Occupational Hazards: Zoe Ashe-Browne, Ballerina
"The auditions were the most terrifying experience of my life. I was the only Irish girl there"
Published 03/11/2013 | 01:00
My first ballet lesson was at the Debbie Allen School of Dance in Dundrum. I was six years old. I remember watching the older girls turning, jumping and pirouetting. I thought, 'Wow, how are they doing that? I want to do it too!'
When I was nine, I decided I wanted to become a full-time dancer. I would practice in my kitchen. I would practice in the hallway. When someone gave me a video cassette of the Royal Ballet in London, I loved every single thing about it.
My teachers began to take my ambitions seriously. I was moved ahead four grades and ended up achieving the highest grade in my new class that year. That's when they thought, 'Okay, maybe we've got something here.'
By the age of 14 or 15, I had a choice to make. I would either start taking my Leaving Cert seriously, or I would quit school and move to England to study ballet full-time.
My parents eventually decided that, if I got a scholarship, I could study full-time in England.
Ballet is an aesthetic art. Before you're even selected for audition, you have to supply the school with photographs of your body in various positions. The ideal ballet dancer has long limbs and a short torso. There's no room for being self-conscious about yourself.
The auditions were the most terrifying experience of my life. There were hundreds of dancers from all over Europe, Russia and Australia. I was the only Irish girl there. I'd gone from being the best in my little ballet school to just one of many. My first choice was the English National Ballet and, luckily, I was accepted.
People assume all ballet dancers come from upper-middle-class backgrounds. That's not true. With the English National Ballet, if you have the talent, they will find a way for you to study there. I was supported financially with a grant from the Gordon Edwards Charitable Trust.
Dancers have to have a thick skin. You get told to lose weight. You get told you haven't a very good jump. The teachers will always play favourites. They'll say things to you as though you've offended them, when really it's just a matter of fact. You have to take their instructions literally and not get upset.
At school we worked eight hours a day, six days a week. Any girl who wasn't reaching the required level was cut. You could usually tell which girls were next for the chop. Of the 28 girls selected, only eight made it to graduation.
As an adult, I occasionally have crises of confidence. But when I was a teenager, nothing ever phased me. I had no frame of reference for failure. Failure never crossed my mind.
In the Balanchine era, dancers had to be incredibly thin. A lot of those dancers really abused their bodies and now, in their early 50s, are suffering from things like osteoporosis. Nowadays, most companies encourage us to go to the gym and make nutritionists available to us if we need advice.
Ballet dancers go out. We have dinner. We go clubbing. We get drunk extremely easily. Our contracts specify, however, that in our down time we're not allowed to go skiing or ice skating. They don't want us getting injured.
When I meet people and tell them I'm a ballerina, they ask me if it's like the film 'Black Swan', or they ask me to do the splits. I don't mind that. The only thing I hate is when people are dismissive of what I do. With all the work I've put into my studies, if I were an academic, I'd probably have a doctorate by now.
Ballet is not a lucrative profession. No one gets into it for the money. The very top dancers in the world might get maybe $10,000 for a performance. But even that isn't much compared to footballers, or actors, or painters.
Creating the role of Juliet in Morgann Runacre-Temple's 'Romeo and Juliet' last year was probably the highlight of my professional career to date. Juliet is a dream role for any girl. Having a director come to you and say 'I want you to be my Juliet, I want to tell this story through you' was just overwhelming.
I'm 24 now and I plan to keep dancing for as long as possible, until I'm 35 or 36. Some dancers age faster than others. Some have a Peter Pan syndrome and go on for ever. I could go back to the studio tomorrow, do myself an injury and never dance again.
So there's no point looking ahead too much.
Ballet is about being a part of something bigger than yourself. It's about one day maybe walking on stage and being that ballerina you saw that inspired you when you were a little girl. That's the only reason anyone does it.
In conversation with Eoin Butler
Zoe Ashe-Browne stars in Ballet Ireland's 'Carmen' and 'The Nutcracker', both at the Gaiety Theatre and touring nationally this autumn; balletireland.ie