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BWW Interview: Sander Blommaert On His 100th Instagram Ballet Class

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BWW Interview: Sander Blommaert On His 100th Instagram Ballet Class
Sander Blommaert

Sander Blommaert, a multi-award-winning ballet teacher from Elmhurst Ballet School, and former Royal Ballet First Artist, has completed a run of 100 free online ballet classes throughout lockdown. Sander began offering the classes at the beginning of the pandemic on his Instagram page and has regularly seen as many as 400 ballet enthusiasts joining him for daily class - and has subsequently raised £5,000 for charity from his endeavours.

Some of the money raised by Sander's online teaching will be donated to Elmhurst Ballet School to part-fund a three-week programme of additional learning at the start of the summer break. The programme will allow key year groups affected by lockdown (Years 10, 13 and 14) to access further support at a crucial time in their ballet training and education.

I caught up with him on the eve of his 100th class, which he is marking with a special live "in conversation" on Instagram with Royal Ballet Principal, Marianela Nunez.

Congratulations on teaching 100 lockdown classes! What was your plan when you started your daily Instagram classes?

I definitely hadn't planned on doing 100 - I thought it would just be for a few weeks! Before we went into lockdown, I saw yoga instructors on Instagram offering these kinds of classes and thought it must really help with people's mental wellbeing. When Elmhurst Ballet announced that we would be sent home for a period of time, I immediately asked permission to do the same.

In the first few weeks I had 300-400+ people joining live with me. They've gone by so quickly. I've really, really enjoyed it. It started with me doing six days a week and then parents of students and adults said "Can we contribute something towards your classes?". I never intended to do it for money, so then I thought "Why don't I just set up a JustGiving page?". I remember setting it up and thinking, "Well, what amount shall I put? £500, £1,000? I was like, go on, put £2,000!" I thought that's an absolutely crazy amount, and to think now we're at 223%! I've raised £4,795*, and that's without me asking people - it's just if they want to.

*Sander has currently raised £5,330.

BWW Interview: Sander Blommaert On His 100th Instagram Ballet Class
Sander Blommaert

Congratulations! Remind us where the money is being donated to?

Half the donations are going to the NHS and half are going to Elmhurst Ballet School. The NHS has done a fab job at keeping us all safe - those key workers don't have a choice, they have to work in those difficult circumstances, so they deserve it!

When we break up, [Elmhurst] is offering free weekly ballet classes for Years 10, 13 and 14. These are key groups who have auditions, so the whole month of July we're going to continue to teach three classes a week, and the money I've raised will help support that.

How have you kept yourself motivated throughout the 100 days, and how much time does it take you to plan each day?

The hardest thing about teaching on Instagram is that I can't see anyone! In all my private tuition, we're on Zoom so I can see them, which makes it a lot easier, but because I can't see anyone, I really relied on the participants requesting things to work on. Although I don't want my phone buzzing the whole time, that has really helped me plan my classes.

Writing down the class plan takes about 10 minutes. Of course, preparing it with the music, looking at the messages and seeing what people are enjoying working on takes longer, but that's really helped me plan the classes, as I don't have that visual stimulus.

I aimed the classes at a very accessible level, but even professionals - though it's probably a bit easy for them, it's still very good to cover the basics, and also it's a class that beginners can follow too. I've made sure that it's accessible for all.

The reason I'm stopping now at 100 is because I am very busy with work, and also it's two weeks until the school holidays. Next Friday is my last working day and I wanted to finish on a nice number.

How have you adapted your teaching style for an online set-up?

Both me and the students have had to rely on our auditory and visual learning, rather than kinaesthetic teaching - I think that's the easiest way to learn and to teach ballet. It's much easier to put someone in the right position and say "This is how it should feel, this is how you do it." That easy teaching method, which is also the best one because it's so productive, having that falling away is quite a big adjustment. So I've really had to make sure I'm demonstrating a lot more, which is something I don't really have to do very much anymore - the kids at the school all know the vocabulary. So that's been very different.

Safeguarding has been a big responsibility of teaching online. If I say "No jumping, no turning" that's what we're doing, just to make sure what I am offering is still very safe.

BWW Interview: Sander Blommaert On His 100th Instagram Ballet Class
Sander Blommaert

You've not only been running classes but regular "In conversations" live on multiple evenings a week, with a host of ballet stars. How did you manage to arrange them all, and how have you booked in the one and only Marianela for day 100?

I actually invited her to my "In conversations", which she agreed to, but then I asked her if we can hold out until day 100, which she thought was a good idea as well.

I've never really interviewed anyone before, so maybe it didn't show, but for all of them I was sweating so much! I was so anxious to do them with every single person. People kept saying I came across well, but for me, inside I was so not comfortable. It's quite difficult interviewing someone if you've never done it before, so I was pleased with that feedback.

Everyone that came on, I'm close with. The majority are from the Royal Ballet or have worked with the RB. I did have some from [Birmingham Royal Ballet]. I either have their phone number or have them on Instagram and I just asked them. I'd reassure them, it's just going to be one hour, comfortable and nothing personal.

I've had people from Principals to choreographers and ballet mistresses. Because I've been in a big company, and I am still in the ballet world, I feel like I can interview someone like [BRB Principal] Celine Gittens. I've said hello to her a few times, but I don't know her, so speaking to her was very interesting to me.

What do you think will be the hardest thing for students returning to normal after lockdown has ended?

It takes three or four weeks to get that turning action and rotation back, and to just get your jumps back. But I think it's like riding a bike: I've not really demonstrated a barre fully in four years, yet over the past 100 days I look back over my classes and think, "Gosh, it doesn't look that bad!".

I don't think students should get worried. Young students should learn from this. In the future, if they ever get injured - hopefully not - they can have that mindset of "Well, look, back in 2020 that happened and we got through it fine", so hopefully they can take something from that.

Students are worried that they're missing out on part of their training, but the only answer you can give is that the whole world is in the same situation. Companies are also not dancing, so the dancers there are also being careful at home. We're all going to come back a bit below where we want to be and then we can all go up to the level we're happy with again. I think you can't put too much pressure on yourself.

Check out Sander Blommaert's Instagram @sanderblommaert

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