Dance Stories: Dianne Harrison & Elancé Adult Ballet School
Dianne Harrison, principal of Elancé Adult Ballet School in Melbourne, has a story that is incredibly unique, yet also poignantly familiar for so many dancers at some stage of their life. Dianne’s studio was born out of her own desires to make dance a part of her life, when for many years she felt it never could be.
Dianne herself admits that she was born with all the heart in the world for ballet, but without the typical body type associated with a ballerina. So whilst she wanted a career as a professional dancer more than anything in the world, she ended up walking away from ballet for almost 15 years, convinced that there was no joy left in dance for her anymore. It is easy to see why so many dancers give up when faced with what they see as failure – if you do not fit the mould, it is hard to see a future in the industry.
So Dianne created another life for herself, travelling the world, learning Japanese, working her way through to an elite PA role and managing a language college, before she met and married her husband. And once the dust settled, Dianne realised she had a hole in her life that she had never been able to fill - and it was ballet. And whilst she tried, as many former dancers do, to fill time with other activities such as running, or martial arts, she found that nothing ever fed her soul the way that ballet did. When Dianne finally returned to ballet class, in a tiny studio in North Melbourne, her husband told her that he had never seen her so happy.
What came from that first class was a rediscovery of the pure joy of dance, a realisation that dance had to be a central part of her life, a desire to learn to teach, and the fuel that drove Dianne to where she is today, with six hundred students, twelve staff, two custom built studio locations and forty three classes a week. The school caters to everyone from the complete beginner, to those returning to dance. Most importantly, it allows adults to emotionally connect or reconnect with ballet in a safe environment, which was so important to Dianne when she returned after such a long break. Student Debra describes it as a "welcoming and inspiring haven for adult dancers", which is exactly what Dianne set out to achieve.
We sat down with Dianne to talk a little bit more about the school and her journey.
E: So can you explain a little bit about how the various classes that you offer are run?
D: We have eleven levels in the school. Entry levels 1-4 are a unique programme for adult beginners that I wrote and spans 48 weeks. We truly teach them from the absolute beginning; from showing them how to place their hand on the barre, to understanding where your turnout comes from, and feeling weight placement, all before they ever get close to standing in first position, so it is truly foundational. Giving them those foundations is so critical because if they have those in place, then they’ve got what they need to continue to learn and to progress as a dancer for as many years as they want to. Entry level 5 is then just a nice period of consolidation where we don’t actually bring in any new technique, but give them time to build on their ability to pick up and retain enchaînement, and consolidate and strengthen what they’ve already learned before they progress. The next levels in the school are Progressive Levels 1-6. So there’s quite a range, which means we can very effectively place people within the school according to the prior experience that they’ve had, and most critically how long it’s been since they’ve taken classes.
I am particularly cautious about where I place a new student so we can protect them emotionally, not just physically, because the last thing that you want when you’re returning to ballet is to feel out of your depth or feel silly. So we work really hard to make sure that they are well placed, but we also speak very openly with them about what the experience is like when you’re returning as an adult. There is so much you have to contend with that people don’t typically consider - they usually think about it purely from a physical perspective. But what they don’t realise is that there is an emotional challenge when you return to ballet. It’s very rare to find someone who didn’t have some degree of emotional baggage in their past ballet years, and when you walk back into a studio for the first time that can come back with you. And it takes a little while to build that trust and for the student to understand that there is no reason to feel any sense of competition or judgement. It doesn’t exist, in fact it would be quite ridiculous in our school. People are there because they want to be there. They are there for themselves and they are there because they love it.
E: That’s so wonderful, because I think it can be so hard when you go into an adult class at a regular studio and you’re surrounded by younger students who are on their way up in the dance world. It sounds like everything is very tailored at Elancé, as opposed to classes where you drop in, and so you have a unique opportunity to get to know people.
D: Absolutely. The school works to a set of five values, and the first value that we have is ‘care’. And we really listen to why is someone making their enquiry, why do they want to do this? Before they even step into the school they feel like they’re part of the community, and it is it’s a beautiful community that we’ve created. We create a place for people where they feel safe. You’re constantly working as a teacher to deliver the absolute best you can in technique for their level, but it’s actually so much more than that. My wonderful teachers really focus on delivering an experience to our students. They come for their own reasons, to get that 90 minutes where they can truly unplug from the rest of their lives. You get to know them and understand the utter importance of giving them that space, to just to enjoy. To enjoy and to breathe and to live. Our students are magnificent, they are just wonderful people. The ballet class itself is fabulous but it’s about the connection – a place for like-minded people to enjoy the experience. The ultimate aim is that students will feel uplifted, if I can get that, then I’m happy.
E: So you mentioned there are 5 values, what are the others?
D: Care, connection, to feel a sense of “home”, realising potential, and the fifth is to create an uplifting experience. And we live to those values every day.
E: That’s wonderful, because it means you’ve always got a focus with everything you’re creating and inspiring in your students. And do you think there is any kind of limitation on who can start or return to dance as an adult?
D: Absolutely not. The age range we teach is incredibly broad because we don’t take students under 18 but our oldest student right now is 72. We have a lot of older students and I don’t believe that age is a barrier for dance.
E: We agree! Are there any particularly inspiring moments or stories you’ve witnessed through your journey with the school?
D: How many do you want, I have 15 years’ worth of inspiring stories! The thing is everyone has a story; there’s sad stories as much as there are uplifting stories. And everyone’s story is important. For example, we have a tradie who was drawn to ballet for reasons he still can’t articulate, and it took over two years before he could reveal to any of his workmates what he was doing. And that was kind of sad, as you would have thought we’ve moved past that, but I understand it’s a totally different environment that he moves in. Now he’s completely open about it and he loves it.
E: Yes, it’s obviously still an issue that there aren’t as many male dancers and the subject is still controversial at times. Do you have many male students at the school?
D: Yes, and men that are starting in their later years. I have two gentlemen in the school with similar stories; they both started because their sons are dancers. One of them has a son who is a professional dancer overseas, and the other has a son who has just started ballet, but they both wanted to better understand their son’s world. And what a magnificent thing for a father to do! It moved me to tears. And they find now that they love taking classes themselves. And we had a boxer who started because he was recommended to supplement his boxing with ballet to better understand weight transference. He ended up loving ballet more than boxing and quit the boxing, so there you go!
E: That's amazing! Finally, what do you think the biggest benefit is to these students who are dancing as adults?
D: It’s such a wonderful thing to do, for your mental health. We are living in an age where your mental health is so precarious, more than it ever used to be. In this crazy world of electronics we need an opportunity to disconnect, to be focused totally on our wellbeing, to focus on the ‘inside’, and on elements of artistry and musicality that you can’t experience when you are staring at a screen. It’s really, really special.
Our students truly inspire us, they are amazing, kind, strong, generous, funny, capable, real people. It’s a genuine community, a really lovely place to be. There is such beauty in really well placed lines, of the body, rather than being able to extend your leg into silly positions. It’s not a requirement as an adult to turn yourself inside out, because dancing as an adult is about the feeling. So it’s a completely different expectation and yes, we expect students to work hard, but it’s for the pure joy and for the personal achievement that they will gain, rather than any kind of external driving force.
Thank you to Dianne for taking the time to talk to us, and share her story.
For more information about Elancé Adult Ballet School, or to enquire about classes, visit their website here.
Interview by Emily Newton-Smith