Elia Luyando: ballet mistress

11 Dec

Everyone on Islington Faces Blog has a story. Elia Luyando’s life has been filled with travel and adventure thanks to her great skill as a dancer. She’s lived in Mexico city, Cuba and New York; taught in Japan and is now settled in London teaching dance and raising a family. So how did she end up in Islington? Interview by Nicola Baird

Elia Luyano: xx

Elia Luyando: offering cakes to her interviewer (very welcome!).

Elia Luyando was born in Mexico but thanks to her passion for dance, and a scholarship, studied ballet in Havana, Cuba from 12 to 15 years – the drawback was that she was only able to see her family once each year. But she came home to Mexico to dance and spent the next 20 years as a professional dancer working in Mexico as well as New York and  Japan… Eventually she ended up in London where she teaches full time at the Central School of Ballet on Herbal Hill, EC1 (teaching 2nd year ladies and acting as the Ballet Mistress for 3rd Years).

Dancing may be a constant in Elia’s life, but since the early 2000s, so too is Islington. Elia married at Islington Town Hall in 2004. In 2011 she also celebrated her Citizenship Ceremony in the borough.

“Taking the UK citizenship test was the right thing to do,” says Elia in her super-tidy N5 kitchen where she lives with her husband, Bill Cooper, the renowned opera/dance photographer. Their school-aged sons are busy with homework and there are cakes for the interview on this wet November evening.

“My family is from here,” says Elia simply as she explains why she wanted to become a UK citizen. “I’d been trying so hard to belong and to fit in. But on the day of the ceremony by chance my parents were over from Mexico. My dad is 78, and I could see he was a bit over-whelmed, this was one more thing away from Mexico. But the ceremony was special; it was attended by the Mayor, and I have lovely photos.”

Elia speaks English with a delicious accent. She is perceptive, kind and warm. I’ve known her since her sons and my two daughters attended Drayton Park Primary School, but until now I didn’t realise she’d had such an eventful dancing life.

“I started ballet in Mexico when I was seven. Instead of TV my mother used to dance for us,” she explains. “Then when I was 12 Mexico and Cuba had a cultural exchange, so Cuba, which had a fabulous ballet school in Havana, offered scholarships. There were nine of us Mexican girls aged between 12 and 15. I was 12.

Living in Cuba
“It was a big change – a different country and communist. There were no telephones, and the post took a month. My family could not get visas. Once a year they would come over for a tour and my mum would slip away from the tour to stay with me.  But it was special, the nine of us were a group. We worked so hard that we were trained in three years. At 15 I graduated and went back to Mexico City where I joined the National Dance Company waiting for us.

“I joined as they were getting ready for the Royal Ballet version of Sleeping Beauty. I was so young, so although I was desperate to be on stage, my first role was as a mouse. My mother came to see me, but with my big head and tail she didn’t know which mouse I was!”

Eventually Elia danced everything in the Company – mouse, lady-in-waiting, guard and swan – becoming a soloist from 1994-99.  “It was a good career,” she says modestly.

It wasn’t as simple as it seems on paper though, because at 18 things fell apart.

“At 18 I decided that was enough of dancing. I wanted to be a normal young woman,” says Elia smiling at her younger self. “I wanted to go to college (in Mexico there is a three year pre-university course) and study in school the whole day with my mates, then go to the parties in the evening.” She enjoyed the studying, but: “After a year trying this, I realised it was silly. I needed ballet.” It was a shock to discover she had to audition to get back into the company.

Since then she’s done ballet every day. In order to develop her contemporary dance knowledge, Elia decided to get to know the Limon Technique, one of the most important American modern dance schools, better.  In 1998 she went to stay with Limon’s company in New York for six months – a move which subsequently led her to become teacher and Director’s assistant of the National Dance Company, Mexico.

Elia with one of husband Bill Cooper's photos for a Royal Opera House ballet. CHECK

Elia on the stairs beside one of husband Bill Cooper’s photos.

Settling in London
Fast-forward to London where she met Bill when he was living in Shoreditch “in a wonderful warehouse.” They weren’t there for long because, “The area was developing in a way we didn’t like, so Bill decided to sell his beautiful building. We didn’t know Islington neighbourhoods but we liked N5 because it was very close to my work and Bill’s work, in Covent Garden, and Sadler’s Wells. This house was fully renovated but it had a feeling. I came in and said ‘I like this one’. Now we know the neighbourhood too and like it very much.”

Mexicans in the UK often complain that they miss the taste of home – it’s hard to find cactus flowers and mole (chocolate sauce) in London, but Elia stops my questions about homesickness with a firm wave of her hand.

“I don’t cook – the boys know I just do scrambled eggs – and Bill cooks so well, so I decided I’m not going to miss the food. I’m here. When I visit home I eat everything Mexican, plenty of salsa and tortilla. I’ve learnt in Britain you can’t be wimpy. In Mexico City it’s always 24C. If it rains you cancel, or don’t go out. But here you can be at a beach in a gale or rain – and you enjoy it no matter what. It makes me laugh: I think “if my mother could see me here in this gale…”

And with that we finish the interview ready for me to cycle off through the rain to organise a supper of scrambled eggs for my own children – the perfect recipe for busy women.

Elia recommends

  • In the fruit and veg market off Seven Sisters Road you can see big avocados – it’s a bit like a Mexican market.
  • Highbury Fields playground is so fantastic. When the boys were little they must go every afternoon. Now they are bigger they love the astro turf, the football pitches and tennis courts, but they still like Tina’s ice cream van.
  • My boys can’t manage without the Sobell Leisure Centre for ice skating, badminton and football. When they were little they loved the Safari Soft Play and have had several parties there. The Pirate’s Playhouse on Green Lanes is good too.
  • As a family we go to Sadler’s (Wells) and we like Clissold Park. It has a nice café and there’s a new skateboard area.
  • When Bill and I want a treat we go to Trullo on St Paul’s Road. Near us is Peche Mignon which we used to go to for coffee when [the owner] was a young man and just beginning, but it became very busy, so now we like to go to the café in front of the Town Hall.
  • Opposite Peche Mignon we buy from Farm Direct [which sells vegetables, seasonal produce, game, fish, Christmas essentials etc).

Over to you

If you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via nicolabaird.green@gmail.com. Thank you. 

If you liked this interview please SHARE on twitter or Facebook. Even better follow islingtonfacesblog.com (see menu top right).

This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might enjoy the most popular of all islingtonfacesblog posts, Nina Marcangelo from Alfredo’s Cafe on Essex Road which had 800 viewers in a week, 187 views on its 2nd day up and 97 facebook shares.


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