Isabella Gasparini is a Soloist with The Royal Ballet, a role she combines with studying for a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing at The Open University. Here, she shares a unique insight into her journey as a part time student and full time dancer.
What will I do when my dancing career is over? It would be natural for anyone who knows me to think that I would follow my mother’s footsteps, taking over her ballet school. A destiny plotted by inheritance, but it is not quite so simple. I always imagined that when I retired, I would go on to do something entirely different. Perhaps when I was younger, I saw it as an escape from the responsibilities of directing a school, but I think that what I’ve always really wanted was to find out what life would have been like had I not found ballet, if I had pursued other interests.
When we were twelve years old, me and my cousin Luiza collaborated on a few editions of our own newspaper ‘O que rolou por aí’, an account on the latest happenings in Atibaia: Christmas preparations, family gossip, June party and Carnival. We did all the detective work, typed our notes in my dad’s computer, printed out page after page of the ‘breaking news!’ and sold the leaflet for one real to any family member or friend in the vicinity. We fantasised on becoming writers or journalists, and we were quite good at it!
A lot of dancers feel at a loss when they try to imagine a future outside dance. I feel very fortunate to have an interest in developing other aspects of my being, a desire to open up my horizons! Having spent my childhood in Brazil, attending a normal school and growing up in a nurturing home, I kept myself in contact with the ‘real world’. There are kids who join boarding school at eleven years old, where ballet becomes their identity. It is quite hard to picture yourself doing anything else when dance is all you have ever known, all you have focused on your entire life.
I would have never jeopardised my dancing career to pursue a curiosity for literature and writing, but I knew it was always something I could turn to. It got me thinking… what could I actually achieve with loving books? Would I even have the skills, imagination, the knowledge to become a writer? How to find out? I later discovered that there was, in fact, a way I could dip my toe in the water without letting go of my dancing dreams. I also discovered that it was o.k. for us to feel afraid and anxious about life beyond dance, and that we in fact had a strong support system to guide us through that transition.
Right at the start of my first week with Northern Ballet, I was introduced to the DCD: Dancers’ Career Development. I was puzzled at first as to what that even meant. Career development? Transitioning?! Sitting crossed legged in the studio, with pen and paper in hand, I took note of what this was about: an organization that would help dancers, not just me but all company members in the room, to retrain and transition into alternative professions after retiring from performance, by offering guidance and financial support. At the time, my life as a dancer had only just begun! Thinking about starting something new was out of the picture, but a little seed had been planted.
The DCD is the only organization of their kind in the United Kingdom. I never knew how grateful I’d feel one day to have this amazing resource. When this crazy urge to study became too loud to ignore, I knew exactly who to turn to. By the time I felt ready to commit to it, the years had gone by and I became eligible for their partner company retraining grant. To apply for it, you must have been a professional dancer for at least eight years, five of those being with either Northern Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet, English National Ballet, Scottish Ballet, Rambert, or The Royal Ballet. There is also the opportunity for independent dancers to qualify for a retraining grant; details can be found on the DCD website.
Besides, one must show a genuine interest in whatever you have chosen to pursue as a possible long-term career path, and propose a realistic retraining plan (research, select a course, explain why you think it is suitable for you). After sending all the papers, with proposals and a personal statement and sitting face-to face with one of their team, my application for support was accepted! This was the encouragement I needed to follow through with my study plans.
Applying for university wasn’t an idea that came to me on the spur of the moment. It took me years to gather courage, to understand that there was no harm in trying. I hardly remembered what it was like to be a student, to write in academic English, but I never let go of my interest in learning. Even when joining the National Ballet School, I took academic lessons very seriously. But the good grades have always been reflective of my determination and hard work, I believe, and not so much of a high intellect. Now at university level, I prayed that hard work would suffice.
I enrolled at the Open University knowing that I would have to sacrifice a lot of free time. Whenever I take on a new challenge, it is everything or nothing, but this time I gave myself permission to try it out, see how I could accommodate a distance learning course having a full time job (and one that is quite demanding).
The Open University has an online platform called OpenLearn where you can explore a wide range of topics and subjects, study free courses, and get acquainted with student life. This is where I’d start looking. After trying out some free courses through FutureLearn, I found out about the Open University distance learning scheme.
I was looking for a general idea of all arts subjects, something of a foundation, without realising that no matter what specification I chose, whether it was literature or writing or classical studies, I would have started out with the same module: The arts past and present (now called Discovering the arts and humanities). It would introduce me to a wide range of subjects, from music to religion, literature, philosophy. I chose this module and one other (Voices, texts, and material culture) to receive a Certificate of Higher Education in the Arts and Humanities. It was a two-year course (long-distance) which could be counted towards a higher degree.
Reading through each course prospectus will give you an idea of what to expect, as each module will be presented with its key features. Besides learning a range of subjects related to the arts, I wanted to refine my ability to argument and analyze, to sharpen up my writing skills, and communicate with clarity and confidence. Upon receiving my certificate in July 2019, I phoned up the university and transferred my credits to a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing. I chose to use the momentum to continue on, committing to another four years of distance learning.
Managing Dance and Study
The Open University has a pretty straight forward system to help you with time management. Every module is broken down into study weeks. When you start a course, you’ll have a Student Homepage, where you find access to a study planner – a detailed week-by-week schedule – with the number of minutes or hours required for each task.
I try to do most of my studying during work hours, incorporating it into my ballet schedule. Whenever I get a long break, I take my backpack and go out to a cafe or down the Opera House stairs to my favourite corner of the canteen, and start working on my essays. It could be a three-hour gap in between rehearsals, or the hours leading up to a performance, these are productive hours.
Dancers hate waiting around to go onstage for the very last act of a ballet, but I’ve made the most of hanging around in the theatre. I fill it up with university readings, essay planning and editing. I choose what to work on very carefully to make sure it won’t pull my focus away from the performance, but I find that it actually helps me get rid of any worries or anxiety.
If I had to spend all weekend absorbed in my books, I’d feel very guilty. Sundays are sacred, for resting and recovering. I try to stick to working over short periods during the week, which means that these days I hardly spend any idle time in the changing room or reading a nice book for pleasure. My trips to coffee shops became working hours. It is the price I have to pay.
If I’m very busy with shows and rehearsals, I skim read over some chapters just to get a general overview of the material and focus on the marked assignments. Being selective has helped me stay on track and not fall behind on the study planner, especially last year when studying Literature at stage 2, where I had a lot more reading and analysis to do.
Distance Learning with the OU
On your Student homepage, you find a weekly planner with a very thorough outline and due dates of assignments, online or face-to-face tutorials, and student forums. The university uses a combination of online and printed materials, and a mixture of reading, videos and audios, all accessed via the internet.
I’ve submitted all assignments online. Naturally, you might be assessed differently depending on the course. I’ve had five or six tutor-marked assignments each year, and an exam at the end of my second year. I’ve never been so nervous. It took place in this massive hall, Harry Potter style, a big clock counting the time, where hundreds of students sat at their desks and wrote frantically for what felt like ten hours. I must confess it wasn’t my greatest performance, but I passed.
The most exciting part of my first year as a student was attending face-to-face tutorials, but these are sadly becoming a less significant part of OU studying, for obvious reasons. Just seating in a classroom and conversing with different people, of all ages and backgrounds, was a whole new experience, one that proved to me it is never too late to go back to school, to learn something new.
My first tutor was very passionate about teaching and meeting her face-to-face was quite amazing. She made the classes very fun and informative. Last year’s tutor was a musician and arts critique. Coincidentally, she would always do trips to the theatre. We met over a glass of wine at the Royal Opera House. It was with the greatest relief that I entered stage 2 of university knowing that my tutor was someone I could approach easily, who knew and understood what it means to be a ballerina and lead a crazy life.
Reaping the benefits
My first two years at university made me appreciate all art forms and their interdisciplinary qualities. I saw how valuable they all are in our understanding of humanity. I made day trips to art galleries and museums around London as research projects for my essays, something I would never have set time aside for. I learned about different cultures and artefacts, watched a whole BBC programme/documentary called Civilisations, went on literary talks and discovered The Literature Festival, attended a Christmas concert as preparation for my essay on Handel’s Messiah, and even wrote a short story.
Moving on to stage 2 was a step up from the fun museum trips, but it was a gradual and continuous progress. Studying literature has given me great insight into the world of books, the one I have appreciated since childhood, and made me aware of the different techniques that writers utilise to make their story so magical. I became a fan of Thomas Hardy and Edith Wharton, and one of my favourite works was writing about Arundhaty Roy’s The God of Small Things. I hope these blogs have kept my writing skills sharp and imagination going throughout this lockdown period, as I’m about to start a Creative Writing module this October.
My personal life has been enriched by my studies, and so has my professional life. It has made me appreciate dance even more, all that it has taught me, and the many years of dancing that lay ahead. I was thinking about my future when I decided to apply for university, but what I really needed was to get out of my comfort zone, to get my mind exposed to new concepts, new ideas.
Ideas rarely come from nothing. We stimulate our brains to come up with ideas when we learn new things or when we rehearse the things we are learning. They come not from sitting around and waiting for inspiration to descend, but from working: trying things out, reading, learning and doing.
The School of Life – Philippa Perry
Dancers are very skilful human beings, something we always hear from the DCD team. We are determined, persistent, hardworking, disciplined, responsible, creative, we have countless transferable skills to be used in any other profession. All we need is not be afraid to discover ourselves and our potential.
It is never too late to learn, never too late to set new goals and ambitions.