Thousands of British babies and youngsters have fallen in love with dance – and exercise – over the past eight years thanks to Yorkshire mum-of-four Claire O’Connor.
The 40-year-old set up her own song and dance academy, babyballet in Halifax in 2005 and can now lay claim to running the UK’s leading pre-school dance concept. She has 58 franchisees across the country with over 10,000 youngsters attending 996 classes, and has won numerous awards for her work, including ITV’s Mumpreneur and Best Business Parent.
These days, babyballet is a recognised children’s brand. Alongside classes it has a thriving gift shop selling branded goods, its own distinctive babyballet car for franchisees, and loveable characters Twinkle and Teddy and Fluttery the Fairy who take part in numerous children’s festivals across the country.
Claire, who started the company with no capital investment and only a handful of staff, spotted a gap in the market for non-competitive dance classes that not only accepted the best, and has spent the last nine years spreading the word that ballet can be enjoyed by everyone, not just the elite. This year has got off to a great start for her. She was handpicked to take part in a new three-part documentary, Big Ballet which follows a troupe of plus-size dancers as they realise their dream of dancing Swan Lake. The Channel 4 series started on Thursday, February 6 and has attracted media attention from across the globe, along with a great deal of controversy.
Here Claire tells us about her involvement in the series and why she believes dance is good for all of us – no matter what our shape or size.
“I think it would be fair to say that taking part in Big Ballet has been the most uplifting and inspiring experience of my life. My feet literally haven’t touched the ground since word broke about the life-affirming new documentary series, and it feels like the country has gone ballet mad.
I’ve appeared on The One Show, This Morning and ITV’s Yorkshire regional news programme Calendar, along with numerous newspapers and magazines. What’s thrilled me most of all however is the reviews the programme has had from critics. They have called it sweet, heart-warming and a triumph over adversity. It’s certainly been a personal triumph for me.
I was picked to take part in the series because of my painful experiences with ballet. I attended classes ran by my mum, Barbra Peters, but discovered ballet and I didn’t fit because I was the wrong shape. I gave up at 14 and it left me with a lack of self-confidence and poor body image.
I started babyballet because I didn’t want this to happen to others, and while it has been a huge success, I’ve never really laid my personal ghosts to rest – until I took part in the show. I feel like my life has now gone full circle. I loved ballet, I fell out with it and now thanks to the series not only do I love it again but I have finally accepted my body shape and ability and am happy to be me.
Best of all, the programme echoes the ethos of babyballet, that ballet and dance isn’t just for the super skinny, it’s for everyone, and the benefits are truly amazing. Whether it’s ballet or ballroom, modern or tap, dancing is a great way for people of all ages and physical abilities to get and stay in shape. Simply put, dancing just doesn’t feel like exercise but the truth is, dance offers a total body workout using all the major muscles groups and provides heart-healthy benefits.
Babies develop through being active and exploring the environment so moving and grooving activities helps them develop key skills in all areas of their development such as coordination, balance, flexibility and strength. Being physical in a creative way also helps their self-esteem and self-confidence and encourages them to explore the world around them. babyballet is all about self-awareness and inspiring confidence. Learning to move to dance is quite an advanced skill. It helps develop children’s bodies and brains. Research shows babies are born to dance and really enjoy it.
Dancing is great for other things too as you age, including reducing stress, and because it increases serotonin levels, your general sense of well-being improves. But by far the best news is that dancing makes you smarter. Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine shows that stimulating one’s mind by dancing improves your memory and cognitive function and can help ward off Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia. It says that more is better and the sooner you start the better too.
I have seen first-hand how dancing keeps you fit and young thanks to my mum. She started dancing at the age of two and at 76 is still dancing now. After Big Ballet I decided I wanted to encourage women to put their dancing shoes back on and I have recently started adult classes, which are proving really popular.
Big Ballet currently goes out at 9pm on a Thursday and stars former Royal Ballet principal Wayne Sleep and ballerina Monica Loughman. I hope you will tune in to the frank and refreshing glimpse into a world obsessed with size and make up your own minds.”
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