Adelaide is sometimes viewed as more of a big country town than a city. So you can imagine that when you grow up in Adelaide, you don’t always get the same opportunities as people in the eastern states. This was the case for dance coach Lucy Ellis, who now has a global career and has just released a dance guide book for tweenagers.
Ellis took some time out recently to chat with Dance Informa about the book, her career and how it all came to be.
“I grew up in Adelaide,” Ellis says. “It’s quite a small pond, and everyone knows everyone. Especially back when I was training. There weren’t a lot of studios and not a lot of competition opportunities or workshops. Not a lot came to Adelaide. You had your dance school and the teacher you learnt from, and getting anything outside of that was quite difficult.”
It was when Ellis moved from Adelaide to Melbourne to study full-time with APO Arts Academy (Dance World Studios) that she started to become aware of how small her pond really was, and how big the gap was between her and the other full time students, simply because she hadn’t had as many opportunities.
“I don’t want there to be such a big gap,” she explains. “I would like when all the different states go to do their auditions for full time or cruise ships or whatever else, that Adelaide has the same audition opportunities or gets exposed to the same choreographers.”
Bridging the gap
The shift from Adelaide to Melbourne and undergoing a double course in dance and musical theatre was a turning point for her.
“I caught up pretty fast, and the training I got at APO was really incredible,” Ellis recalls. “I thrived because I had so much more to learn, but it would have been amazing to be able to step into that course and feel comfortable and up there with anything.”
Later, when she was teaching in a dance school in country Victoria, Ellis started to think about how she could help bridge the gap between the city kids and the country kids.
“The kids were quite talented, and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if these kids got the same kind of level of tutors and hours, and were exposed to the same audition preparation as the city kids?'” she reflects.
And so, she started a workshop program to bring what the city kids were experiencing to the country. And from there, it seemed to snowball.
“There were studios from different states wanting the workshops, and a lot of Melbourne studios latched onto it,” Ellis shares. “It then became less about bringing the city teaching style to the country but more about showing dancers the technique required to do things and breaking it down and giving everyone an even playing field when it came to those things.”
The workshops soon evolved into private one-on-one coaching, as parents started asking her to teach their daughter privately.
“My first coaching students were from three to four hours out of Melbourne, and they drove up once a week to have their private coaching session on top of their dance training,” says Ellis. “And from there, it really grew, and now I have dancers who come from Adelaide to Melbourne to do classes and workshops.”
The main characteristic of a successful dancer
Regardless of talent and access to experiences, Ellis believes that the main thing that makes a dancer successful is hard work.
“I use the word ‘fight’ a lot in class,” she says. “Whenever you go into a class or workshop or audition, you need to give it your all and not hold back. That dancer who is just willing to work hard will always come out on top. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”
She also stresses the importance of resilience, grit and tenacity in being a successful dancer.
“I think that I will always give as much as I can to a dancer who is willing to give as much back,” she asserts. “I have a student from Adelaide, and she is just one of the most hard-working students I’ve ever met, and she hasn’t had a lot of other opportunities. She wasn’t even able to go to a dance studio. Every bit of work she did, she did at home. She’d send me videos and learnt dance routines from Instagram. It’s not even just dance; that characteristic will take her so far in life.”
Ellis believes that it is passion and joy that helps students to do the hard yards.
“You have to be able to push through the hard times, and be a really strong fighter,” she adds. “It’s hard to train kids who are younger about that because you don’t want to push them away from it either. You don’t want to make them scared about the industry, but there’s nothing wrong with kids not winning at comps or placing. They should still feel good about what they’ve achieved. You need to balance the hard work with joy and passion. Everything is so competitive and cutthroat. Parents are a lot more pushy with their kids, and teachers expect a lot more. Making sure kids are still dancing because they are passionate about it and they care about it is a big thing I bring into my workshops.”
Working safe and smart, as well as hard
Ellis finds that the kids who work really hard practice at home and spend as much time as they can in the studio. And so part of the reason she developed her skills practice guide was to help young people practice safely at home, and so they can learn how to keep their body safe.
“I think safety in dance is probably one of the most important things that teachers can instil, more so than having flashy kicks or jumps or a bazillion turns,” she admits. “It’s more important that kids learn the basics before they do the advanced steps.”
She continues, “I noticed when watching Instagram of dancers practicing technique and things they learnt off YouTube that so much was done wrong, badly and dangerously. And I realised that dancers needed a structured way to work at home and continue the hard work they’d been doing in the studio without putting their body at risk. The guide shows them how to do their stretching first before going into tricks, how to develop strength. It gives them a step-by-step guide to show exactly where their leg should be, so we can eliminate the injuries that happen when dancers are just going about their work at home.”
In addition to her home practice guide, Ellis works with the parents to educate them as well about safe dance.
“You get parents who want their kids to do things straight away,” she says. “In private coaching, I educate them on what the dancer needs to learn first. We need to educate the child and parent.”
She stresses that there isn’t any reason to rush the learning process. “We can’t expect these big long-term goals to happen overnight. It’s okay to not be amazing at 10 or 11 years old, and to be able to have stuff to still work on when you are older. If you’ve learnt everything at 12, where do you go from there, what else is there to do? It’s making sure the kids progress at a slow and steady rate.”
Three top tips for young dancers
We asked Ellis what her three top tips are for young dancers, and they were all more mental than physical, because she believes that dance is as much a mental game as being in the studio.
“Number one is to make short- and long-term goals,” she says. “Something that is really realistic in the short-term and then something you really want to achieve long-term. Make sure that they are not too much about being things, like medals or awards. But something like a flat jeté line or three turns by the end of the term. You can tick them off and know you achieved them because you worked for them.”
She continues, “Number two would be to get as many experiences in dance as you can. Do as many workshops, work with as many teachers, immerse yourself in as much performing arts as you can. Make sure you go and see shows and musicals and be inspired by as much as you can.”
And finally, “Number three would be to never give up on anything or on yourself. If you are having a bad day or something is not happening as easily as you would like, never stop pushing and trying because you never know how close you are to that breakthrough.”
The Skillz Dance Practice Guide
For anyone wanting to have access to Ellis’ structured approach to practicing at home, it’s called #Skillz Dance Practice Guide: Your Own at Home Dance Workshop and is available online at www.lucyellisdance.com, as well as in certain dance stores in Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth, New Zealand and the Gold Coast.
“Pretty much all my private coaching students use it, and it is a really good tool,” Ellis assures. “Especially for a dancer who is hungry to be always continuously working at home. It’s a really good tool to give them structure at home.”
By Jo McDonald of Dance Informa.