Liberation, aviation, and education



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Live, dance, learn is the motto of Elmhurst School for Dance and it’s an ethos the school’s Artistic Director  Robert Parker has certainly lived by.

Taking flight to Florida to train to become a commercial pilot was not an easy decision for Robert Parker, but little did he  know having a year out from dancing would prove to  be the best move he ever made. 

Robert (MPhil Education, 2011)  emigrated to the US with his family in  2008, aged 29. As a principal dancer  with Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB)  he was approaching the end of his  career. Years of arduous training and  performing had taken their toll on his  body and he was ready for a change.

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At first the aviation training was  exciting and Robert enjoyed doing  something completely different, but he  soon began to miss dancing.

'At principal dancer level you start to get  rock star status. You get used to the adrenalin rush  that performing gives you, being in the company of other  dancers almost 24 hours a day and the exclusivity of the ballet  world,’ he says. 

‘Training as a pilot I felt like I’d unzipped myself and stepped  into someone else’s shoes.  ‘I think that year away was a year of reflection; you evaluate  where your heart belongs and I discovered it was in dance.’ 

When the global recession hit, there was no longer a  demand for pilots in the US and Robert made the final decision  to return home. He called David Bintley, BRB’s Director, who  welcomed him back, and within a month Robert was dancing lead roles with renewed enthusiasm. 

Although he trained at the Royal Ballet School, Robert had  always regretted never studying for a degree. He discovered  Dr Tansin Benn was running a two-year MPhil Applied Studies  in Dance course created especially for BRB performers at the  University, and jumped at the opportunity to enrol.  Robert’s dissertation was about the identity issues male  ballet dancers face after retirement, a transition that can be  traumatic. ‘To suddenly move from leading a very structured  existence and being put on a pedestal to being anonymous  can be a bitter pill to swallow. There have been cases  of self-harm and drug abuse.’

Determined to plan his own life after retirement and pass  on his skills, Robert began teaching part time at Elmhurst,  Birmingham Royal Ballet’s training school in Edgbaston.  He decided he wanted to become a teacher after seeing  a boy’s face light up when he helped him execute a lift for  the first time.

Training as  a pilot I felt  like I’d unzipped  myself and stepped  into someone  else’s shoes.

Robert retired in 2012 and joined Elmhurst full time as Artistic Director, responsible for the school’s dance training  for its 185 pupils.  ‘The training methods have evolved for the better and  there’s a strong emphasis on not just producing a dancer but  producing a free thinking, autonomous human being,’ he says.  ‘We make sure our dancers receive a good  education and effective pastoral care.’

For Robert another abrupt career change  is unlikely; he is firmly grounded, totally  enthused about his role at Elmhurst  and believes his postgraduate course  helped prepare him for the role.  ‘Studying at Birmingham was such  an enriching experience; it furthered  my knowledge, boosted my  confidence and having academic  credentials has really supported  me in my new career,’ he adds.

‘The school is moving in a really great  direction and we want to be at the cutting  edge of dance training. It’s a phenomenal  environment to work in and I’m looking forward to taking  every opportunity to move the school forward.’

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Dance partners

Although the MPhil Applied Dance Studies course ended in 2011, the University and BRB have strong links and it is hoped it will be revived in the future. Projects on which the two organisations currently collaborate include cultural internships, outreach work and dance psychology. In 2009, the University helped sponsor BRB’s tour of China. Several alumni, including Chinese principal dancer Lei Zhao (MA Applied Studies in Dance, 2003), performed in the touring productions.