Today I begin a series of profiles of dancers from all around the world, a series of interviews to inform and showcase the challenges and incredible experiences dance has brought to these dancers and how you to could live these dreams.
Please feel free to comment, share your own experiences but above all, I hope you enjoy the new chapter in MODance!
Born in Rutherglen, Scotland & brought up in notoriously tough Castlemilk, 20-year-old Shaun McLaughlin started dancing at the age of 11. His story is an incredible one, one of loss and surviving and going on to triumph against all the odds. He took the time out of his busy schedule to talk to me.
Shaun, right back in the beginning, what was your initial inspiration to begin dancing?
I never really had an inspiration, it was more like pure chance. My foster mothers granddaughter used to dance in the local community centre, “Castelmilk community centre”, and she used to do disco dancing there. Me and my little sister used to go along every saturday afternoon to watch her dancing and i used to love watching it. I had been going for over a year and just loved watching it, but always from the wings, from the outside sitting with the mothers sons.
My foster-mother Moira had asked me a couple of times if i wanted to dance and initially i just laughed and was like no chance! One day i was in the studio watching, it was a class full of girls, so obviously i was checking out the girls, even at that tender age, the teacher came over to me and it was actually her who was the one who asked if I wanted to join in.
I liked the music that was being played, it was very modern music, pop music, it would get you going, you felt like moving to it so i just joined in the disco class. there was no ballet classes at this stage. From then i started to go back every Saturday, for about 3 or 4 months. I really enjoyed it, i just had a thing for the joy of dancing. It kept me out of trouble, it was a way to channel my energy into something productive. I was maybe about 11 years old so at this point it was just a one-off thing on a saturday, of pure enjoyment, i never thought it would lead to anything else.
You grew up in a notoriously tough place for a boy to grow up by any standards, how was it for you with your peers?
It was very hard at school, first of all because people knew i was in foster care and i didn’t really have a family so i used to get picked on a lot for that kind of thing. When I started dancing it got even harder. The usual comments, “your gay”, “that’s for girls”, “what you doing that for” … the same old things … and even from the parents as well, there used to be some parents that would tell there children to stay away from me purely because i did dancing.
So as a young boy, with all these people challenging and putting you down for simply following what you enjoyed and wanted to do, why did you stick at it? what told you to keep going against everyone’s word?
Thinking back to it now, its kind of mental what clicked in my head to keep me going, 90% of people would simply quit if they where in my position trying to put up with people slating me every day. I just kept going, I was never going to stop for anybody or what someone might have said. I can’t really put a specific thing on it but I just kept going, which obviously im very glad I did because I would never of had so many experiences and met so many amazing people if hadn’t.
You Auditioned for The Dance School of Scotland & Gained a place in the boarding school, tell us about how the change in support and life helped you:
Still to this day it is the strangest experience I have ever had in my life. In the respect that I never ever imagined that I could go to such a school where there where so many talented people and people who had been doing ballet for a long, long time. I had a lot of preconceptions of what people would be like, that they would have a lot of money, you know a family, car, that perfect life that I had never had. It felt out of reach at first.
The audition day, turning up to this prestigious school in a yellow football kit, literally a football top and shorts for a ballet class whilst the other boys in the room where wearing tights and a leotard, was actually a strange and embarrassing feeling. As soon as I heard the piano playing and the music was going, something instantly clicked and I just wanted to move, even although I didn’t have any idea about classical ballet at this point and every one else in the audition had been dancing for a long time. Thinking back it seemed I was enjoying it even more than they where.
It was a pure escape from all the things that had happened in my life so far. I think it was the only thing I had ever done that put a smile on my face and I wouldn’t think about anything else at all.
Those early years where challenging, tell us about how the events that took place shaped you into the man you are now:
I had won a place at the school, being offered the place I took it with both hands and took the jump. I moved to the West-End of Glasgow which for a boy from Castlemilk was like moving to New York. Actually that was the first time I had ever been over that part of the city. I remember pulling up with Moira seeing all these buildings around where the boarding school was, and being like no way, it can’t be here, this is mental its such a different world to the place I grew up in!
My first year at the school was the life changing part in more ways than one.
I was learning to dance properly, I was meeting lots of different people from lots of different backgrounds and different places from all over Scotland, and i was just genuinely having the best time I had every had in my life being there. I remember about half way through my first year i got a phone call from my foster mum, i remember the call like it was yesterday, i remember what she said.
She was being really, really nice to me for some reason, she told me when I was coming home on the Friday that I was to bring home my smart shoes, my black trousers and a shirt. I believed her that we where going for dinner at some posh restaurant or something like that. When I got home at the weekend, my grandmother had turned up and told me that my mother had died.
It didn’t really make sense at first, you know, being 12 years old and hearing that, you don’t think about it, it doesn’t process in your brain. Then the following week, I went to my mothers funeral which is when it started to make sense and everything hit me, what was really going on.
I hadn’t seen my mother since i was 4 years old, 7 or 8 years, still to this day i have never met my father. At that age it still doesn’t make sense, you don’t ask questions about why, how, where, when. You know, the little things you want to know, the things you would want to know if you where older. The only day I took of school was to go to my mothers funeral. I was straight back to school the next day, I remember saying I don’t want to miss my dance classes, which is quite amazing now that i think about it. I just got on with it for the rest of the year.
With these sad events happening in your life, what was it that kept you going?
From about 12-15 I didn’t really think about it, what had happened. That’s when I started to ask questions but nobody would give me any answers. It sent me crazy. I was a bit wild at school, and now that i look back that’s probably the cause of it, I was starting to realize what had happened and just felt like people where not understating me.
I think I was suspended 13 times during that period if I’m right.
Throughout those teenage years up to about 17 I was just off the wall, a loose cannon at times and I had real anger issues because of everything that had happened.
So what was the turning point, at what point did you come around and take your life into your own hands?
When I was in 5th year at The Dance School of Scotland, my last year there, I was starting to discover myself and some of my questions where being answered about my life. What was really happening. I made the conscious choice, that was the year I really made the choice about where I wanted to go next with it.
My best friend Matthew still to this day, ten years on, has helped me through so much when I’ve needed him to be there for me. He’s also a very talented dancer himself. Matthew and his family have always taken me under their wing and always welcomed me into their house, they’ve been very kind to me though the hard times and the good.
I’d seen people from my school go down south to London, Birmingham and further a field. That was my aim, to get to a professional dance college. I auditioned for Elmhurst School for Dance in association with Birmingham Royal Ballet and got a place. It was amazing, that was probably the biggest changing point in my life. Actually getting out of Glasgow and seeing another part of the world I had never been, even though it was just over the border.
Was the move a challenge not having the support you had experienced at home or did you feel prepared?
No, it was the best day of my life. Complete freedom from everything that I knew in Glasgow. There was never a point where I was homesick and I wanted to go home at all, I phoned my family if I needed to but I was fine.
Briefly, tell us about your time at Elmhurst:
The three years at Elmhurst where the three best years of my life, so far. I met so many incredible people there who have helped me to get where I am. I obviously want to mention Desmond Kelly who was my director at school, but who also became my father figure actually and looked after me from day one. Also Errol Pickford who was my ballet teacher for the three years, he really made me the dancer I am today. Watching some of the male dancers at Birmingham Royal Ballet everyday was hugely inspirational, Iain Mackay, Chi Cao and Tyrone Singleton to mention but a few.
In my final year I got to tour to Japan with Birmingham Royal Ballet which was an incredible experience. Again for a boy from Castlemilk to be given that opportunity was incredible, I couldn’t believe it, what an opportunity.
You suffered an injury & after you graduated where unsure where you wanted to go in life, what kept you on track?
I had an operation on my right ankle, quite a normal thing for a dancer nowadays, so sadly I missed quite a lot of auditions through that. That really got me down, I felt as though my dream was slipping away from me at this point. But then I managed to get myself together.
In the summer after I had graduated from the school, I went to australia with my then girlfriend for 7 weeks and during that time I was really considering giving up dance. I was battling with my injury and I lost belief that i could make it. It wasnt until I’d met Tom Carrol (ex-world surf champion), my then girlfriends father, we had a lot in common actually with our lives. His mother died when he was really young and he’d been through his fair share of hard things in life. We really got on and connected and talked about what lay ahead for me. I then just felt completely reborn, reinvigorated, to actually give it one last push. I knew I could be there, i knew i had the drive and the talent. Circumstance had just prevented it from happening in that moment in time.
I came back to Britain and started auditioning in Europe. I came across a company, The Ballet of The Croatian National Theatre in Rijeka, I auditioned and received a contract.
That moment you knew you had made it, you’d got your dream, how did that feel?
Very, very emotional. I got back to England after the audition and got off the plane, the first person I called was Moira, my foster-mother. She didn’t believe me at first, she thought I was joking, but then it hit in and she went mental, we both did! I was walking down the airport terminal with tears in my eyes, I couldn’t believe it.
I called my dance teacher and we did the same thing, he was over the moon for me, he’d seen me grow as a person and was now seeing I had made it, it was really quite an emotional moment for both of us. Then it started to settle in. I did party quite hard, I celebrated with my dance teacher with a bottle of champagne, what an experience that was.
Do you ever wonder what you would be doing now if you where not dancing?
I genuinely recon I would either be in prison or I would be unemployed doing nothing, still in Castlemilk. I was never really engaged in school, academic work didnt inspire me so much, it would have to be one of those two.
You have recently been promoted to 2nd Soloist, on your birthday, tell us about the new chapter & what you’re doing now:
I’d went to the office, there was a new contract sat there and they wanted to put me up a bit! I couldn’t belive it, I just genuinely couldn’t. Some people have to wait years for that kind of thing, it was incredible. It was all happening so fast, complete and utter joy, I couldn’t take the smile of my face that day.
I had so many emotions that day before i knew, a whole new environment, I’d separated from my girlfriend, no family around for my birthday, everything just went out the window, it was amazing.
I’m currently working on The Prince in Cinderella, the lead male role of the ballet. It’s a choreography from Andrei Koteles, very beautiful but extremely challenging at the same time. A lot of partnering, but more importantly its thrilling and that’s exactly why I dance, to do this kind of work and dance these kind of roles is the dream.
What advice would you offer to anyone who is in the same position you where back in the beginning?
The one thing I always try to remember is there is always someone else who is worse off than you. You will never know if you don’t try something, it doesn’t matter whether you want to dance or you want to be a joiner, if you can believe and go for what you want to do, without worrying about consequences, then you will achieve it.
And Finally, what does the future hold in store for you?
I would like to travel the world and dance in as many countries as I can. After I finish dancing I would love to become a dance teacher, probably in Glasgow, and also do a lot of community work with young people outside of dance.
Shaun will be performing with The Ballet of The Croatian National Theatre in Rijeka in Cinderella, for further info on the company and for tickets visit: