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Graceful steps

For Ann Toner, who teaches ballet at the Russian Cultural Centre, the dance form is a way of life. A profile.

SHE MAY not have elaborate stage shows to her credit and her students may have taken up the art more as a hobby or a physical fitness exercise. Yet Ann Toner, whose passion for ballet is immeasurable, says that for her life revolves round dance — ballet — to be specific. It is this love for the graceful art form that has made Ann a dedicated teacher of ballet at the Russian Cultural Centre for more than a decade now.

Ann began to learn ballet at the age of 16. "It was a rather late start... but I got an opportunity only after I came to Chennai, and I grabbed it." She had not decided then whether it was going to be a pastime or her profession. She only knew that she had to pursue it. Probably this burning desire for ballet is in her genes. "My mother was very artistically inclined and she was my inspiration," she reminisces.

Of course, Ann has a very different perspective of the age factor in ballet learning now. "So many years in the line have taught me that beginning at the age of five, 15, 25 or even 30 matters little. It is the interest, effort and the dedication that make the difference. "I have students whom I was initially apprehensive about, doing wonderfully. Even at the age of 35, they are able to do the exercises remarkably. Everything depends on the mindset. If you are mentally attuned to the art age is not a deterrent, but beginning at a young age is definitely better," she says. Any way the first two years of training include simple, non-taxing ballet exercises.

Chennai was not a happening city in those days — at least as far as ballet was concerned. Of course, today it is a totally different scene. In those days, The Russian Cultural Centre was the only place where you could learn the dance. Four years of training and Ann began to teach ballet at the Centre. Did the learning and teaching go on simultaneously then? "In a way. Yet till today I consider myself a learner too. There's never an end to learning and every experience in life is a part of it," is the ballerina's philosophical reply.

Originally called the Galina Ulanova School of Ballet, the dance school at the Russian Cultural Centre has been renamed since, because the training today encompasses contemporary dance forms too. That is because though the training is still ballet based, the style is more on the lines set by Martha Graham of the U.S., who evolved various styles that comprise slightly angular postures, unique techniques and marked contortions. The teaching now involves jazz, pop, and other modern dance forms. Ann constantly updates herself on these forms. "Today, access to the required material is there just at the click of a button. The net gives us enough literature to work on ... " Ann avers. And then there is the ever-available audio and video paraphernalia.

The duration of the entire ballet course is seven years. At the end of each year, students take a test, which is entirely practical because not many who come to learn are interested in the theory aspect of the dance. For them, it is more of a physical training, like say aerobics, to keep fit. Ballet, says Ann, helps the learner gain a perfect posture, tones up muscles and tightens them, besides making you focussed and relaxed. And thus it could be a perfect training ground for aspiring models. Two hours a week is enough for a beginning. But once you decide to take it up seriously, a lot of hard work is imperative.

"I am amazed at the way film choreographers, especially in Tamil films, use ballet in cinema so beautifully ... the grace and charm it lends to the numbers is unbelievable," says Ann.

Initially, Ann had not been keen on presenting shows with her students because she felt that there was not much public awareness or enthusiasm for ballet in Chennai. But things have changed. No more is the Russian Cultural Centre the only place in the city that offers ballet classes. Many such schools have come up now. "Also people wanted us to have a ballet show in between a beauty pageant or a fashion show. But that way, I felt the dance would not get the attention or encouragement it deserves," she says.

So apart from the annual day celebrations at the Cultural Centre, her boys and girls have not been giving performances outside in the formal sense. But with the growing interest in the dance form Ann is doing a lot of rethinking now. "I have begun to feel that with such abundant talent, it is only fair that my students get a proper platform to perform for the city's discerning crowd which has begun to appreciate the beauty of ballet," she concludes. Therefore it may not be long before Ann Toner and her band of capable students come up with a public show — one that is bound to be a veritable treat for connoisseurs.

MALATHI RANGARAJAN

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