Professional dancer, director, choreographer: time came when Donna Schoenherr needed her work to fit in with life as a mother. Ground-breaking – and at times misunderstood – Donna was one of the first to put un-adulterated adult ballet on the map with her company, Ballet4Life.
FOUNDER: Donna Schoenherr
We went to watch her take a ballet class in her studio in leafy West London.
‘I was one of very few people teaching adult ballet. First of all female and as a professional teaching non-professionals I got mocked…I cannot tell you how sorry ex-colleagues teaching vocational ballet felt for me. But it didn’t knock my confidence.’
As entrepreneurs know all too well, announcing your next move can be a vulnerable place to stand. However, smart, witty and the kind of woman you can imagine chatting with over a strong cocktail, possessing a ballerina’s inner strength and a self-confessed rabble-rouser, the doubters simply galvanised her to carry on.
Running at two studios in London, her dance classes are open to all and any level. Banish those memories of creaking pianos and tulle skirts (there are still tights…) but Donna’s classes are relaxed, use i-tunes and both teachers and classmates are incredibly supportive. Choose from pointe, masterclasses, contemporary dance, beginner courses, barre, 16+ and 50+ ballet classes.
The benefits of ballet are well documented – physical strength, agility and focus but then there is the palpable stress relief. Focussing so much on the teacher’s voice, the music, the movement, each student – who are from refreshingly diverse age groups – is entirely focused in the moment. Its hard to replicate that anywhere you can reach a mobile phone. ‘During my whole career I had been learning about the therapeutic capacity of dance via other artists and mentors – I knew you could use dance to help in so many ways.’
Donna’s father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in his early 50s, ‘My father had Parkinson’s for over 30 years – that was part of my life – so I always had one ear to the ground about Parkinson’s and dance. I went to all the classes and appointments with him and was immersed in all the things he was doing.’ As symptoms of Parkinson’s can include poor balance and a lack of coordination, participation in classes can help alleviate these conditions.
Then Donna was approached by one of her clients who had the disease. ‘I had a fabulous teacher, Beatrice, and I wanted her to learn the real thing so I sponsored her to learn with David Leventhall.’ David taught at the New York City based Mark Morris Dance Group which teaches people with Parkinson’s and offers teacher training courses.
Launched in January 2014 and born of passion, determination and late nights, ‘Move Into Wellbeing’ gained registered charity status in April 2015.
‘After so much hard work when we launched, we worried no-one would come. But we needn’t have. It was packed. Those first classes were devastatingly powerful – seeing the suffering then relief – we realised the big responsibility we had.’
Not just for those with Parkinson’s, Donna’s clients include people with ME and MS, who have suffered strokes, or are waiting for joint replacements.
‘It is an incredible experience to give these classes to people. It is a legacy to the courage and strength that I witness and to my family and my father.’
So, if you’re near West London, go and say hi to Donna, take a class and set your inner ballerina free.
What is – or has been – your greatest struggle? Watching and living with the ravaging effects of a progressive neurological disease on my father. My father was a scientist and artist and was extremely fit and physically coordinated. (college basketball, sporty, all-rounder) To view his struggle, decline, and fight against this disease was harrowing and to accept it as my struggle as well was gut wrenching.
What did you want to be when you were growing up? A dancer, actress, writer, artist, political figure, choreographer, dance company director.
Best advice ever received and from whom? When I had an unfair dismissal… an older wiser esteemed arts administrator said to me “you are not much until you get fired once! It changes things.” It was such a different way to view life, the situation at hand, and it gave me great strength.
Who do you most admire? Strong independent thinking creative people, compassionate people, risk takers who are not egotists, any female who retains authenticity and integrity and becomes successful doing what they love or positively influencing the world.
What keeps you up at night? All the nagging worries that come being one’s own boss, running a charity and an independent dance organisation, and the state of world affairs!
When were you happiest? Camping and running freely as a child with my family. Performing on stage in a beautiful dance work. Becoming a parent. Creating an art piece I like. Time alone with my husband.
Favourite object you possess? Special stones and shells gathered on travels, some of my father’s award-winning photos, and carved painted wooden box from a childhood visit to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse? Apparently, I say “Do you know what I mean?” a great deal!
What is the most important lesson life has taught you? Try not to enter situations with a sense of the world being fair/just/right. It isn’t really fair but lift oneself out of that preconceived limiting notion and keep one’s thinking open and that perseverance really does pay off!
What is your guiltiest pleasure? Red wine.
What change do you hope for in your lifetime? For racism and all other negative ism’s are eradicated and that children are taught tolerance for those different from what they are familiar with in primary schools.
Who might help you next? My network of supporters behind Ballet4Life and Move into Wellbeing® and my circle of “wise elders.” I turn to them when I feel too challenged or need their advice, wisdom. and anecdotes. They are very generous and I am extremely grateful for their friendships.
Please recommend a brilliant female-led brand or business you have used
recently. Sadly, I cannot think of any! My BFF will be launching her online shop soon, hautlieb, which is for all natural skin and body care products privately sourced from small eco independent producers in Crete. I will use those.