Tears of a Ballet Mum is a new memoir by Sabine Naghdi, mother of The Royal Ballet's principal ballerina Yasmine Naghdi.
Ballet mum? Sabine, I'm shuddering just thinking about it!
One automatically thinks of ballet mums such as the one in the movie Black Swan or The Turning Point or Mrs Hilda Hookham, Margot Fonteyn's mother.
Right from the start, when Yasmine began taking ballet lessons, I fervently disliked being referred to as a ballet mum, because the collective noun had such a negative connotation to me, and in no way did I identify with many of them.
What made you feel different?
I did not share their ambition or dream for their daughters to become ballet dancers – Yasmine's dream was never mine – and I often wondered what I was doing amongst them. I wasn't even considering letting Yasmine train full-time. I considered it no more than a hobby of hers. I was very laid-back about it. On a few occasions I compared some of the ballet mums to a pride of lionesses who fight tooth and claw to defend their cubs.
Scary. Was it always like that?
Once Yasmine had joined The Royal Ballet School, some fellow mums and I formed a small group of unperturbed ballet mums. We were affably close and effortlessly bonded in our common cause to support our daughters. There were never any ill feelings between us. It was all very civilised.
Being that Sabine's own cub became a principal dancer with one of the world's top companies puts her in a special position to observe and comment on what happened to her and her daughter, and also give advice. So the book has matter-of-fact chapter titles such as “A year as a Junior Associate” and “From corps de ballet to first soloist”, but also the more dramatic “A make or a break year? A year of crisis”.
Why did you decide to write it?
I decided to write it because many people in the past encouraged me to share my journey, but what ultimately made me do it was an encounter at the Royal Opera House stage door with a ballet mum after I had watched Yasmine dance Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. The mother approached me and asked for my advice. I was so taken by her, and my mind drifted off to the time I had been in her position. So, I decided to tell my story and share it.
Yasmine says of the book:
I admire it because it's all so much easier said than done! From her mentioning many years ago, “Oh I could write a book about it!”, in response to many who asked her about my training at The Royal Ballet School, to actually writing it is something I really admire. She gets things done!
Sabine is certainly no slacker intellectually and has an MA in History of Art, Archaeology and Ancient Civilisations, a BA in History of Art: Byzantine Art to Modern Art and a PhD in Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology. She has an active working life (she was a Sotheby's auctioneer, valuing works of art, and producing catalogues) and certainly has no need or desire to live her life through that of her daughter's.
From a young age I took Yasmine with me to every art exhibition and art gallery I visited in London and abroad; she was exposed to art all the time. I would often take paper and crayons with me when visiting an art exhibition so that she could sit down and draw whilst I enjoyed looking at the artworks. I also let her be creative with paint, she wasn't even two years old when I encouraged her to put her hands in pots of paint and use the kitchen door as her canvas to make paintings.
There was always classical music playing at home and during the morning school runs (pre-Royal Ballet School) Classic FM radio was on in the car. In a playful manner, I would quiz her and her sister on who the composer was, or what the name of the ballet excerpt music was, or the name of the musical instrument.
So your passions overlapped?
The way in which my world overlapped with the dance world was through my great love of classical music and opera. I knew next to nothing about ballet when Yasmine started out. I learned all about ballet as she progressed over the years.
It sounds idyllic. When did the tears start?
They stand symbolically for all the feelings of doubt and concerns I had about my twelve-year-old daughter entering into vocational ballet training. They are about my indecisiveness, and feelings of helplessness because I did not understand the unfamiliar and complicated world of ballet. Because of my initial misgivings and trepidation, I was not keen at all for my daughter to become a ballet dancer.
They also stand for my silent anguish at not being able to comprehend why Yasmine would want to put herself through the daily physical hardship of ballet training. It was not really a path I had envisioned for her, but eventually I did come to terms with it as her passionate love for classical ballet became so very obvious.
Explaining how you came to terms with your doubts and worries will obviously be of help to other ‘ballet mums'.
I like to make it clear that, right from the outset of writing my book, it was never my intention to offer any definitive or all-encompassing advice. I merely wanted to share my experience and observations, and all that I had learned along the way, in the hope that the parents whose daughter or son is about to embark on, or is in, vocational ballet training, will be able to get a better understanding of the various challenges a child in training has to face, as well as of the demands of a dancer's career.
Every child will experience their ballet training in a very different way, and they will try to cope accordingly, as will the parents or carers. Some will be able to cope, others won't.
Wearing a tutu is not for the faint-hearted.
There is no place for mollycoddling in high-level ballet training and they have to be able to toughen up so that they can cope later on with the demands of being a professional dancer. When things are easy one doesn't learn; it's when things are difficult to achieve or are tough, and they manage to get through it, that they will learn.
And what must they learn?
The two most vital points in my opinion are, firstly, strong foundations of mental strength have to be laid down in the early training years. You don't build a house without first laying down solid foundations so that your house doesn't crumble down when there is a storm or a minor ‘earthquake'.
Secondly, a strong sense of self-worth and self-esteem needs to be built during the teenage years, a time in their training when a ballet student becomes highly sensitive to a variety of issues.
The strength to face defeat and navigate stumbling blocks.
The highly demanding physical aspects of elite-level ballet training – meaning training at the highest level with the intent to become a professional ballet dancer – cannot be made easier, so that is not a likely aspect ballet students will struggle with. It is the way in which their mind is set up, or not set up, that poses a much bigger challenge. It is by building a strong and balanced mind-set, by establishing a great sense of self-worth and self-esteem during the teenage years, that the ballet student will most likely be able to navigate the many obstacles they'll encounter during their training.
I ensured that Yasmine did not take any detrimental mental baggage with her into her career. I wanted her mind to be free of any such excess.
Being so hands-on with Yasmine's mental and physical wellbeing must have caused you some worrying moments – like any good parent, ballet mums or not.
One of the hardest moments came at the end of her first year as a principal ballerina. It was at the end of the season, and she had just danced her debut as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake in Covent Garden. The Royal Ballet was about to go on tour to Madrid, presenting six Swan Lake performances. Marianela Nunez, Natalia Osipova, Lauren Cuthbertson, Sarah Lamb, and Akane Takada were cast to dance Odette/Odile. Yasmine, being the youngest and newest Odette/Odile was not cast as there were not enough performances.
However, four days before leaving on tour she was asked to replace the indisposed Natalia Osipova and Lauren Cuthbertson. On Monday late morning, once the company had arrived in Madrid, Yasmine was rapidly going down the drain and was coming down with a bad case of flu and a serious chest infection. After a consultation with a doctor, he advised her not to dance, to take a course of strong antibiotics, and to stay in bed for the rest of the week. She called me from her hotel room to let me know. I became very worried. As soon as I had put down the phone, I grabbed my carry-on, dashed off to Heathrow airport, and flew out to Madrid. In the end, she did dance both performances of Swan Lake, and in Chapter Ten, “Life as a Principal Ballerina”, I elaborate on what I went through as her mum.
Who is this book for?
My book is for all the ballet mums and dads out there, for ballet lovers who are unfamiliar with ballet training, for those who are attending their first ballet performance as well as those who regularly attend a ballet performance but are unacquainted with the demands of ballet training and the life of a professional ballet dancer. I hope they will be able to further increase their appreciation of the ballet trainee and professional dancer, as well as the art form.
If you could give just one piece of advice to ballet mums, what would it be?
I know it is easier said than done but I would say: Relax, what will be will be. Know that talent on its own is not enough to get through the training, it is a combination of multiple factors that will determine the ultimate outcome. Talent is not only about one's ‘base' ability: it is the ‘a priori' talent combined with the ‘responder' talent that can turn the training into a possible success. It really is not about how good one is right away, but how good one eventually can and will become.
I asked Yasmine what she feels about her ballet mum.
I feel lucky, and also very fortunate, that she was able to invest so much time in me. To have had a knowledgeable and informed parent paving the way, so that I could grab all the ‘tools', was absolutely amazing. I wouldn't be where I am today without her phenomenal support and level-headed advice – although she firmly denies that, saying she'll never ever take credit for what I have achieved!
As a ballet student, I had complete trust in every word she said, and I accepted her advice and guidance. She always knew when to be tough on me, and at times she rightly helped toughen me up, and she also knew when to keep her distance and to give me space.
So, Sabine, what about the other tears… the tears of joy?
Yes, the ‘tears' in the title of my book has a dual meaning. They also stand for all the moments of joy that ultimately followed once she got through her training at The Royal Ballet School and became a professional dancer with The Royal Ballet. And to ultimately see her dance Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, Tatiana in Onegin, Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty, and so many other great roles she has performed, produced many ‘tears' of joy!
The last chapter has mother and daughter in conversation where some interesting advice for young dancers comes from Yasmine.
In the last chapter of my book, I have a tête-a-tête with my daughter, and one of the questions I asked Yasmine was: “If you could change one thing about your younger self during the time you trained at The Royal Ballet School what would you do differently?” Her reply is also my advice to young dancers.
She replied without any hesitation:
“To worry less! I definitely worried far too much. Instead, I would fully focus on the task at hand and on my individual progress, and not be distracted by what others are doing, saying or achieving. It is absolutely vital to stay laser-focused on what you want to achieve for yourself and to draw out all the trivial ‘noise'. Don't get carried away by unnecessary distractions.
“Concentrate on your own journey and progress, work on self-improvement, on your self-confidence, build a strong mind, and ensure you feel good about yourself. If you won't do all that for yourself, no one else will! Stay grounded, focus on what really matters, and on what really is the true essence of the art of ballet.”
Tears of a Ballet Mum is published on 9 December: 260 pages with over 70 private, backstage, and performance colour photos.
Signed copies by Sabine and Yasmine Naghdi can be ordered via Shopify.
Non-signed copies can be ordered online (Amazon, Waterstones UK, Barnes & Noble USA), and all good bookshops.
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.