Talent spotted by Birmingham Royal Ballet, an 11-year-old boy from inner city Birmingham is hoping to carve out a career as a dancer. Zoe Chamberlain reports.
Jakob Myers is a real-life Billy Elliot. He was an ordinary seven-year-old from Balsall Heath, with older siblings who worked as a mechanic and a hairdresser, when he was plucked from everyday life and put into ballet shoes.
Birmingham Royal Ballet teachers came to his school, King David Primary in Moseley, to run a workshop – and instantly spotted they had a ballet star on their hands.
Three years on, the 11-year-old has danced in front of 7,000 people a night at the O2 in London in BRB’s production of The Nutcracker and is attending a world-renowned ballet school.
His mother Jackie, 49, who is a carer, says: “I’m really proud of Jakob. It’s not often that someone from round here takes up dance, so I think it’s brilliant.”
Following the school workshop, Jakob was invited to audition at BRB’s studios and went on to become one of just 80 children selected to start weekly classes at Queensbridge School in Moseley.
Through a BRB education project called Dance Track, potential ballet stars like Jakob are given a free two-year programme of ballet training and mentorship to prepare them for auditions at the best ballet schools in the country.
Jackie says: “When he first came home saying he’d been asked to audition for the programme it was a complete shock, as I’d never realised he could dance.
“Music was always playing in the house when he was growing up and he plays violin and piano, so he can keep time, but he didn’t sing or dance.
“I said he should do it because it was something different to the break-dancing and street dancing.”
And so it was that Jakob’s life took a turn so very different from that of his siblings – his brother Daniel, 29, is a mechanic, Nathan, 27, works in sports science at a university and his sister Sian, 21, is a hairdresser and support worker.
“I don’t think his siblings would have wanted this opportunity – Jakob is completely different to them,” says Jackie, who is no longer with Jakob’s father.
“But everyone contributes to Jakob, whether it’s fetching him from school and helping to buy his shoes. They’re really pleased he’s been able to do it. They love going to watch him.
“He loves it and that’s what matters. The dance teachers said they saw something natural in him which was strange to us.
“His dad said as long as he kept up with his school work he was happy for him to do it.
“Jakob has never been sporty, so it’s nice he does this now. We just managed to fit it in after school alongside his music lessons.
“Jakob knew what he had to do to keep going to ballet classes, so he worked really hard at school too. He’s very determined.
“His primary school friends took it in their stride. They never teased him or anything. He carried on playing football and doing normal things at school.”
Jakob’s “bright lights” moment came when he performed as one of the children in BRB’s The Nutcracker, first at Birmingham Hippodrome at the end of 2011 and later at London’s 02.
“When I saw him on stage in The Nutcracker, I couldn’t believe it,” says Jackie.
“It was brilliant. He was up there dancing his little heart out.
“I was so proud but I didn’t want him to know when I was coming to a performance.
“I wanted him to focus on the job in hand rather than looking out into the audience and trying to find me!”
Jakob found the experience both daunting and exhilarating.
“It was scary at the Hippodrome at first but I got used to it,” he says. “And, after I got used to it, we performed at the O2 and it started all over again!
“It was quite different from class. I had to know where to stand and how to dance with props.
“I got on really well with the BRB dancers Brandon Lawrence and Kristen McGarrity. They made me feel less nervous and we had a lot of fun.”
Dance Track is a BRB educational programme designed to give young people access to ballet where they wouldn’t ordinarily have the opportunity.
“When Dance Track first came to our school I took to it straight away,” says Jakob.
According to Pearl Chesterman, BRB’s director for learning, the ballet company teachers can instantly spot if a child has the potential to be a dancer.
“When we go into schools, we’re looking for posture, physical ability and concentration,” says Pearl. “With some you can identify that as soon as they walk through the door; with others it comes out during the workshop.
“Some of the children come in a bit hesitant to start with, as do their mums and dads.
“It’s about confidence building, team building, about working with each other.”
In Billy Elliott, a film about a young boy with a passion for dance, the father doesn’t like the idea of his son dancing until he sees him in action.
“We get that all the time,” says Pearl. “But we’re actually finding we generally have a 50/50 split of girls and boys taking part.
“There’s one class of Year 3 and 4 children where there are actually ten boys and only six girls, which is really lovely.
“In these instances, the boys’ competitive nature really comes out.
“It’s about giving the children another perspective to their world, a way of meeting new people from a different background to them.
“Some of their teachers have said it’s given the pupils more focus, too. They’ve found they have concentrated better in school after taking part in the ballet classes.
“It also brings families together to celebrate their child’s successes and be excited for them.”
Dance Track has run since 1997, and students come from a wide range of white, black and minority ethnic groups, irrelevant of their social and economic background.
Pearl says: “I don’t think anyone realised the longevity of the programme when it first started.
“It’s really consolidated in the city now as people really start to know about it.
“Originally it was in the south of Birmingham but now there are workshops and classes in the north, too.
“It’s great because it means children from places like Aston, Handsworth and Lozells can take part, too. It’s wonderful to be able to work at the Lighthouse in Aston which has such fantastic facilities.
“It helps to make the children more focused than simply doing their classes in their school hall.
“It’s about far more than dance.”
Every year BRB need to raise £90,000 to pay for their Dance Track initiative, which works with 40 primary schools and more than 2,500 children.
Encouraged by his BRB mentors, Jakob auditioned for a place at Elmhurst School, a world-renowned classical ballet school in Edgbaston.
Jackie says: “When Jakob went for his audition I was more terrified than him! “He takes everything in his stride but he knew if he wanted to go he’d have to stand out from the others.
“When the letter arrived he ran up the stairs, saying, ‘It’s a big envelope, not a small one’. Then he opened it and said, ‘Yes! I’ve got in’.”
Jakob is now a day pupil at Elmhurst, which is also a boarding school. He’s often there 12 hours a day, and does ballet classes every day alongside a full academic programme and other dance classes. He was given a full scholarship to attend, and is one of eight boys in his class of 20.
Jackie says: “He’s always been artsy but I’d never have imagined he’d end up at a private dance school. The schools by us aren’t that brilliant, so it’s really good he’s at Elmhurst.
“He has just done well in his SATs.
“It’s not too far from us. We usually walk it in around 15 minutes.
“Jakob wants to be a professional dancer but we’re keeping his feet on the ground by encouraging him to have something to fall back on, like teaching dance perhaps.
“Ballet has helped him to become more focused and disciplined.”
As far as Jakob is concerned, the future holds just one vocation: “I want to be a dancer. Definitely!” he says emphatically, and with that he’s off to another class.