My Interesting Job: Ballet Teacher

My Interesting Job: Ballet Teacher

Karis Scarlette, 31, trained at the Royal Ballet School from the age of six and went on to perform at the Royal Opera House as a professional ballerina. When an injury in her early 20s forced her to quit, she retrained as a teacher. Her company En Avant Ballet now hosts private and group classes and ballet retreats for adults all over the world. Here, she recalls her journey from dancer to teacher, and shares the day-to-day challenges and joys of the job.

What Did You Want To Be Growing Up?

I love dancing – I’ve done ballet since I was two years old – but I really wanted to be an actress. In some ways, I feel like I have been because there’s quite a crossover between ballet and acting as both jobs are all about performing.

So, How Did You Get Into Ballet? 

My mum sent me off to ballet as soon as I could walk because I wouldn't stop performing and had all this energy. She wanted me to be able to channel it in a productive way. 

The major turning point for me was when I was six and my school in Hammersmith was visited by the Royal Ballet. They were looking for talented kids to take into an outreach programme they run called Chance to Dance. I was the only person in my year group to get selected. I loved ballet and so I just went along with it. I did understand on some level that it was a big deal, but I just thought, “If I’m good at this, I might as well go for it.” It was such a wonderful opportunity and I loved it. 

What Does It Take To Become A Professional Ballet Dancer?

You’ve got to get in there really quickly. Training needs to start when you’re really young – around five or six. As soon as you hit 11 years old, you’re encouraged into full-time training and that is a necessity if you want to become a professional. That’s what I did. I lived on site at the Royal Ballet School boarding school and trained for six hours a day, fitting in schoolwork around it. We carried on all the way up until A levels, but I had to stop dancing professionally in my early 20s when I got really badly injured. 

What Was The Injury?

I broke my spine. It was a stress-related wear-and-tear injury. Getting to the point of having to stop was a very long and painful process. The injury came from a mixture of things: the workload was intense and I had a lot going on at home (my parents were splitting up at the time). I was doing my A levels and performing on stage every night. One day my back went into a spasm and it just didn’t go away. Within eight months my spine was crooked, which filtered down into my legs and feet. It got to the point where I was in so much pain that I couldn’t dance anymore. It was devastating but I had to stop. 

How Did That Feel?

To have that dream of being a professional ballet dancer taken away after training for so long sent me into a two-year depressive spiral. Luckily I managed to pull myself out of it and decided I wanted to become a teacher. 

So How Did You Get Into Teaching Ballet?

I called up an old teacher at the Ballet School and asked about retraining. She said she’d been waiting to hear from me for years. I went back, learned how to do it and have been teaching ever since. Now I can see that it was the best thing that could've happened because I absolutely love my job. 

How Did Teaching Evolve Into Becoming A Company?

As soon as I finished training to teach, I got offered several jobs. The first one I took was still at the Royal Ballet, creating a show that fused two different art forms together. I absolutely loved that because there was so much to learn and the crossover of cultures made it fascinating. After that I was teaching children a lot but, when I got offered an adult class, I realised this was what I loved. I think that’s because I found it easier to form a connection. I started offering classes just for adults and from there it morphed into more of a retreat-based company because of my love for travel. Lots of my students in London were unable to commit to classes each week, which gave me the idea for creating week-long retreats where we could learn intensively in a beautiful and relaxing environment. Now En Avant has gone down a more holistic route. The retreats have been really popular – they sell out every time. 

I still consider myself a student and never get complacent. I need to keep growing myself if I want to improve my teaching.

How Do Your Retreats Work?

I sometimes get approached by hotels and sometimes approach them myself. If I like a particular country, I’ll make a visit and find a venue that feels right for my retreat and my philosophy. In terms of the retreats themselves, they’re really laid back. We usually start at around 10am, working on ballet for three hours. After that we’ll do a meditation, then they can do what they like. Some people like to have private lessons, others go off to explore or simply relax. We build a sociable environment, which creates a real sense of intimacy. I get clients coming back year after year. Ultimately, I want the students to learn in a beautiful environment and I want them to take it easy – it is their holiday, after all! 

What Are The Most Challenging Aspects Of Your Job?

Fitting everyone in. Besides the retreats, the majority of my business is private lessons. I teach a couple of group classes each week but about 30 private lessons. Between all of that, I’ll run workshops at the weekends or take time out to do a retreat, so it can be quite a balancing act. Sometimes the amount of people I'm looking after can feel overwhelming because I want them all to have the best experience. Sometimes finding time to look after my own wellbeing and keep on top of my own training can be difficult. I have to remind myself that’s necessary for me to remain a good teacher. 

And What Are The Best Aspects?

The people. I have such amazing clients, many of whom I consider friends because we get on so well. I also love learning from different people – that’s one of my favourite things about working abroad and experiencing new cultures. I still consider myself a student and I never get complacent. I need to keep growing myself if I want to improve my teaching and look after my clients. Ballet as an artform is always evolving and changing, which is something I find incredibly exciting as well.

How Do You Stay Organised?

It’s a real challenge but I think going to boarding school made me quite disciplined. I’m quite structured and militant when running my business, so I set aside time each day to keep on top of admin and emails. 

What Challenges Or Mistakes Have You Overcome In Your Business? 

When I was starting my business, I believed it was a good idea to emulate other people’s ideas. I just thought that if it worked for them, it would work for me. I chose a beautiful, expensive venue for my classes because my main competitor had a beautiful, expensive venue and was selling out classes consistently. It didn’t work for me, which showed it’s not the venue but what’s going on in the class that brings the right clients in. I lost a lot of money on that mistake, but it taught me to focus on finding a unique way of teaching that worked for me. I downgraded my venue, restructured the classes and pricing, and focused on what I believed people really wanted. Teaching ballet, I realised, is not always just about technique. People actually want to dance. That’s when I came up with the idea of hosting workshops in which you could learn famous dances such as The Nutcracker or Swan Lake. That’s when everything fell into place for me: by asking clients what they actually wanted from classes and providing it, I was able to build a unique and successful business.  

What’s Been Your Career Highlight So Far? 

Coming to Brazil and working on this project [throughout August, Karis was the Artist En Casa of Uxua Casa Hotel and Spa in Bahia, Brazil] has been a career highlight. Coming to Bahia, where there’s a real mixture of culture has been an incredibly rich experience. Working alongside people who grew up with such energy for music and movement has been an amazing cross-cultural collaboration. 

What Do You Do To Keep Your Body In The Best Condition For Teaching And Dancing? 

I have recently discovered bone setting, a Chinese technique that works on aligning bones and creating movement. I do a lot of weightlifting, stretch every day and do around three ballet classes a week. I have to make sure I don’t do too much because I don't want to get tired. For me nowadays, looking after my body is more about strength and being able to do things than simply looking good. 

What Do You Do To Switch Off? 

I like to read with a glass of wine in an environment where there’s a bit of an atmosphere, like a bar or a pub. I try to see my friends whenever I get the chance. Most of them aren’t in the ballet sphere so they really help me to switch off. I also travel and get out into nature as much as possible. I don’t get enough fresh air when I’m in the ballet studio all day.

What’s Your Next Goal?

I’m looking at venues for new retreats. There’s a potential stage comeback happening for me next year as well. I’m also looking for more teachers to come on board with my business, which would free me up to focus on growing it. I want to create an empire that I can eventually leave in the hands of a successor so that I can enjoy a life by the beach, looking after animals. I have other dreams beside my business!

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