BBC Young Dancer’s Tamara Rojo on what it takes to become a prima ballerina

"I trained for six hours, six days a week from the age of 11," says the English National Ballet's artistic director. "And that made up for the things I didn’t naturally have"

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Tamara Rojo is one of the judges on BBC Young Dancer and the artistic director of the English National Ballet and its lead principal dancer. She spoke to Radio Times about how it takes more than ability to be a prima ballerina… 

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When did you realise you wanted to be a dancer?

I was five years old, in the playground at school, it was raining, and I was waiting for my mum – the ballet teacher saw me and said, “Why don’t you step into the gym with us while we do ballet?” I suddenly felt at home for the first time. 

Did you stand out from other kids at that age?

No! Some people are gifted naturally, but I was podgy with a big tummy – I looked like a little dumpling in my white tutu. I’d never done anything like gymnastics so I was quite stiff. But I was musical and very enthusiastic, so that counted for something! 

What made you decide to do it professionally?

My first ballet teacher, Lola Grande, the one who brought me in from the rain, said to me, “You should go to a proper dance academy because you have a talent.” We are still in touch. 

Do you remember watching your first ballet?

Yes, when my mother realised how much I loved dancing, I must have been about six years old – she took me to see Swan Lake, but I didn’t like it! For me, ballet was something intimate, a quiet way of expressing my emotions, not for anybody to watch.

So what pushed you on to the stage?

I understood what being a ballet dancer really meant when I joined the academy of dance in Madrid and became part of a ballet company. I loved it so much that if it meant having to do it in front of other people, then I would have to live with that.

Were you the best dancer in the company?

Not at all! I never had natural flexibility or the physical abilities that some people had. I had a strong technique and was hard-working – I trained for six hours, six days a week from the age of 11 – and that made up for the things I didn’t naturally have. And there were certain roles that demanded a strong technique, mostly the principal roles, so I rose up the company very fast and was a principal by 18. 

Is there a downside to dancing?

The career is very short [Tamara is 40]. You cannot be a dancer at 60. It’s a secure career while it lasts, though – it’s less risky than being an actor. Dancers belong to companies and are taken care of – insurance, pensions and a salary, all year long. 

Any career lows?

I felt at my lowest when I thought I’d let the audience down. The last time I performed Cinderella I found myself on the stage thinking, “I really don’t want to be here,” and I knew I had to stop dancing that part. If there is no honesty, then there is nothing. It felt like the longest show of my life! 

Do kids today have that discipline?

We live in a society that rewards fast success based on little talent or commitment, which is transient and a dangerous place to be. Do we want to promote instant success and instant failure, or do we want to promote self-esteem and hard work? 

Is ballet accessible to young people today?

At the English National Ballet we tour, our tickets are as cheap as £12, but you can always do more… It’s a shame that during the elections there is no money promised for the arts. We have proven the business case and we have proven the social case. The more you invest in art the wealthier a society is – economically and culturally. 

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BBC Young Dancer’s Grand Final is tonight at 7pm on BBC2