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How Hull became Britain's hotbed of ballet talent

How Hull became Britain's hotbed of ballet talent
From BBC - September 13, 2017

Hull is being recognised as a centre of world-class ballet talent after producing some of Britain's top dancers. One ballet school has trained many of them. What's its secret?

On the wall of Skelton Hooper dance school, which is tucked behind a church on a side street in Hull, there's a poster signed by Xander Parish, the first Briton to be a principal dancer at Russia's Mariinsky Ballet.

It is dedicated to Vanessa Hooper, who runs the school. Hooper says she first taught Parish and his sister Demelza - who's with the Royal Ballet - in her "babies' class".

On Saturday, both Xander and Demelza will return to their home town for a special performance to re-open Hull New Theatre as part of the City of Culture celebrations.

They will be joined by others who have risen through the Skelton Hooper's ranks - namely Royal Ballet soloist Elizabeth Harrod and Joseph Caley, who has just been made a principal at English National Ballet.

The performance will be curated by the Royal Ballet's director Kevin O'Hare who - you guessed it - trained there too.

"Most schools can maybe talk about one or two pupils who have gone professional and have become principal dancers with a major company," O'Hare says.

"It is quite a phenomenon that so many dancers have come from that school over the years."

O'Hare and his brother Michael, himself a former Royal Ballet principal, trained under Vera Skelton, Hooper's mother, who founded Skelton Hooper after World War II.

"Looking back on it, it was the professionalism of it," Kevin O'Hare recalls. "It was not just like you were skipping around in the room - you were really learning how to do ballet seriously and properly.

"It was not scarily disciplined, but it was disciplined. I think a lot of the teachers in the area are like that."

The roll call of Skelton Hooper graduates goes on. There is Joshua McSherry-Gray, who's with the English National Ballet; his twin brother Laurie, at Ballet Vlaanderen in Belgium; and Natasha Oughtred, a former principal with Birmingham Royal Ballet.

Skip back a generation or two, and those to have emerged from other Hull dance schools include former Royal Ballet principal Mark Silver and ex-Birmingham Royal Ballet principal Robert Parker.

Hull seems to have a particularly good record with male dancers - and O'Hare says there was never any stigma about dancing as a boy.

"It was not that Billy Elliot image of the one boy among a load of girls," he says. "There was a group of us, so it did not feel like we were doing something that was not for boys."

And the city has ambition, he believes. "People joke that it's the last stop. You do not go through Hull to get to somewhere.

"But it never felt like that as a young kid growing up. It did not feel like there were no possibilities. It felt like anything was possible there.

"Work hard, you could achieve something - I think that's how people would feel there."

The work ethic required to succeed in the cutthroat world of professional dancing stems from Hull being a "grit city", according to Vanessa Hooper.

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