For someone who was born with two left feet, Claire O’Connor has had an amazing impact in the world of ballet.
The 39-year-old mother-of-four has helped thousands of British babies fall in love with dance over the past eight years.
Claire set up her own song and dance academy, Babyballet, in a converted Halifax mill in 2005 and has never looked back.
She now has 50 franchises across the country with almost 10,000 youngsters attending 779 classes, and has won numerous national awards, including ITVs Mumpreneur.
She’s watched her dream of bringing ballet to everyone, not just the elite, grow at an alarming rate, but according to her, her classes have simply been the warm up for something bigger and much more exciting.
Claire’s latest venture is a Babyballet DVD. Like the classes it encourages youngsters to sing and dance.
It was her mum, Barbara Peters, who got her into ballet in the first place. But her experience wasn’t all positive.
The 75-year-old is a traditional ballet teacher who has her own school and still teaches. Claire attended her classes as a child.
“I loved ballet but it didn’t love me. We just didn’t fit together for whatever reason. I was the wrong shape and couldn’t master the moves. It left me with a tremendous lack of self confidence and a very poor body image which followed me through to later life.”
She spotted a gap in the market for a more fun environment which would allow very young children to take part (her classes are for six months to five years).
“I realised there was a need for non-competitive dance classes that not only accepted the best.
“At Babyballet every child is treated as an individual and never made to feel different from the others, whatever their ability.
“Being active from a young age has significant advantages, but classes also give them confidence, makes them feel more positive and they gain independence too. I wish such classes had been around in my day.”
Claire’s two daughters, Claudia, six, and Kitty, four, attend classes and star in the DVD. Her two sons, Charlie, nine, and Harry, 16, are also involved in the business, and Claire is delighted that plenty of boys in the UK have joined the ballet craze too.
She firmly believes that ballet for youngsters is here to stay and regularly gives talks at business conferences across the country about the benefits of dance and running her own business.
“It’s challenging juggling the demands of a family and running a business but I try hard to keep a balance and do the best I can whatever hat I’m wearing.
“It’s manic sometimes but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I feel lucky that I’ve got such a full life.”
Babyballet is all about self awareness says Claire. Learning movement to music helps develop children’s bodies and brain and is quite an advanced skill.
Her aspiration is for her Babyballet characters, Twinkle the Bear, Flutterby the Fairy and Chuck the Cowboy, who are featured in the DVD, to become global children’s favourites.
She’s planning to take them on tour this summer. They have already been asked to take part in a top children’s festival at Easter, which has been organised by CBeebies presenter Alex Winters.
The characters will be performing live in the Big Top alongside some “superstars” in the pre-school TV world, like Mr Bloom and Rastamouse. “This is a massive achievement for us and if it is a success Alex wants us to tour the UK with him,” says Claire.
“It’s got the interactive DVD off to a cracking start. My main mission has always been for pre-school children to have fun while learning to dance. Not everyone can get to a class, so the DVD encourages those who can’t to dance at home.”
The DVD is split into three sections. Class favourites feature the characters and youngsters from her classes singing and dancing. Flutterby and Twinkle also demonstrate the five positions of the feet in ballet and some simple stretching and exercise movements.
The favourite section is a panto style live show which was filmed at Square Chapel, Halifax, last year and involves lots of audience participation. This features singer, actor and comic, Neil Hurst as Granddad Jack.
Neil, who hails from Halifax, has appeared on West End stages and our TV screens. He is currently Vernon Kay’s “sidekick” on ITV’s All Star Family Fortunes. He shows contestants what they have won when they reveal a spot prize.
Claire based Granddad Jack on her dad, Jack, who died in May 2011.
And Claire has some advice for other mums who have a business idea – be positive and go for it.
“Never feel guilty about pursing your own dreams,” she says.
And while she might not be the best ballerina around Claire hopes shortly to have another notch under her belt. She is in training for a triathlon later this year.
Claire O’Connor is holding a red carpet VIP launch of the DVD with all the characters at Babyballet HQ in Square Road, Halifax this Sunday, February 10.
There will be photo opportunities with the characters, singing and dancing and cupcakes and drinks.The event is from 2pm to 4pm and everyone is welcome says Claire.
The DVD is on sale at www.babyballet.co.uk, Babyballet classes and Amazon at £10. It costs £9 at the launch party on Sunday.
Why we’re all born to dance
Babies are born to dance according to a new study.
The research shows babies respond to the rhythm and tempo of music, and find it more engaging than speech.
The findings suggest that humans may be born with a predisposition to move rhythmically in response to music.
The experiment by Finnish researchers was on babies between five months and two years. They were sat on a parent’s lap, and the adults had headphones to make sure they couldn’t hear the music.
The babies moved their arms, hands, legs, torsos and heads in response to music, much more than to speech.
Thought the ability appears to be innate in human, the researchers aren’t sure why it evolved. “It remains to be understood why humans have developed this particular predisposition. One possibility is that it was a target of natural selection for music or that it has evolved for some other function that just happens to be relevant for music processing,” said one researcher.