There is an enthusiasm in Gillian Cartwright’s voice that suggests she enjoys every minute of her work, even though sometimes she admits she has to be cruel to be kind.
Gillian is the lady most of the Island’s aspiring young dancers visit, hoping one day they will become the next Darcey Bussell or Wayne Sleep. She is principal of the highly successful Gillian Cartwright School of Dance, based in Shanklin, and responsible for producing a succession of talented dancers.
After a knee injury ended her own illustrious dance career in the mid 1980s, Gillian turned her attention towards nurturing a new batch of talent, and her success rate has been quite incredible. No fewer than 15 of her students have graduated to the world renowned Royal Ballet School, where only 15 pupils a year are invited to attend.
Dancers who have been taught by her are now performing all around the world, and with the help of fellow tutors Mary Searles and Stacey Ruth, it appears the conveyor belt of talent is set to continue for some time.
Gillian began dancing as a 10-year-old. And recalls: “I went to local ballet school in London and was lucky that I had a teacher who recognised my talent. So from the age of 11 I went to the Rambert School of Dance, and then I went on to Arts Educational School in London until I was 18.”
She went on to dance professionally as a ballet dancer joining London Festival Ballet, now known as English National, and then the Graz Opera in Austria, which allowed her to dance with all the leading opera singers. She later joined the Australian based Ballet Go Round, and that took her all over Europe and to many other parts of the world including South Africa. When she was forced to retire she realised she wanted to give something back to the profession that had given her so much.
Gillian said: “Because I was trained by some of the greatest ballet teachers I had this wonderful opportunity, and I wanted to hand that back to young students. I feel I have always had the most amazing career, and I am continuing to do so. It is wonderful getting up every day and just loving what I am doing. It is a passion.” Her school in Grange Road, Shanklin, hosts around 200 pupils, with Gillian teaching ballet, which she describes as ‘the basis of all dance’. Her fellow tutors combine to teach jazz, modern, street and tap.
All who pass through the door of what used to be The Old Parish Rooms, dream of a dance career, but inevitably many fall by the wayside. She continued: “I teach from three years to professional level, with classes for adults as well. We have a lot of three-year-olds, with classes full to brimming. It is a good hobby, teaches them a discipline, and in a way gets them ready for school.
“But I have always felt that honesty is the best policy. I have to be honest, because if someone goes on to train professionally it can be expensive, and obviously the child has to give up everything to train.
“I have actually lost a few pupils because parents have wanted their child to go on to attend the Royal Ballet School and I have had to say they haven’t got the right physique or flexibility to become a professional dancer. Hand on heart I can feel I have been honest, and that is the only thing you can do. You have to be cruel to be kind, because it is no good encouraging them in something they are never ever going to achieve. It can be sad, and that is when parent and teacher must work together.”
She also revealed: “You can also get a child with the most fantastic body and talent, but they are just too lazy. Often the good ones are the lazy ones because life has been easy for them. It is the passion that is the important ingredient.” Gillian says one of the greatest excitements in her profession is that she can spot ‘a good one’. She explains: “I was lucky that people recognised my talent, and I think this school is different from a lot of others in as much as we do recognise talent.
“You get a lot of teachers who just teach and don’t actually realise the talent they have in front of them. So it’s tremendously exciting when you have a child who walks in and you know straight away ‘yes, that is a dancer’.” One such talent was Islander Joel Morris, who is now 28, and a professional dancer with the South African Ballet. He went to Gillian when he was just 10, and she said: “I just knew at the time that I had a brilliant talent. He walked in and I just knew.
“When people come here I just look at their head, their eyes and their back, and I just know if a talent has come through the door. If there is any talent there I will do my utmost to bring it out. Joel was a late developer, but boys can be a bit later than girls, and we have had tremendous success with boys. Another was Ryan Jenkins who came to me when he was 12, and he has never been out of work since.” Ryan has appeared in ‘Cabaret’ in the West End, and is now choreographing on cruise ships.
Many more of Gillian’s pupils go on to get scholarships, and at the age of 16 – some of them much younger – they have to move off the Island, and go into full-time professional dance training. However, those who don’t leave can continue to dance at Gillian’s school.
Perhaps her most famous pupil is Laura Michelle Kelly. She was initially a singer and actress, but attended the school knowing that if she was to be successful in the West End she had to learn to dance. Gillian recalls: “As soon as she walked into the studio we knew she was a very talented girl.”
Gillian is somewhat sceptical about the TV Talent Shows that often portray dancers as being able to come from nowhere to overnight stardom. She believes there is no short cut to success, pointing out: “Sometimes I think the shows make children think it is instant talent.
“When you look at the top dancers they have trained intensively for many years, and they have worked hard. Some of these programmes give kids fame, but how long is it going to last? You need that training, and I just wonder how long some of these little dance groups will last.”
Gillian believes around 10 per cent of her pupils go on to become professional dancers, whether it is in ballet companies, the West end or cruise liners. Others have opened their own dance schools on the mainland, and understandably she is proud of her success rate. But she says: “We also have the hobby children, and with all the talk about youngsters not being fit these days, it is a wonderful hobby because it is good for fitness levels and does teach them self discipline. It also gives them an incentive, which is really important.”
She added: “Modern is very popular, but ballet is the basis of all dance, if anyone is going on to a career, they have to do ballet. We have had a lot of success in ballet, so it is popular in this school. We have always had a lot of boys, and successful ones, so I don’t think there is any stigma attached to boys coming along to dance.”