Dame beryl grey being rehearsed by ninette de valois in checkmate

What’s great about teaching character class? In conversation with Kate Swainston

Kate Swainston has had an exciting 20-year career as a professional dancer, performing various works at the Royal Opera House, Opera North, and Glyndebourne Festival Opera. Today, she prefers to talk about her love of teaching.

She trained to teach at The Royal Academy of Dance, where she passed the Professional Dancer’s Teaching Diploma with Distinction. She then came to the School to study an Intensive Character Dance Teaching Course. Having been a member of the ballet faculty at London Studio Centre and teaching degree-level students, she left in 2019 to join The Royal Ballet School, White Lodge, to teach character as a specialist subject. And now, she’s also one of the esteemed teachers leading classes on our Intensive Courses on Demand platform, a way for students to train with the School, anytime, anywhere, from home.

You’ve achieved so much in your ballet career, both as a dancer and a teacher. Can you tell us a little bit about what you love about teaching?

Yes, I can. My love of teaching goes hand in hand with my love of dance. I’m passionate about passing on knowledge that was passed to me, to nurture and encourage students to explore their passion and love of dance. And with character dance, it’s just another angle on classical technique.

All the character barre is built up in the same way as a classical barre, it’s shorter, but it follows the same guidelines. We work a lot on port de bras rhythms, for example. At The Royal Ballet School, it’s just such an honour to be able to uphold the teachings of Maria Fay and the core values of her method. [Enchanting character teacher Maria Fay, who passed away in 2019, had a significant association with The Royal Ballet School]

Her book, My Approach to Character Dance is an absolute must-have, too! I think for all students, across the board, it’s very interesting. Even if your passion isn’t character dance, it’s so beautifully written. And all put together by [former Royal Ballet School Teacher] Amanda Maxwell, who taught me, so I feel quite a bond there, although I was never lucky enough to meet Maria Fay.

What do students love about learning character work in your experience?

I think that character gives a real insight into one’s coordination and rhythm capabilities. It’s also very good training of the upper body and dancing as a group. For the younger students in Years 7, 8, and 9, it’s a really good foundation.

I also believe that it’s a great introduction to court ballet work, which students in classical vocational schools will be doing. The students seem to really enjoy the interaction with one another in class.

What is your favourite type of folk dance to teach?

Here at The Royal Ballet School, I teach both folk and court styles of character dance. To Years 7, 8, and 9, I teach Ukrainian, Polish, and Hungarian folk, and then Polish and Hungarian court style to Years 10 and 11. And at Upper School, we add in Russian court.

All of those styles bring their own unique story, which I love. If I was pushed I would say I enjoy teaching court style. But the children like folk dance because usually it’s quite upbeat and jolly!

What do you think is the essence of a great character performer?

To embody passion, performance, precision, and clarity of technique.

Also, anecdotally, I heard an interview on the radio years ago when I was driving and it was to do with a sport (I can’t remember which one). A coach was interviewed and was asked, ‘what makes a good athlete?’ And he said exactly this: ‘Desire, dedication, determination, and a little bit of talent’. I think that in dance as well, all of those things embody a good character dancer.

If somebody wanted to learn more about character dance, which performers do you think are doing it brilliantly? Who could they look to for inspiration?

Sadly he’s no longer with us, but there was a Russian choreographer called Igor Moiseyev. He formed a company in around 1937 I believe, he transformed traditional and regional folk dances into dance for theatre, he used classically trained dancers and his company is just excellent.

You will see, it’s really fine work. It’s available on YouTube or there are DVDs. He used highly skilled classical dancers to convey village life and folk traditions. And I would say, for my part, that is the finest example of character. A wide range of character work with little storylines running through. Then the technique is brilliant and the choreography is beautiful.

You created some videos for our Intensive Courses on Demand platform. What was that experience like teaching to the camera?

It was terrifying! At first, I tried to script exactly what I was going to say, and that was hopeless because I couldn’t remember it verbatim. So I said to Mark [Mark Annear is the School’s Head of Training & Access] ‘can I just teach?’ And he said ‘yes! do that!’

It’s a strange sensation having students in a class that you’re not teaching to. So it was a little bit weird in the beginning, but I settled into it and got over my nerves and it was truly a most enjoyable experience in the end!

What can people expect from character classes on Intensive Courses on Demand?

I think what’s exciting is that character dance can be inclusive. It can be expressed in one’s kitchen or a large studio by both trained and amateur dancers.

It’s also very diverse in its concept. The character videos on-demand give insight into the technique. The how we perform a set, why we do it, and where it originated from.

I tried to make the enchaînement doable in any kind of space and for any number of people. People can watch and then say, ‘Oh, OK! We’ll do that little bit next week, or we’ll do a bit more, or we can even add 20 more people and make the patterns much more intricate.’ I want it to be inclusive so that students can use their imagination to collaborate and can easily embellish on experience. That’s my hope!

Take a character class with Kate online today.

What's great about teaching character class? In conversation with kate swainston
What's great about teaching character class? In conversation with kate swainston
What's great about teaching character class? In conversation with kate swainston