Isaac Mullins: why the real-life Billy Elliot wants to take yoga into prisons

From growing up in a working-class community in the UK, to becoming a professional ballet dancer, to teaching yoga, Isaac Mullins talks to us about his personal economic journey
Isaac Mullins performing ballet

My parents were a bohemian couple. We traveled a lot; a great education but a little unstable. I wasn't great at sports. I once faked an asthma attack to get out of cross country. I was living with my mum on a council estate in Norwich but my nan was my big role model. She loved ballet, and when I was 12 she showed me a video of ballet dancing. The men were flying about like Superman. I thought, "I could do that."

Classes cost a couple of pounds. My mum was a bit bemused but was happy for me to go. I was the only boy in the class. I loved the feeling of flying. After two months my teacher took to me to one side and told me I should think about trying out for the Royal Ballet School. I got in on a full scholarship.

The Royal Ballet School was a completely different world. I was a a hippy, open-minded kind of kid, whereas most of those at the school were quite conservative in their behaviour. I would question things, but they told me I was belligerent. I hadn't really rebelled at school, but I couldn't fit in. I was expelled after two-and-a-half years.

Life back at home with my mum was challenging; domestic violence was a problem. For two years I was unemployed, depressed, and getting deeper into trouble. A friend finally told me I would end up in prison if I carried on. I looked at what was happening to my peers and he was right. Ballet felt like a possible way out.

The Central School of Ballet gave me a three-month probation to prove my behaviour had improved. I started seeing a sports psychologist and realised how tormented and angry I was, and how much I needed to learn. I started developing the skills you need to excel in sports, and that's when I found a sponsor who changed everything.

The very system I railed against became my means of support. Anya Evans was a very wealthy former Royal Ballet dancer. She gave me a monthly allowance and paid my rent. She introduced me to yoga. It was the first time I can say I ever felt peace. After two years I was offered places at the Royal Ballet Company and English National Ballet.

The Royal Ballet Company was concerned about my past. It was years later but it was clear I didn't fit the Royal Ballet mould. I suspected it would be a sign of things to come, so I chose the English National Ballet.

On my first day I tried to shake hands with one of the male soloists. He just looked at my hand and laughed. There is a strange class divide in the world of UK ballet. There's a fear of confrontation, hostility comes out sideways. I tried the Birmingham National Ballet but eventually left the UK for the Spanish National Ballet.

Ballet culture in Spain is different. Yes, it is incredibly competitive, but there is also incredible camaraderie, we all helped each other. There were dancers from poorer backgrounds from all over the world.

I was getting some great roles but only yoga gave me the peace I desired. I would hear people talking about going to the ballet and it felt like so many went purely for the prestige, to tell people about it. The rich still sit at the front and the poor still stand at the back. I decided to return to the UK to train as a yoga teacher, and take the feeling it gave me to other people.

Yoga isn't a luxury, it's a necessity. It's all about stilling the mind. We need it in schools, we need it in prisons. It has given me autonomy, a deeper sense of self-respect and my goal is to teach yoga in prisons.

Ballet is changing. Tamara Rojo is a really lovely lady. She’s still the best thing I ever saw, her Rite of Spring. She’s got spirit, she's trying to make big changes. Classical ballet has to change especially with the economy as it is right now, it has to appeal to broader range of people.

Isaac lives and teaches in London, and is about to open his first yoga studio. 

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