Could you possibly imagine signing up and paying for school and being told that you can stay if you lose weight within six months? That’s what Jessica Bell was faced with. Many people suffer because of the ideals that other people hold true. However, in Jessica’s case, she fought against these ideals and set her own standards and allowed nothing to stop her from dancing. She has her own dance academy where students of all ages are given the opportunity to embrace the passion of dance and learning that if that’s all that matters to them (that passion), then that’s all that matters.
As a dancer with Big Ballet UK, Jessica continues to prove that talent and skill is not limited to size. She speakers with us about her insights, her challenges and her life.
Jessica, when did you start dancing? How old were you?
I began dancing aged three, studying ballet tap modern and gymnastics.
What did dance do for you as a person?
Dance allows me to express feelings/emotions that may be too difficult to express in another way. Dance also makes me feel at ease. It’s enjoyable, fun, hard work and very rewarding.
What has your dance career been like throughout your life?
I began dancing as a petite blonde little girl with what would have been described as the perfect ballet body. I had the flexibility others dreamt of, the timing, the musicality and the passion. Then as I got older, I was taller than everyone else, and began only getting the male role in duets, and was put towards the back of group pieces as I always looked a lot older than my age group.
As I hit puberty and adolescence I gained hips and a more womanly figure. I’d cut bread and carbs to try and control the size of my stomach. One day during a dance competition when I was 15 I did a gymnastic move and my stomach was stuck out – my mother thought I was pregnant and after many arguments about it not being physically possible, it was discovered I had an ovarian cyst. It had to be operated on immediately as the cyst was so large. After draining 8 liters of fluid from the cyst it still weighed 21lb (hence the large stomach).
I still wanted of dance, I applied to theatre school and was accepted but under the proviso I lost weight within the first 6 months. Then my place would become permanent. Unfortunately I had another cyst and this continued every 5 months until the age of 18 when I fell pregnant with my daughter. And that was to end my dance career until I went to university.
You are the founder and an instructor at the Black Swan Performance Academy. Please tell us about the school and why you started it?
I started the Black Swan Academy for a number of reasons. After attending dance school and believing you had to be a certain size and weight to succeed in a career in dance, I got involved with Big Ballet. This brought along a whole new way of thinking. I remember being younger and bigger than other girls but could jump and turn and twirl and interpret music just as well and in some cases better. But, yet everything boiled down of size, and I wanted to open a dance school that no matter how big or small old or young you were, I wanted dance ability or suitability to be recognised as a passion, not on appearance.
Another reason is after having my daughter I wanted to return to dance, but there was nothing in the area for older dancers. Anyone who dances knows, yes you get older and bones get creakier, but the desire to dance never leaves you, so I now have a very successful adult ballet and tap class within the school also.
Obviously your size never stopped you from dancing, but did it stop you from having the kind of professional dance career you wanted? If so, please talk about your feelings about that.
Whereas my size didn’t stop my passion for dance, it did however stop my suitability for a professional dance career. I would have loved to have been performing on a large stage every night like the one we performed on for the final performance in Big Ballet. Maybe having things been different and I didn’t have medical complications I may have had that flat stomach and a dance career, instead I am a mummy :)
You were chosen as the Black Swan character for Big Ballet. Why do you think you were given that role?
I believe in Big Ballet I came across as a hard faced individual, and like my mum describes me – an ice queen. The fact of the matter is I, as every human being does, have a lot of built up emotions, angers, personal battles with myself that I find easier to express through dance rather than storming out and crying, like others prefer to do. I have an awful lot to be thankful to Wayne and Monica for, for believing in me, and helping me overcome personal barriers with acting and portraying emotion facially. It took a lot for me to build up the confidence or perform the role of the black swan. I think there has always been an inner diva inside me and a sexy Jess trying to get out!!
For those who don’t know much about ballet, what is the Black Swan character’s story?
The black swan in Swan Lake is the evil wizard Rothbarts daughter. Rothbarts uses the black swan to entice the prince away from the innocent white swan. The black swan is a very sultry, sexy, evil and manipulative character.
Because you are actively dancing, did you have to work hard to be up to the Big Ballet performance standards?
I think during Big Ballet because I had just finished 3 years at university studying dance, I had the stamina required, although contemporary Dance and ballet use completely different muscles! As I had done so much ballet before I had to work extremely hard to reprogram my body to adapt to the Russian style ballet.
Was there ever a point where you wanted to give up?
I honestly loved the experience, and would continue full time with it if it was financially viable.
Why did you even decide to audition for Big Ballet?
I decided or audition for big ballet, as I had just finished university and wanted audition experience. I did not think for one minute a girl with bright red hair would be suitable for a ballet performance or company. I remember there was as seal attempts at sending the initial application off, as I wasn’t overly confident.
What did Big Ballet do you for you? How has the challenge impacted your life?
Big ballet has proved for me if that you put your mind to something you can achieve anything. Alongside Big Ballet I was working full time and also being a single parent, the training took its toll, but made me realise even though I am a mum I can still do things for me as well. It is amazing the amount of support we have received from the programme and it’s supporters.
Is the school and dance your full time profession?
Unfortunately not, I am still firmly routed and still have a full time job alongside the school. In the future I hope dance will be my main source of income.
You are also a dancer with Fosse. What are you doing with that?
I am performing in a production of Fosse, showcasing the talents of choreographer and dancer Bob Fosse. This differs from the ballet I have been doing with Daniel Jones and Big Ballet, but it brings out the show dancer in me. I love most styles of dance. I love a challenge!
What would you say to anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps but shies away from their dancing dreams because they think they are not good enough or not the right size?
Never give up, my mum has always told me if you want something bad enough you’ll go out there and get it. This may be my stubborn side but that’s exactly what I did and will continue doing.
Is this the life that you dreamed of? If not, how does it differ and what can you do to make it more in line with what you were looking for in life?
I always dreamed of being a dancer, I never thought it would be in ballet to be honest! However I am embracing all of the challenges being thrown at me and so far I am keeping up :) I think I share a lot of peoples dreams, and that’s to be healthy, not overly wealthy, and most of all happy with the life you lead.
Jessica is on twitter @jessbigballet