by Richard Buckley, Editor, Business Eye

Rana O’Brien, a former prima ballerina who set up a school of ballet in West Belfast over 20 years ago, is a regional winner of SPAR’s 2019 People’s Podium Award.    First launched in 2018, the People’s Podium initiative invites the public to nominate a local sporting hero whom they feel has made a huge and positive impact on their local community.

Following thousands of votes submitted via social media and shortlisted judging by a dedicated People’s Podium panel, ballet teacher Rana was named winner for Northern Ireland.

Rana was presented with a cheque for £2000 and a trophy by Henderson Group Head of Corporate Marketing, Bronagh Luke, as part of a surprise visit by the SPAR UK People’s Podium team during a ballet lesson at De La Salle College in Belfast.

“I had absolutely no idea I had been nominated for this award and it was an amazing moment to walk into our training room and see so many pupils with their families as well as everyone from SPAR. It was all so unexpected but so wonderful,” said Rana O’Brien.

“To win this award is a recognition of all the hard work by my dance students and the commitment of their families and indeed the whole local community. We can all celebrate this accolade together.

“I’d very much like to thank Maureen Gwynne, mum to three of my pupils Jaynie, Jessica and Elizabeth, as she put me forward and of course I’d like to thank everyone at SPAR UK and Henderson Group locally.  It’s a fantastic funding award and we are using the prize money to purchase new ballet barres and pointe shoes which will help students further practice their dance technique and skills as well as raise the bar in terms of our performance and professional approach to dance training.”

Bronagh Luke, Head of Corporate Marketing at Henderson Group, owners of the SPAR brand in Northern Ireland, congratulated Rana saying:

“Rana really encapsulated our People’s Podium initiative as she has devoted herself to developing her School of Ballet in West Belfast and Carryduff whilst inspiring a number of her pupils to study dance and take up professional jobs in the industry.

“Rana really gets to know her pupils and becomes like a second mum to them, helping them to excel to the best of their ability, develop confidence, teamwork and leadership skills which will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Her classes cater for all levels from learners and leisure dancers to elite performers and she also offers a weekly class for young people with special needs helping them develop new skills and fitness levels. Using sport and team activities to bring a community together is a huge part of our ethos at SPAR NI and Rana is a fantastic example of how this can be achieved.”   

Local SPAR retailers Geraldine and Arshad Rasool, who operate Woodburn SPAR on Suffolk Road also joined the celebrations to mark Rana O’Brien’s award and praised Rana for her hard work and contribution to the local West Belfast community:

“Rana is an amazing person and really deserves our SPAR People’s Podium award. All her students are a credit to Rana, and it’s been a pleasure to meet her and see a training class in action.”     

Rana O’Brien learned ballet from the age of three and joined the Istanbul State Opera and Ballet Company at 18 and spent over sixteen happy years with the company performing famous classic ballets at venues throughout Turkey.  After meeting and marrying a local Belfast man she set up home in South Belfast in 1997. Rana picks up the story:

“I had taught ballet in Istanbul and after the birth of my son I was approached by a local group, The Dance Collective, who discovered I had been a professional ballet dancer in Turkey. I felt I could offer something to the local community and after some research I set up a dance studio in St Teresa’s Centre, Glen Road in 1998. I started off with five students and now I have 200 students learning ballet at St Teresa’s, De La Salle College and St Joseph’s Parish Hall in Carryduff.

“It’s such a pleasure to see my pupils grow and develop from young dancers at four years old to student dancers in their 20’s. Whilst most of my pupils are girls, we have some wonderful young men who are or have been part of the ballet school, including Luc Burns who is currently studying at Kings International Ballet Academy in England and is also performing as a professional dancer.

“Strictly which is currently airing on television has certainly put dance at the forefront of people’s minds and ballet is the building blocks of all dance. You need to learn the ballet basics before excelling at other forms of dance – whether it is contemporary, ballroom, Latin, Irish or Bollywood. Ballet to all dance forms is like maths to science – you can’t have one without the other.

“My ambition and dream in the long term would be to have our very own premises with a permanent sprung floor and static ballet barres. Meanwhile the SPAR People’s Podium Award is helping us on our way to becoming even more professional in our approach to teaching and learning ballet.”    

In early 2011 Rana O’Brien set up a ‘community interest company’ High Points Youth Ballet alongside three of her 18-year-old students, to help talented young dancers further enhance and expand their dance skills. High Points founding member Denise Rogan continues to help manage the group as secretary and alongside her full-time job as a primary school teacher, Denise teaches classes at Rana’s School of Ballet.     

High Points Youth Ballet will perform The Nutcracker at Stranmillis University Drama Theatre with two shows on Saturday, December 14 and a 3pm matinee on Sunday 15 December 2019.

Rana has organised for professional male ballet dancer Çağatay Özmen, a member of her past ballet company, Istanbul State Opera and Ballet, to dance the role of The Nutcracker Prince. Rana will also go on stage after many years to dance a small part as one of the parents in the party scene.    

The People’s Podium campaign demonstrates SPAR’s local community credentials and its commitment to always be there for local people and their communities.     

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Rana is pictured with pupil India Clements and Bronagh Luke from Henderson Group.



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