A Day in the Life at London’s Royal Ballet School
While most ballet schools in the U.S. experience a lull between Nutcracker and preparation for spring showcases, students at London’s Royal Ballet School have been busy. That’s because assessments—mid-semester evaluations for every student at the school—have just taken place. These exams are just one adjustment that U.S. teenagers Corbin Holloway, 14, and Rebecca Stewart, 16, have had to make since starting training programs at the prestigious academy last fall.
Both students previously trained at CityDance Conservatory in Washington, D.C. For Corbin, in Year 10 of the Development Programme at the White Lodge in suburban Richmond, and Rebecca, in Year 1 of the Vocational Programme at the Upper School in London’s Covent Garden, everything in the U.K. feels new. Whether navigating life in a different country, learning the details of British ballet technique, or adjusting to their rigorous schedules and to occasional homesickness, studying abroad has been quite a learning process. Pointe recently followed them through their typical day.
Rebecca’s day starts at 6 am at the Upper School’s boarding house. Breakfast times are staggered due to COVID regulations, so she’s usually in the cafeteria by 7 or 7:25. “I go for a balanced breakfast that’ll give me lots of energy,” she says, “which usually includes eggs or avocado toast.”
Meanwhile, Corbin wakes up at White Lodge about 7, brushes his teeth, retrieves his phone from the overnight cupboard, and heads to breakfast. His favorite is a full English breakfast with sausage and beans, plus a bowl of cereal. “Sometimes the line is pretty long,” he says, “but the wait is worth it!”
Both students begin with academics at 8:30. Since everything at White Lodge takes place under one roof, Corbin doesn’t have far to go to get to the classroom. Rebecca makes the trip to Covent Garden from Pimlico Station, usually by bus—but if she has extra time, she’ll walk the 40-minute trip. “I pass Buckingham Palace and Big Ben on the way to the studios. It’s nice to take all of that in!”
Both students’ academic curriculums complement their ballet training. Besides the usual subjects (math, English, science), Corbin is studying drama and dance studies. Rebecca’s first academic hour is spent on her “degree lesson” (part of the school’s foundation degree in classical ballet and dance performance), which includes courses like “classical context,” a nutrition course and anatomy. “I love that I can apply what I’m learning to my work in the studio,” says Rebecca. She then spends the next hour on coursework for her English A-level (the American counterpart would be an Advanced Placement course) in psychology.
Rebecca’s first ballet class begins at 10:30 am. The 14 girls in Year 1 work with their main teacher, Nicola Tranah, for up to two hours. Since they are currently working towards taking the full class on pointe, they wear “demi-pointes,” or soft blocks (pointe shoes with the hard shanks removed), on Mondays. Lately, the class has been practicing their entire assessment class, all of which is set in advance. “Compared to what I’m used to, some of the heads and arms seem so minimal,” Rebecca says. “I have to remind myself to turn my head just an eighth of the way to the side in a tendu front. It feels so different.”
Upper School students meet in the student common room for lunch at 1 or 1:30 pm, where they heat their packed lunches and wash their dishes afterward. Students can also schedule semi-private Pilates sessions, which sometimes take place during lunchtime.
At White Lodge, Corbin’s first ballet class begins after lunch, at 2 pm. His main teacher is Valeri Hristov, who is working with the 13 boys in Year 10 on honing technique and artistry. “The whole approach to class is different here,” says Corbin. “It’s not about preparing for a show. I’m working to make everything in class as clean as possible, and to do every step to the best of my ability, the right way.” After class, students move on to repertoire. Right now, Corbin is working on variations from Harlequinade and Giselle.
For Rebecca, the latter half of the dance day is spent in variations, character or contemporary classes. She is currently working on the first pas de trois variation and a group section from Frederick Ashton’s Swan Lake, as well as a character dance from Raymonda. “This repertoire really lets me focus on the details of British style,” Rebecca says.
Keeping in touch with their parents is a major part of each student’s week; because of the five-hour time difference, afternoons are an ideal time to catch up. For Corbin, staying connected was a key requirement in being allowed to study in the U.K. “When I was invited during Youth America Grand Prix, my family and I were really on the fence about it. But it was such an amazing opportunity! My whole family joins a chat once a week where we can talk about everything. It really makes being so far away easier.”
Rebecca uses recorded voice memos to stay in contact with her mom when she’s on the go. “That lets us stay in touch, even if there’s no time for a long chat.”
By the time late afternoon arrives, both students are ready for dinner. Corbin ends his dancing day with either fitness or weight-training classes before heading for the cafeteria.
After dinner, both students attend house meetings in their respective common rooms. Rebecca then is then free to shower and relax before “prep time” from 8 to 9 pm, reserved for doing homework and observing quiet time. On weekends, when students have lighter schedules, they can take part in organized activities, such as karaoke night at White Lodge. Corbin doesn’t usually sing any solos. “But I’ll join a group song once in a while,” he says.
While both students have explored the city during weekends with their guardians (caretakers who vouch for students outside of school hours), their favorite pastime has been seeing the Royal Ballet perform. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the passageway from the school building to the Royal Opera House is called the ‘Bridge of Aspiration,’” Rebecca says. “Seeing the company perform reminds me of my dream to be a professional one day. The dancers are constant source of inspiration.”
The last hour before bed is spent with dorm mates, having a snack and winding down before lights-out. For Rebecca, it’s also a time to reflect. She was invited to audition for the school after participating in open online classes during lockdown—which she’d wake up for at 5 am! “It was always a dream of mine to study at this school” she says. “Now that I’m here, I just want to take it all in and make the most of every moment.” By 10:30, she’s ready to continue that dream with her eyes closed.