EIGHT GIFTED Galway dance students, members of Corrib Dance Academy and Youth Ballet West, have recently secured placements on elite courses at prestigious schools in the UK and mainland Europe. The eight dancers are Stephanie Dufresne, Mary Walsh, Elspeth McKeever, Rebecca Lee, Caitlin Langan, Jessica Nolan, Brigitte O’Reilly and Gemma Brook. To have so many dancers from the region progressing to these blue-chip establishments is a truly remarkable achievement, as Youth Ballet West director Judith Sibley explains; “Normally each year there would be four young dancers from all of Ireland going away to these top vocational colleges, so to have eight going from Galway city is phenomenal. And these are hugely competitive courses, one school I spoke to had 4,000 people apply for just 25 places.”
To produce so many talented young dancers is a great tribute to the nurturing skills of both Corrib Dance Academy and the Youth Ballet West dance company. Sibley outlines the relationship between these two linked dance enterprises; “My sister Phyllis Hayes (who runs Corrib Dance Academy ) and I set up Youth Ballet West four years ago because we recognised there was a lot of homegrown talent here and we wanted to bring it further,” she states. “Corrib Dance Academy has many kids that come just for enjoyment but we’re lucky enough to have our own dance studios where we can pluck out special talents and introduce them to our vocational training programme and from there they might be selected for Youth Ballet West. So pupils might do a couple of classes per week with Corrib then have four/five training sessions with Youth Ballet West.
“And Youth Ballet West classes are free because we’re lucky enough to get funding from the Arts Council as well as Galway City and County Councils. Both Phyllis and I have worked overseas a lot and the more we did so the more we realised that we have just as many good dancers here in Ireland as anywhere else which gave us great confidence in what we were doing here.
“Corrib Dance Academy is one of the only dance schools here qualified to teach the structured exams that are recognised internationally in both modern dance and ballet,” Sibley continues. “We have five staff in the Dance Academy and we’ll have a staff meeting once a week so it’s not just one head thinking, we liaise together and discuss everything. Dancing isn’t just about having a good teacher it’s all about you; it’s a very self-centred career where you have to make yourself the best you can possibly be. Teaching, in contrast, is nothing to do with you it’s all about being responsible for your pupils.”
Sibley dispels the notion that dance could be a precarious career choices for her young charges; “There’s this misconception that you can’t get a proper job as a dancer. Yet my partner Leighton and I have been working constantly in dance for years. When you get into top companies in Europe you get sick pay, pensions, you get looked after like in any normal job. Because we haven’t got a national ballet company here in Ireland people don’t seem to realise that this can be a proper job. It’s not easy but if you’re good enough you can get proper well-paid work. Leighton and I have had such good experiences from our careers as dancers that I am very happy to encourage these girls to go for it.”
Among Sibley’s recent proteges is Stephanie Dufresne, from Kinvara, who has been studying at the Rotterdam Dance Academy . “I came late to dance,” she reveals. “I started when I was 14, but I fell in love with it and became super-obsessed, it was intense but I got through it and got accepted at Rotterdam. It was very difficult at first, the whole move and the course itself was demanding both physically and timewise as well. But I get to work with top choreographers from all over Europe which is brilliant. I would not be a dancer if I hadn’t gone to Corrib Dance Academy. I was so lucky to find a school with the facilities and infrastructure there to help you go further.”
Another Corrib graduate is Rebecca Lee, she has secured one of only 12 places on the dance degree course at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music, Drama and Dance. “I started doing ballet when I was six, then when I was 12/13 I started doing vocational exams and got seriously into it” she explains. “I began taking classes four/five times a week and realised it was what I wanted to do. I’ve just done my Leaving Cert and I will be going to Glasgow in September to start at the Academy.”
Sibley describes the significance of seeing so many talented young Galway dancers come through like this; “Youth Ballet West has been all about raising the profile of ballet here in Galway, and ballet that has been created here in Galway. We’ve now shown that we can produce young dancers of international standard. Who would have thought a few years ago that Galway could be a centre of excellence for ballet. Each year there are about 100 dance students from Ireland, who take the Royal Academy of Dance vocational exams and last year 32 of those were from Galway. It takes years to make a dancer and it’s only now that we’re seeing the fruits of that work, for example I’ve known Rebecca since she was six. We’re getting the results of years of hard work. It struck me that with these eight young women, no matter what happens them, you’re looking at the stars of the future and they were made here in Galway. It’s very exciting.”
Youth Ballet West will have its annual fundraising event on the streets of Galway, tomorrow, Friday August 26. Dancers from the company will present an entertaining and varied dance programme in front of Tigh Coili (at the junction of Shop Street and Williamsgate Street ) between 3 and 6pm.