are extremely exciting, and the ever-popular ‘Can Can’. The two big pieces are ‘The Waltz of the Flowers’ from The Nutcracker which is the final number of the show and will be a real show stopper and the other big piece is the ‘Reel’ from La Sylphide.”
It all promises to be a delightful feast of dance at the Town Hall on Friday March 22 at 8pm and on Saturday March 23 at 3pm and 8pm.
Tickets are €15/10 and available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie