Estimated reading time:6 minutes, 48 seconds
Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story. Gillespie Road looks so ordinary but it is home to an astonishing array of sport-related businesses – there’s the old Arsenal stadium (the reason the tube was renamed Arsenal in 1932), the Gunners’ Fan Club and The Sarah Toner School of Ballet. Here ballet teacher Sarah Toner explains why ballet is good for us all. Interview by Nicola Baird
Sarah Toner has always loved dancing. She went to ballet school in Hertfordshire, joined a company in Portugal and then danced with the Birmingham Royal Ballet (which was the original Sadler’s Wells). “I love ballet with all my heart,” she says when we meet at Cinnamon Village at 109 Highbury Park.
“I loved the training and the camaraderie, but being a free spirit I found it difficult to tolerate the ballet world, with its hierarchy and the way things are always done the same.” It didn’t help that Sarah’s elder sister was at the same school, followed the same career and initially joined the same company of dancers.
“I was always the naughty little sister and we were always competitive. We are both tall so we’d both be the big swans, or the two old ladies or the two evil sisters – and yet we’re very different!”
This love-hate relationship with ballet companies means that Sarah has spent chunks of her dancing life working freelance. A highlight was a year-long tour with the Pet Shop Boys in the early 1990s. The show kicked off in Japan, went via the US and Europe before finishing at Wembley.
“Even for a dancer it was glamorous,” says Sarah who was one of 10 classically trained dancers and two street dancers on the tour. “We were so well looked after. There were lots of quick changes, a brilliant choreographer, Jacob Marley, a good per deum (for daily expenses) and the Pet Shop Boys were really kind.”
Sarah, now 49, ended up in Islington because her husband – also a dancer and who she is now separated from – had a place not far from Sadler’s Wells.
“I always thought I’d move back to west London but then I had a baby, and another, and another and you stay where you are for them don’t you?” Eventually the family moved to Gillespie Road.
Opening a ballet school
“I opened my ballet school when my marriage ended. I had to find a way of being a full-time mum and working. My youngest, Lulu, was only six so came to all my dance classes – she’s done a lot! Then it seemed like a financial necessity but it has become the most enjoyable chapter of my life.”
All Sarah’s kids are performers – Seb, 18, is working on a music tech BTEC; Molly, 14 is at Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts and “always on TV in the programme School 4Stars”, while Lulu, 11, has just won a place at the Royal Ballet School (where the mythical Billy Elliot nearly botches his dance future at the interview stage).
“My parents knew nothing about ballet. My mum, probably like lots of mums, thought it was a nice thing for a little girl to do. Ballet gives you such confidence and self discipline. It teaches you to learn to enjoy being quiet, and to listen, as well as to understand anatomy and how the body works. My classes are not twee, there’s lots of discipline, but we don’t do exams, and we are very creative.”
Many of Sarah’s students are very young, but she loves working with Year 5 -7, she says this is the perfect age to progress quickly and get to love dancing, rather than attending a club because your best friend will be there.
As well as baby ballet – for two and three years olds – and a range of dance and exercise classes Sarah runs a Fabulous in High Heels course. “Years ago I worked with actresses on deportment who needed position coaching for costume drama. Then one day I was people watching in the City and kept finding myself seeing beautiful women, so elegantly dressed, but thinking ‘they’d look so much better if they just softened their shoulders or relaxed their knees.’ A friend encouraged me and I ended up writing Faboulous in High Heels (£9.99). It’s not my mission for every woman to strut around in high heels, but it can give you the confidence to be that woman who looks fabulous as she enters the room…”
A favourite client, Jennifer Saunders part of the Ab Fab team, wrote the preface and since then many women have put on their heels for the course. “Mums come with their daughters, and sometimes it’s dads who send their girls – I think because they are so horrified that their daughters are turning into these glowing young women.”
The book comes free with the course. “I find that for the women coming to the class it’s often nothing to do with how they walk in heels – they’re lacking in body confidence, so I help them go away feeling better about themselves.
Busy busy busy
The one flaw with Sarah’s life is she has so little time for herself, oten not finishing classes until 9.30pm. “I do some lovely things – I’ve just done an event with Louis Vuitton at Selfridges,” explains Sarah, “but I go out less than once a year!”
As a result Sarah can’t recommend glam places in Islington – but she says her mum, Ann, comes up from “Cambridge once a week to cook the teenage grandchildren a roast dinner, and “She goes to the butcher on Blackstock Road for chicken, oh and my daughters have their hair cut at Zebra with stylist Annie.”
“My kids have had to share me with 200 other children,” explains Sarah, “but I feel it’s made them very tolerant. I hope they’ve seen me being kind, and not judgmental – because you never know what’s going on behind closed doors.” And that’s where we leave this interviewee – Sarah glam in her long black suede (flat!) winter boots catching up over a coffee with her colleague Shri in their unofficial office, Cinnamon Village. Here’s hoping this has inspired families to send their daughters and sons to ballet class, and everyone else to try out at least one of Sarah Toner’s exercise classes.
- The Sarah Toner School of Ballet at 45 Gillespie Road, London, N5 for baby ballet.
- There are always half term workshops.
- All other classes run by The Sarah Toner School of Ballet are at Joan of Arc Community Centre on Kelross Road, N5.
- Christmas Extravaganza 2013 for children aged 8-16 years is on Sunday 15 December. Rehearsals start at half term.
- For bookings contact email@example.com or see www.sarahtoner.co.uk or text 07968 891751.
Over to you
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This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.