Sport Editor Oscar Ress in conversation with UEA Ballet President Ella Matthews

For issue 384 of Concrete, I spoke to UEA Ballet President Ella Matthews. This was to discuss the important campaigns that she is leading to improve inclusivity in ballet and dance, as well as what’s to come for UEA Ballet as we hopefully emerge from a Covid-19 disrupted year. 

Ella in describing her role as President, said: “It’s generally just coordinating the committee and organising everything that goes on in the club, that’s everything from getting classes going, our show squad, competition teams and organising events and campaigns and just really working together with the committee.”

Asked what she looked to personally bring to the role, she replied: “Being the president after Covid is really important. We continued to work all the way through the pandemic with zoom classes and our competition teams kept going and performed outside but it wasn’t the same and I thought getting that community back was really really important to me and making sure everyone felt they had a family at ballet and doing everything possible to keep that community feel going.”

World Ballet Day was on the 19th October and is greatly important to the community both in terms of applauding the sport but also raising awareness of certain issues. 

I asked Ella what importance it holds for her: “It’s a really good celebration of the whole ballet world and not just the professionals but it’s about the whole art form and what it means for all dancers at every level. At [UEA] Ballet we did a lot of highlighting dancers and all our members were reposting things. On World Ballet Day we went to see Northern Ballet’s production of Merlin at Norwich Theatre Royal, which was a really lovely trip and I think about 40 of our members went, it was a lovely celebration.”

In terms of the the mental and physical toll of Ballet, which was talked about a lot around world Ballet Day, Ella continued: “I personally have had a lot of a…” she paused: “I don’t know how to describe it, you can be quite torn by the ballet world because it’s all about beauty and lines. This stereotypically means having a certain body or a kind of perfectionism but I think coming back to what the art form means to people and the average dancer. It’s about appreciating dancing and loving it because of that. I think ballet can be really difficult, everyone says in every class that ‘it’s so hard’ and ‘I can’t get round this’ but once you get past it and work hard it’s really good and it’s something we highlight a lot in mental health campaigns like ‘love your leo’ and national campaigns to push the message that everyone is a ballet body and to appreciate ourselves.”

Following up on the ‘love your leo’ campaign, she confirmed: “the thing about ‘love your leo’ if you don’t do dance, ‘leo’ means leotard. It’s all about loving your body, loving your ‘leo’ so we include other sports that have tight fitting uniforms or tight fitting kits and that can be swimming, rowing, cycling. Any sport that people coming into it might feel insecure about their body because it is quite exposed and the campaign is about loving your body but also your sport and highlighting what your body can do for you.” 

Asked what she’d say to people to encourage them to join ballet, she highlighted the key to just “give it a go, ballet is open to absolutely anyone and at UEA Ballet most of our members are complete beginners or very intermediates so just because ballet is seen as very perfectionist and everyone must be really good, it’s definitely not like that and most of our classes are open to absolutely everyone. I would encourage everyone to give it a go and come join the dance family!”

UEA Ballet ran a ‘bring a boy to ballet’ event last weekend and President Ella Matthews said on its importance: “It’s all around our Movember campaign ‘I’m a man and I can’ and in the ballet world, men can be deterred from the sports because of toxic stereotypes in society that men can’t do ballet and it has to be quite feminine so the campaign is about what they can do as a man and not have any shame around it so we got other sports involved. It can be anything from ‘I’m a man and I can’…‘Talk about my anxiety’ or ‘do ballet’. The whole campaign is based around the fact that everyone can do ballet and to me it’s really important to get lots of people going and get lots of boys going. Showing that ballet is for everyone and just have a great time and do a great sport!”

On the topic of Movember and the lack of men in the UEA Ballet committee, I asked what more she thinks can be done to get boys to do ballet at the university: “This is something that dance has always struggled with, everyone growing up might say they only had one boy in their ballet class. So it’s something we will always struggle with because views in society won’t change instantly. We’ve been trying! Last year we had our first male committee member and we do have a few members. The ‘bring a boy’ session has encouraged one new male member, which is a little success for us. It is something we struggle with but we try to encourage and at the sports fair we go the extra mile to talk to boys. This year we have two boys on our show squad which is the all level dance team and it’s something we really have to push,  hopefully campaigns like ‘I’m a man and I can’ help show prospective members that we are really accepting.”  

In terms of competitions that UEA Ballet participates in, Ella stated: “We go to three competitions, this year we are going to DMU in Leicester, Sheffield and Nottingham and we will also perform at our summer show in the LCR.” 

When asked what her favourite part of performing is, she said: “good question, I think doing ballet and performing is all about the experience you get out of it, being in the moment and it’s so freeing. Nothing else compares to it.”

Ella, on what she was most proud of from her time as president so far stated: “there are so many moments, if I take a step back and look at how many people get such a good experience out of being in a team and on show squad, coming to classes and making friends. I really would say it’s seeing what other people get out of the things me and the committee organise for them and how much that adds to the university experience. Means a lot to me!”

Furthermore, what she is most looking forward to for the rest of the year: “the ‘love your leo’ campaign means a lot to me personally and it’s why I, as publicity sec last year, really pushed it. Taking it nationally and possibly internationally, fingers crossed! I think the competitions coming up are always such a highlight along with the end of year show.” 

Finally, on what legacy she wants to leave in the ballet club: “Inclusivity, really pushing that anyone can do ballet and the message that every body is a ballet body. You don’t have to look a certain way or be a certain person to do it. Reinforcing the ballet family.”

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Oscar Ress

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January 2022
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