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Having the Time of Her Life

Having the Time of Her Life

5 January 2011

Charlie Bruce talks to Lucinda Hennessy about her career so far

Charlie Bruce, a 20 year old dancer from Leicester, is now a well-known face in the dance industry thanks to last year’s win on Series 1 of the BBC’s So You Think You Can Dance. As a result of this, Charlie can now be seen in London’s West End making her professional debut in Dirty Dancing – The Classic Story on Stage at the Aldwych Theatre.
From a young age Charlie knew she was born to perform: “I woke up one morning and I knew I was meant to dance, sing and act. I felt a certain something inside me that made me dance whenever I heard music.” Inspired by her mother and grandmother to pursue a career in dance, Charlie started going to classes at the age of seven, taking all her examinations in Modern and Tap with the ISTD.

Showing a keen interest in Contemporary and Jazz dance styles, she went on to attend The Arts Educational School Tring Park and Laine Theatre Arts where she trained with Ruth Armstrong and Betty Laine OBE among others. “My relationship with my dance teachers was very special and I felt very close to a few of them. To this day I have amazing relationships with them as I have grown up.”

Charlie first heard about the BBC TV dance competition, So You Think You Can Dance, in The Stage newspaper and decided to apply as she was not getting noticed at auditions.

She says, “This was my chance to show the UK what I could really do. When Cat Deeley called my name out and said I had won the Crown of Britain’s Favourite Dancer I just couldn’t believe it! I was shocked, then it kicked in that I had won £100,000, then I realised that I’d really done it.” But Charlie’s feet are firmly placed on the ground; with her prize money she first bought a flat with her partner and the rest she spoiled her family with. Part of the prize was to perform on the US series finale of the programme: “Performing to the US was magical. I loved LA and one day I’m thinking of moving out there. The US audience was very loud and excited to see a British winner.  I was privileged to dance out there.”

Now appearing in the ensemble as Gina and understudying the principal role of Baby on the West End stage in Dirty Dancing, Charlie considers this opportunity “a dream come true”. Her advice for other young girls trying to get into the industry is “to follow your dream and never let go of it.” However, great dancing is not Charlie’s only talent; she now hopes to secure a record deal either as a solo singer or in a girl group, and is currently pursuing a big film starting in May 2011.

Learning so much about Charlie and her dance background, we went along to support her at a performance of Dirty Dancing on a cold November evening. There are posters up all across London at present featuring a full-length image of Charlie as Gina, as part of the cast line-up in the show, in which she performs alongside Ray Quinn, another personality who found fame on screen.

As soon as the heart-thumping drum beats of ‘This Magic Moment’ opened the show, we knew we were in for a treat. Most of the audience members will no doubt already be familiar with the story, characters and music from the original 1987 film but it was interesting to learn from the programme how 20 new scenes and 25 new songs have been added in order to re-imagine Dirty Dancing for the three-dimensional live stage. The writer of the film, Eleanor Bergstein describes this transition: “Our story allows us to approach dance in the theatre in a new way.

For many of our characters, dance is how they make meaning in their lives, and so the dancing in our show comes out of the story and finds its power in individual expression and discovery. Kate Champion’s original choreography uses the movements of everyday life. In Kate’s dances, each performer is usually following out an individual personal line, rather than the traditional unison dancing of much musical theatre.”

The ensemble dancers set such a high standard from the start, with Charlie taking centre stage right from her first entrance. In fact Charlie was often set at the front of the action in most scenes and stood out as one of the stronger dancers of the cast. Her technique was solid throughout and her spins and kicks precise and dynamic. Effortlessly thrown around by her partner, she exuded an electric stage presence and the challenging choreography showed off her energy and flexibility. The figure-hugging costumes and impactful lighting added to the sensual atmosphere of the ‘dirty dancing’ scenes and it was easy to see why the show “oozes sex appeal” (Evening Standard). The clever staging helped move the story along fluidly and judging by the whoops from the audience, particularly in the famous final scene where Johnny protests about putting Baby in a corner, it was clear the audience enjoyed their experience, as much it seemed as the cast enjoyed entertaining us.

We caught up with two of Charlie’s dance teachers, Ruth Armstrong and Betty Laine OBE, who told us what it was like to teach Charlie in the early stages of her dance training.

Ruth Armstrong:

“As one of Charlie’s first teachers at Tring Park I taught her for Modern and Tap when she joined as a 10 year old prep.

Charlie was this little fireball with a mass of curls. She arrived as a bundle of energy with a huge facility and natural ability for dance. She was always a pleasure to teach and very much at home in the studio or on stage.

In the junior school the children study Classical Ballet, Modern and Tap alongside training in drama, singing and music. As Charlie progressed to upper school I also taught her Jazz and the ISTD Modern and Tap vocational grades whilst in addition she studied Contemporary, Classical Ballet and pas de deux. I was fortunate to teach her at various times throughout her training and relished seeing her progress from a young prep until she left at 16 to continue her training. It was a personal pleasure to see her continue to flourish at Laine Theatre Arts and having myself been a former student of the college, I knew Miss Laine would guide her well!

Right from a young age Charlie showed a real determination to succeed and was never shy to explore her skills as a dancer and performer. She had a lovely infectious personality and confidence coupled with a calm conscientious work ethic. Charlie was often the one who took the bold steps when facing a new challenge but always acknowledged that she was surrounded by many talented and determined dancers and had a true respect for her contemporaries and peers.

With every student you hope that they will have a successful career and reach their potential. With Charlie there was just ‘something about her’ that made you realise from day one that she would make her mark as a performer. She showed she was passionate and wanted to succeed. As teachers it is our role to nurture and train but with students like Charlie they just have that natural empathy and ability or, if you like ‘X factor’ , and that is the bit we just can’t teach.

We were delighted to see not only Charlie but also two other former Tring Park graduates in the show [BBC’s So You Think You Can Dance], Drew McOnie and Alistair Postlethwaite. To say Tring was buzzing was probably an understatement and all Tring students present and past, as well as staff, were glued on Saturday nights. I was delighted to be invited by Charlie to be there for the first live show at the BBC and subsequently the final. Having seen her as a student and kept in touch when she left to join Laine Theatre Arts, I was so proud to be there for such a defining moment in her life. In particular it was a special moment to watch her perform on the final show a stunning lyrical pas de deux which she danced with Drew McOnie. The two of them have been close friends for many years and knowing them so well it was quite emotional to see their connection in their performance. Obviously I was delighted, along with all at Tring, when she won and could not have been more proud. I felt she had made such a journey and grown in her maturity in the way she responded to the challenges and critiques that were given by the choreographers and judges throughout the weeks of the show.

Having followed the US version of So You Think You Can Dance, it has been fantastic to see the programme arrive in the UK and give the opportunity for dance to be profiled in the public eye. From the reactions of the students at Tring I can see how important it is for them to see former students, who have followed the same training, realise their dreams. Following the show we were delighted to be visited by Charlie, Drew and Alistair, and there were many opportunities for the junior and senior students to ask questions and hear their experiences and above all their advice. There was a lovely moment when Charlie first came back to see us and was immediately surrounded by a huge group of much younger preps and junior pupils all wanting photos and autographs. Although quite overwhelming, Charlie made time for them all and in her lovely, gracious way acknowledged “…that was me once!” I hope that each young budding dancer will continue to look up to people like Charlie and be inspired to work hard and pursue their dreams.

With all students, as teachers we only have them for a period of time and then send them on with every hope they will succeed in life. Charlie will always be a memorable student and after several years as her teacher it is lovely to continue to keep in contact and remain a friend and confidante. It will be pleasure to continue to follow her career and hope she will still remember a few corrections and words of wisdom from Miss Armstrong and her early days at Tring!

Charlie is just at the start of her career and will, I am sure, have many more exciting opportunities to come. I know she will take each day at a time and embrace the challenges, highs and lows that come with a career in performing arts. Above all Charlie, continue to enjoy what life brings you. Be tru to yourself and always be willing to learn!”

Ruth Armstrong, FISTD Examiner, Jazz, Modern and Tap Faculty at Tring Park School for the Performing Arts

Betty Laine OBE:

“Charlie successfully auditioned for me having received her former training at Tring Park. It was apparent from the outset that she had a special talent and that with the right opportunities presented to her she would be successful in her chosen career. Charlie told me that her ambition was to appear in the West End and as her training blossomed she never wavered from that.

Appearing in and winning So You Think You Can Dance gave her great exposure and
by that time, she was ready to take advantage of such a great opportunity. Enjoying her performance at the television studios was exciting, particularly as she had retained her high standard of technique and lost none of her youthful charm. She has since paid visit to Laine Theatre Arts and it is an inspiration for our students to hear that success is obtainable with hard work and passion. We do, of course, keep in touch and all at Laine Theatre Arts look forward to following her future career with pride.”

Betty Laine OBE, Principal of Laine Theatre Arts

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