They share the same birthday and a love of ballet.
And earlier this year the pair hit the headlines when they took part in the controversial but highly-acclaimed Channel 4 documentary, Big Ballet, about a troupe of plus-size amateur ballerinas.
Now Calderdale dance academy owner Claire O’Connor and her ballet idol, Wayne Sleep, OBE, are to be reunited when Wayne visits Halifax this month.
National treasure Wayne is famous for being the shortest male dancer ever admitted into the Royal Ballet . He is 5ft 2in and has performed with everyone from Rudolf Nureyev to Princess Diana. Many experts believe his latest venture, Big Ballet, which Claire starred in, was his boldest move yet however.
It gave a refreshing glimpse into a rarefied world obsessed with size. Ballet dancers are typically size 6-8, while the Big ballet dancers ranged from a size 12 to 26. Critics called it heart-warming, a masterpiece, a triumph over adversity and compelling viewing, and the three-part documentary has now been sold to an American TV company and will soon be shown all over the world.
Wayne is the guest speaker at song and dance academy babyballet’s annual conference on Saturday, May 31, at babyballet’s head office in Empire House, Mulcture Hall Road. Forty-year-old mum-of-four Claire set up the company in 2005 and it is now the UK’s leading pre-school dance concept. She has 60 franchisees across the country, with over 10,000 youngsters attending over 1,000 classes per week, and both Claire and babyballet have won numerous awards.
Claire claims taking part in Big Ballet was the most uplifting and inspiring experience of her life and she was so inspired by Wayne, who trained the dancers with Irish ballerina Monica Loughman, she wanted all 60 women who work with her to meet him, so she invited him to speak at the conference.
“I was absolutely thrilled when he agreed to come along and speak, and the franchisees are so excited. The conference usually centres around brand development, policies, procedures and IT but this year our celebrity guest will bring something else which will be very special. Wayne Sleep is one of the biggest names in ballet, not just in this country, but throughout the world, and he is so knowledgeable and passionate about ballet. I am looking forward to hearing him speak and pass on his wisdom and enthusiasm to all our franchisees,” says Claire who lives in Greetland with husband, Chris.
Wayne says he is the one honoured to be meeting women who love ballet and dance as much as he does. “I am delighted to be rekindling my friendship with Claire, attending the babyballet conference, meeting the franchisees and learning more about the work of the company.”
During rehearsals for Big Ballet Claire celebrated her 40th birthday and Wayne turned 65 on July 17, 2013. “He was told to give up ballet because of his height and I gave up ballet because of my weight but we both went on to live the dream,” says Claire.
She attended classes as a child with her mum, Barbara Peters, but discovered ballet and she didn’t fit because she was the wrong shape. She gave up at 14 and it left her with a lack of self confidence and poor body image. She spotted a gap in the market for non-competitive dance classes that not only accepted the best and started babyballet.
She has spent the last nine years spreading the word that ballet can be enjoyed by everyone and says this is exactly the message Big Ballet portrayed. “Ballet doesn’t have to be just for those who are stick thin – ballet really can be for all shapes and sizes.” She achieved so much from taking part, she has now started ballet classes for adults to encourage women who gave up on ballet because of weight to come back, and women who have never tried ballet to give it a go.
Wayne says he can’t believe how Big Ballet touched so many hearts. “I’ve lost count of the number of women who have thanked me for helping make the programme and highlighting what goes on at ballet classes. No one has a right to tell a child they can’t go to a dance class. I think one of the messages we got across was don’t put up with bullying. “
He is the first to admit he has always been anti-establishment and is proud of how the Big Ballet dancers overcame the odds. “A lot of them including Claire had issues around dance. I was tough on them but got them to believe in themselves. Claire felt sick during filming because of nerves but I told her it was perfectly natural. All the best dancers in the world suffer from nerves before a performance.”
The Big Ballet group has set up its own Facebook page and intends to continue performing and Wayne has got them a gig in London in August. The group now has its own choreographer, Daniel Jones, who has exciting plans for the future.
Wayne, who has performed at The Victoria Theatre, Halifax, on several occasions, is a patron of the British Ballet Organisation and vice-president of the Royal Academy of Dance. He has two entries in the Guinness Book of Records and has appeared on numerous TV shows including Stepping Out, Strictly Dance Fever, I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here, Come Dine With me and Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway.
He’s busy renovating his new London home – on the banks of The Thames – at the moment, and later this year is off to America to teach. He’s also back on our TV screens in July in a popular TV series which is far removed from the world of dance. It’s hush hush at the moment.
He has always had a passion for encouraging youngsters to dance and runs the Wayne Sleep Foundation which provides scholarships for talented youngsters to further their training in all areas of theatre and dance. He also runs workshops all over the country for children. He’s the first to admit he’s still a big kid at heart. His nickname at the Royal Ballet was Pocket Apollo.