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How Big Ballet star Claire O'Connor spotted a gap in the dance market

A Yorkshire dance programme for pre-school children has made its mark in Australia and New Zealand

Award-winning dance programme babyballet, launched in 2005 in Haliifax, is set to expand into America after enjoying success in the UK and Australasia

It began with 10 pupils attending dance classes in a children’s play gym in Halifax.

Twelve years later, multi award-winning pre-school dance programme babyballet has 73 franchised sites across the UK – including several in Huddersfield and another 33 in Australasia, including ones in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide, Brisbane and Auckland.

In total, the UK and Australasian teachers instruct more than 20,000 young children in ballet and tap dance at more than 1,500 babyballet classes a week.

Now founder and director Claire O’Connor, of Greetland, has her sights set on introducing babyballet to America.

She said: “The last 12 months have been the most successful in babyballet’s history as franchises continue to grow at home and abroad.

“We continue to look ahead and with aims of introducing babyballet in America and Canada, encouraging more boys and girls to dance and exercise. The future looks bright for our pre-school dance training programmes.”

Stars of the Channel 4 programme 'Big Ballet'. Pictured at Mirfield, l to r, Claire O'Connor, Stella White, Emma Wilson and Carol Hartley.

Claire, who has also featured in the Channel 4 documentary Big Ballet, spotted a gap in the market for non-competitive dance classes for children of all abilities aged six months to six years.

Her dream of bringing ballet to everyone began with her own painful experience of taking up dance. She attended classes from the age of three, but she soon discovered she didn’t fit in.

Claire said: “I loved ballet, but it didn’t love me. I was the wrong shape and I felt that only the best students were accepted. It left me with a tremendous lack of self-confidence and a very poor body image which followed me through to later life.

“I started babyballet so every pre-school child who attends class has a positive experience of dance whilst still learning the basic ballet technique, with a focus on play and lots of fun.”

Claire worked with her mother Barbara Peters, a registered Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) teacher and former RAD examiner, to develop babyballet’s syllabus and teacher training programme.

Claire O'Connor, founder of babyballet, with her mum, Barbara

Over the last seven months, Claire has visited Australia to build babyballet Down Under and encourage more women to become babyballet franchisees.

She said: “All the teachers in Australia and New Zealand who have taken out a license are women and already run their own dance studios.”

Claire hopes babyballet teachers from the UK, Australia and New Zealand will have the chance to meet at a worldwide conference followed by an exchange programme for teachers from the UK to work in Australasia and vice versa.

She said: “At the heart of babyballet is the young children – and watching them on both sides of the world enjoying the pre-school dance programme is a dream come true. We hope we can encourage more young children to dance and exercise whilst building their confidence and enjoyment of dance too.”

Babyballet has won numerous national and regional awards, including from organisations including one from online site netmums and an ITV This Morning mumpreneur award. Last year, babyballet supported Tommy’s Danceathon, which raised more than £370,000 for the charity’s work funding research into stillbirth, premature birth and miscarriage.

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