A ballet dancer from West Watford has returned home after four years of tuition at the world famous Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Russia.
Natalie Carter is one of only five people from Britain to be given a place at the school, and after completing her exams, will graduate later this year.
At 15 she was spotted by a former Bolshoi principal dancer while performing at the Gypsy Booth dance school and was offered a place at the Moscow-based academy.
As well as completing an unforgiving programme of dance tuition, Ms Carter also had to manage academic study, as well as learning the Russian language.
The 20-year-old said: “The opportunity to study the profession you love, among those at the top of their game, while inhaling a new culture and throwing in a new language on top of it all, was not one to pass up. I am so thankful for being privileged enough to receive it.”
Unlike many of her peers, as a teenager Ms Carter studied at Watford Girls Grammar School, gaining 8 A*s and 4 As at GCSE, before taking up dancing full time.
She danced during her leisure time at the Gypsy Booth school, and by 15-years-old was presented with the choice of going university, or following her dancing dream.
She reached the final stages of auditions at English National and Royal Ballet, and was offered a place at Central School of Ballet with a scholarship. However, it was at this time that Svetlana Adyrkhaeva, formerly of the Bolshoi, saw Ms Carter dance and advised her to audition for the academy.
Ms Carter said: "Having not been involved in the dancing world from a young age I found adapting to my new environment and work ethic extremely difficult.
“Even the smallest things, like not being allowed to talk and have a giggle with your friends in class, or having the topic of weight loss be the normal morning conversation, took months to adapt to.
“I felt like I was made to grow up extremely quickly; and while I think that was a great thing, and now I am extremely independent, I also look at it with some regret as I missed some of my fun, rebellious teenage years that my English friends were allowed to experience while I was away.
“As much as I envy them for this, nothing could compare to the past four years at the Bolshoi.”
A typical day at the academy started at 9am, and often did not finish until 6.30pm. As well as an hour and a half of ballet practice, students were taught Russian for up to two hours.
The afternoons consisted of academic lessons in a variety of subjects, including history of Russia, ballet, theatre, Russian and musical literature, and classes in philosophy, psychology and life studies. After that came practical lessons in acting.
Ms Carter said: “The most difficult thing, other than the obvious daily struggles of trying to improve your ballet technique, was being away from my family.
“I used to get so upset and homesick when I saw photographs taken of my friends enjoying a party or day out, and likewise with my family at reunion occasions.
“This experience has showed me how important and valuable my family are to me. It has definitely made me appreciate them more, particularly my mum.”
Sue Carter, Natalie’s mother, said she was very proud of her daughter’s hard work, and the top marks she gained in both her academic and dance exams.
She added: “Natalie is her own harshest critic and her biggest fault is not to accept compliments. “It hasn’t been easy watching your daughter go through trials and tribulations from afar and not being able to comfort her when required.
“I hope now she will enjoy her achievement and start to believe in herself, and obtain her ultimate goal of a position within a dance company.”
Ms Carter said she was starting to look for auditions later this year, in order to gain a dancing contract in 2014.
She added: “Along with receiving amazing training and experiences, I have unfortunately acquired a lot of self doubt and confidence issues.
“Being surrounded by these amazing dancers takes its toll on your confidence and I was silly enough to let this overwhelm me and eat me up.
“In order to battle it, I did not audition this year. I am taking a year to study at the London Russian Ballet School in Clapham.
“I hope that along with more training, I will also find confidence and a want to perform in front of others without trembling about how they will react or judge me.
“I cannot thank my friends here in Moscow for the support they have given me. I love you all and cannot explain how hard it will be not to see your faces in the corridors and in my room every evening.
“To everyone who has helped me both big and small thank you very much and I hope I have made you all proud and will continue to do so.”