James Hobley, a fifteen year-old from Redcar, has been offered a place at the English National Ballet School. Congratulations, another Billy Elliott makes his way to London! Yes, but James’s story is quite special and while any young dancer managing to surpass the ENB School auditions is outstanding, young James’s achievement is exceptional.
James is autistic. His twin brother is autistic as is his elder brother. The twins were born in June 1999, appropriately under the sign of Gemini. Their mother is Sheila.
When the boys were younger, it was very difficult to cope. They all required a lot of attention and they didn’t always get the help they needed from the education system.
In fact, Sheila decided on home schooling for a period; there had also been problems with bullying at a normal state school.
I worked at home with them and tried to find ways to engage them in an activity. A leaflet came through my door advertising dance lessons for freestyle disco dancing and that is where James’s story started.
That was seven years ago when James was eight. At that time, just getting to the lesson wasn’t easy for him. He explains,
Autistic people find it hard to go out the house, especially to go out to the town and order fish and chips or pizza or anything… it’s very hard. The confidence to just go into a shop and ask for something.
In a video interview last year he said,
I was in my own little world I guess… I didn’t understand what was really going on out of that world. Interacting with people was very hard, because everybody else was making normal conversation. Making friends is that ‘warmth of normal’ that I get attracted to every time, but I’ve never really experienced it.
With his mother’s help – “I have always encouraged them to follow their dreams no matter how out of reach they seemed” – he managed overcome those first hurdles and started dance lessons. It didn’t just help him mentally but physically in a dramatic way.
Before I started dancing, I had orthopaedic boots and splints on the back of my legs because I used to walk on my tiptoes a lot. I hated them. I couldn’t run or do anything whilst wearing them. Walking was painful and I spent a lot of time in a large pushchair on shopping trips because my legs ached so much when I walked. The only time I got to take the braces and boots off was during sports at school, which I always enjoyed. I loved running and swimming.
Soon after starting his disco class, things began to change dramatically. Within 6 months, he didn’t need the splints any more and he found that he was naturally flexible and after 3 months he was doing the splits. The most difficult thing for James was performing in front of people:
His autism meant he didn’t like to give eye contact. He became totally engrossed in his own world when he danced and his teacher had to remind him constantly to look at the judges at competitions and to smile!
James enjoyed disco dancing, and won many competitions, but when he was ten he discovered a whole new world of classical ballet. He went to see his first ballet as part of a BBC documentary filmed about his life, Autism, Disco and Me. It was the Moscow Ballet’s Nutcracker.
I will never forget the first time I saw a ballet on stage – says James – I was ten years old. It was something very new to me and I didn’t quite understand everything, but I was hooked! I loved the way the dancers moved and the musicality. I just had to find out more. I knew on that first night that I wanted to be a ballet dancer even though I wasn’t sure what it entailed and didn’t realize the years of hard work and dedication that was ahead of me.
I didn’t really know what dancing was. When I saw the other kids doing walkovers, splits, and high kicks I was in awe. They sometimes brought in the trophies they had won at competitions and I knew I wanted to win competitions too! I felt like I was a part of something… something exciting and big.
Dancing changed everything for me. It was like a light got switched on inside me, like a spiritual awakening. It seemed that until that moment when I discovered dance, I had been asleep… dormant. I had a purpose suddenly. A reason to be. My life became all about dancing and competitions and trophies. I actually started to speak to some of the other children at class too. Dance brought us together. It was something in common. Before that, I didn’t feel I had anything in common with other children.
I had faith that he could achieve this and started ringing ballet schools locally to find out what training was available. I remember the magical feeling of being at that first ballet performance but I never dreamed that it would be the start of such an exciting journey.
When he first started ballet, his teacher noticed that he was still tight in his tendons up the back of his legs, as he couldn’t plié very well, so he worked really hard to overcome this and has stretched constantly. He now has no problems at all.
A year later James won a scholarship to attend The Hammond School in Chester, where he now boards. The school is a specialist musical theatre and dance school, and says that it is “the leading provider of Performing Arts education in the North West”.
I love the feeling of freedom when I do a grand jeté and the total control when I land. It requires a lot of strength and I enjoy working on my muscle development. I just love to practise for hours on end after class to perfect a single movement. There is no such thing as perfection but I am constantly working on being the best I can be.
Britain’s Got Talent was an interesting and exciting interlude:
We always watched the programme on TV and talked about James auditioning but we were never serious. In 2010, when the show ended on TV, there was an advert for people to email the show to audition. James just announced that he wanted to try out for it. I thought he was joking, but he was serious.
After the audition, we really didn’t think he would make the TV show auditions as there are tens of thousands at the first stage…but we got a call a month later to confirm they wanted him for the judges’ auditions on TV!
James got through to the 2011 final.
After four years at the Hammond, he has won an ENB School scholarship.
Now that James has been offered a place in such a prestigious ballet school in London, I find it exciting and scary at the same time. He will be 16 years old and living in a big city alone but I would never prevent him from going because it is his dream. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for him to get the best training and lay the foundations for his future.
Sheila has been used to protecting her children more than most mothers need to… from the very beginning. James and his twin were born two months prematurely; James weighed just 2lb 15oz (1.3kg), little more than a bag of sugar.
After his extraordinary transformation over the first fifteen years of his life, James echoes his mother’s sentiments, but his excitement and determination are evident:
I have been living away from home during term time for the last 4 years to attend my current dance school but moving to London is a very exciting prospect. It will be scary at first as I will be living totally independently for the first time but I am ready for the challenge.
It is a step further to my ultimate dream of being a professional ballet dancer.
He’s come a long way. In the last few years he has performed at the O2 Arena and in Times Square, carried the Olympic flame, opened the World Autism Conference in Spain and become an ambassador for the autism charity bibic and a patron of the Anna Kennedy Online charity for autism awareness. I asked him to explain what being autistic means.
My earliest memories are at around 4 years old. I was always quiet and hardly spoke. There was no need to speak, my twin brother did all the talking for the two of us. I followed in his shadow. I wasn’t really interested in the world outside my house. It scared me. I was happiest lying on the floor with my cat, staring into his eyes and examining his fur in minute detail.
I didn’t have any friends… to be honest I didn’t know what a friend was. I attended a special needs school where many of the other children had learning difficulties and autism. Not many of them interacted with one another so I didn’t have to deal with friendships. I just followed my twin brother George around as he attended the same special needs school.
I remember not liking school and I really hated having to play any games or hold hands with any teachers or children. I liked to have my own space and not have to touch others. I hated them touching me or getting too close. Making friends can be difficult for someone with autism but I have had plenty of practise at my current school and I have even become a prefect!
I didn’t like looking at people’s faces much and detested giving eye contact. I used to look at the floor in front of me all the time when I danced. My eye level was always low. I have had to work really hard, and still do, to raise my eye level and look at people and project my emotions out to an audience.
Learning choreography was a lot more difficult for me. My brain processes instructions differently and I have to work a lot harder to pick things up.
Autism for me is something I was born with and it is a part of me. I have learned to live with it and have learned coping mechanisms to get around social situations. I still don’t like parties and crowds of people but I can manage. I still enjoy my own company but I don’t mind being around other people now.
However, surprisingly, autism does have its advantages,
It has helped to make me more focused on my true goals in life and I am less likely to be distracted.
For a young man growing up in London distractions will be everywhere and many promising young dancers have fallen by the wayside when they lose focus. It is essential through the adolescent years to create a strong technique.
My sole pursuit in life is to be a successful classical ballet dancer and I will do whatever I need to do to achieve my goal.
When I dance, I feel totally lost in my own world and the problems of real life can’t touch me in that moment.
Dancing is everything to me. It is my life.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.