Building a ballet legacy

MICHELE Cleaver-Wilkinson says ballet teachers have a reputation for being fierce disciplinarians, but the lessons at her Swan River Ballet School fly in the face of stereotype.

“I remember when I was young I had a little Russian lady as my ballet teacher — she would walk around with a cane,” Ms Cleaver-Wilkinson says.

“I wanted my ballet school to feel relaxed.

“I want the girls to be self-motivated by the love of dancing and not fear.”

• Michele Cleaver-Wilkinson with a picture of her ballet-dancing Aunty Avie. Photos by Koro Brown

The old Newmarket Hotel in Hamilton Hill — once a buzzing rabble of horse trainers, wharfies and foundry workers — had been derelict for about 17 years when Ms Cleaver-Wilkinson decided to spend millions transforming the 1912 property into a stunning ballet school.

“The hardest thing is that everyone still thinks it’s a pub,” she says.

“When we first looked at it, everything was boarded up.”

The dance teacher spent over a year painstakingly refurbishing the hotel, restoring old leadlight windows, removing giant bee hives and installing electrics and plumbing.

Passion

The passion for dance runs in the family and for over 100 years ballet has been handed down the generations by “Auntie Avies”.

“My daughter is named after my Aunty Avie and Aunty Avie was named after her Aunty Avie, who in this photo was 15,” Ms Cleaver-Wilkinson says.

“You can see in the photo she’s wearing ballet shoes.

“Two of my children have gone into dancing: one went into a company and one became a teacher.”

• Michele Cleaver-Wilkinson at the renovated Swan River Ballet School.

Prior to teaching ballet, Ms Cleaver-Wilkinson was a university lecturer and has a masters in public health and a diploma in applied science.

The family was living in Karratha at the time and did not have access to a dance school that taught the correct curriculum.

“That’s when my eldest daughter talked me into setting up my first school there,” Ms Cleaver-Wilkinson says.

“She was 19 and I was around 40.”

Ms Cleaver-Wilkinson travelled back and forth to Melbourne to complete her training and became a registered teacher.

She then opened a dance academy in Karratha, teaching 300 students a year in ballet, character, jazz, tap, hip hop and contemporary.

Dancing

“When my daughter was eight she said she wanted to quit dancing and I said well you’re not going to see me because I’m always teaching, so she continued,” she says.

“Now if she doesn’t dance for one day; it’s a bad day for her.”

The Swan River Ballet School teaches the Royal Academy of Dance curriculum to pre-school, kids and adults.

Ms Cleaver-Wilkinson has been teaching for 17 years and is not planning on stopping any time soon.

“It’s all about the joy of dance,” she says, with that trademark sparkle in her eye.

The SRBS is at 1 Rockingham Road (Hamilton House) in Hamilton Hill.

by KORO BROWN

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