‘Resilience is a huge part of ballet – you have to have the character and the drive’
Niamh O’Flannagain is a ballet dancer, currently in Ballet Ireland’s ‘Swan Lake’. She has been doing ballet since she was five, and trained for a professional career in the UK. From Dublin, she lives in Dun Laoghaire.
It takes me a little while to wake up in the morning. Often, my muscles are tired, and my calves might be tight from doing a lot of pointe work. I’m a ballet dancer. Currently, I’m performing in Ballet Ireland’s touring production of Swan Lake.
I’m a swan, and also in the Hungarian dance in it. We learn all the parts. There may be cast changes due to injuries or illness.
In the mornings, I like to do my hair at home. It gets me in the zone. It has to be tied back in a bun. For breakfast, I usually have porridge and coffee. Everyone associates eating disorders with ballet, and of course, there are issues with dancers. That is very sad. It’s so much about the way we look, and you’re always looking at yourself in the mirror and making corrections. But we are normal people, and we have to eat well to fuel our bodies. If you don’t have a proper breakfast, you’re not able to keep going. I also take vitamin C and a multi-vitamin.
Sometimes I rub arnica into my bruises and bruised toenails. And I take baths in Epsom salts to help tired muscles.
I live in Dun Laoghaire, so I take the Dart into town. I love being by the sea. I’ve been with Ballet Ireland since 2018, and this is my third season with them. In rehearsals, we have time to warm up – just stretching and rolling – and then we have an hour-and-a-half class to really warm up.
We always start off wearing leotards, tights and skirts for rehearsals. Everyone is wrapped up, then slowly, as we do each exercise, another layer comes off.
When we are rehearsing a ballet in the beginning, it is very slow. We take it five seconds at a time, and we do each bit to the music. We have to learn where everyone goes and we try and place it. It’s a muscle memory, but I like to write it down to get it in my head. A lot of the time I don’t even look at the notes again. Everyone recognises the music of Swan Lake, and the costumes are just gorgeous.
For rehearsals, we’re in pointe shoes from 10am until 6pm. They are made from paper mache, fabric and glue. They are very hard when you first get them, and it hurts when you break them in. They get soft very quickly, and there is only a very short period when you can actually wear them before they die, as we say. To protect our toes, we’ll tape them. We try to prevent blisters, rather than deal with them afterwards. Over time, you build up hard skin callouses which protect your feet. Training prepares you for all of this.
I started ballet when I was five. It was in a local school hall and then I just kept it up. My parents never thought that it was going to go any further. There was a class on between 1.30pm and 2.30pm. I finished at lunchtime, and my siblings were finished an hour later. So it filled that time gap. But my mother thought that I would enjoy it. I loved moving to music, and I think every little girl adores her ballet teacher.
There are certain physical attributes that make it easier to be a baller dancer – like having longer legs, or if your hips are more ‘turn-out’ because our hips are rotated a lot. That is genetic, so there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s kind of unfair, and people who aren’t dancers wouldn’t think about it.
It got to the stage where I was doing ballet every day, but I also played GAA and hockey. One day, my dance teacher called my parents and said, ‘If she really loves it, she should audition for schools abroad’. I think my mum said, ‘Is she even any good at dancing?’ I got accepted into Tring Park in Hertfordshire. I left just after my Junior Cert, when I was 15, and I did A levels there at the same time as the ballet.
I grew up a lot when I was over there. The teachers were really amazing. They cared about us, but they were tough. They know what it’s like if you’re going to do this as a career, so they want to get the best out of you. There were some days when I was fed up after being told off. But I like a challenge. If someone said, ‘Not yet, you can’t do this’, I always wanted to prove them wrong.
Resilience is a huge part of ballet. You have to have the character and the drive. If you want to follow your dream, you have to work hard and make sacrifices.
When I was offered a job with Ballet Ireland, I felt so lucky to come back to where I’d grown up. I could show my family and friends.
When I’m on stage, there are so many things going through my head. Am I in line? Am I looking in the right place? If you switch off, you will miss something. And all the while, you are trying to make it look as effortless as possible. That’s the hard bit, especially if your feet are cramping.
But there is nothing better than when you are on stage and you’re all doing it together, and you catch somebody’s eye. It keeps you going.
Being a ballet dancer is a short career. It generally ends late 30s, early 40s, but I’m going to do it for as long as I can. I just want to keep dancing and having the opportunities to perform, be it classical or contemporary.
If we are staying in a hotel on tour, I often go to the bar after the show and ask for a bucket of ice. I get some funny looks. Then I ice my feet for as long as I can, to take down the swelling.
If there is classical music playing anywhere in the background, it’s very difficult to switch off. You think, ‘I danced to this. What step is it now?’ After an Epsom-salts bath, I fall into bed, totally wiped.
In conversation with Ciara Dwyer, The Independent – November 2019.
Ballet Ireland with EY presents ‘Swan Lake’ on tour 2019.