Stephen Bimson curls his bare feet under him in the white leather chair in a local coffee shop. He gestures with a graceful sweep of his hand as though he’s brushing away crumbs from an imaginary table and his grey-green eyes sparkle.
“I just can’t imagine my life without dance,” he says. “It’s so much a part of me that I don’t know who I’d be without it”.
There’s a bounce in his voice as he talks and his enthusiasm is infectious, like a child on Christmas morning who’s discovered a new shiny new toy under the tree. He holds himself with an upright poise, intermittently leaning his slim body toward his mango smoothie and every once in a while wrinkling his brow pensively when he talks about what he’s been doing in Phnom Penh.
He’s about to jeté into a brand new project and, with a little help from his friends, he’s raring to go.
On April 16, Stephen is opening the door on the newest chapter in his life when he unveils the Central School of Ballet. It’s an exciting new dance school for Cambodia which is poised to bring ballet and contemporary dance to children and adults and it has him at the helm.
Far from his childhood home in Essex, Stephen landed in Cambodia last year and is now putting down proverbial roots. His life story reads a bit like “American Idol” since his quest for something new brought him across the world –with a few self discoveries along the way.
For instance, it was never in the plan to be a dancer.
“I was studying classical equitation in England,” he smiled. “And I was allergic to horses.
“Lucky for me, I had parents who weren’t hung up on me studying economics or business. They let me be who I wanted to be and I didn’t stand out as being too different since there were lots of horses in Essex. I just didn’t want to work in a mobile phone shop or behind the counter at Sainsbury’s”.
When Stephen turned 21, he took a couple of dance classes. The bug bit and he never looked back.
“Being the sad person I was, I’d get to class an hour and a half early for class. Laura (my teacher) said “Dahling, you should take my advanced class” but there was no way I felt I’d be capable. I was older than everyone else and had to push myself constantly to keep up.”
One day, Stephen did take the advanced class (“it scared the living daylights out of me”). Then he was reluctantly nudged into auditioning for the prestigious Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance.
At his audition, he spotted a sheaf of papers his instructor was reading about him and asked to see them. Written in bold red across the page were the words “Definitely YES”. It was an “American Idol” moment and Stephen found himself living in London, dancing every day and practicing for hours.
“The whole thing just snowballed,” he said “I hear stories of kids starting dancing at the age of five, eating celery sticks and sleeping in the splits and here was I, at the age of 21, at Rambert! It was a dream come true.
“I’d get up early every morning and do an intensive class with the boys, run downstairs and grab a sandwich then spend the afternoon in the class with the girls. I was playing catch-up all the time and had to push, push, push every day.
“It was so much part of me that I started to annoy my friends. We’d be shopping in Asda and they’d catch me doing a tendu while I was waiting in line. Or I’d lead a friend across the road doing step-ball-changes. I didn’t even think about it.”
Fast forward three years. After teaching stints in Germany and working with special needs kids in England, Stephen pointed his toes toward Cambodia. He has spent the past year teaching dance to Cambodian children in NGOs around Phnom Penh, putting together dance shows with up to 100 kids aged six to 20 and is now about to launch the school on Street 183.
As he talks about the future and his plans, he exudes confidence – and a whole lot of enthusiasm. He laughs a lot, makes fun of himself and sometimes wells up when he talks about the kids he’s taught over the years. In short, he’s a really nice chap. One you want to succeed.
Stephen’s partner in the dance school is media entrepreneur Devi Vanhon, a self-confessed “dance nut” whom he met when she took one of his classes last year and kept coming back. They pair decided to pursue a mutual dream in bringing a new level of classical dance to Cambodia and will be teaching ballet and contemporary classes for adults, children and anyone who wants them (both local and expat).
“My primary motivation for opening a ballet school with Stephen was to keep him here and have my own private ballet teacher close at hand,” smiled Devi. “But I’m also an entrepreneur and love challenges and Stephen and I make a great team. He knows his trade and is a good teacher and I know how to run a business”.
While the school is still in pre-opening mode, Devi and Stephen are already designing their pas-de-deux. They plan to offer Royal Academy of Dancing (RAD) curriculums at a later date once Stephen has completed their teaching programme and they intend bringing guest instructors from Europe. They would love to get royal patronage from the King of Cambodia (who trained as a ballet dancer) and intend to provide community programmes for underprivileged and socio-economically challenged people in this country.
“I’ve dealt with a number of obstacles teaching dance to Cambodians, including overcoming language barriers,” said Stephen. “At the NGOs I worked with, hardly any of the children spoke English and their cultural upbringing made it awkward for the girls to touch the boys when they danced together.
“For me, doing community work is the essence of giving back. Who knows how many Picassos and Mozarts there are out there who don’t have the money to pursue their passion. We’d love to make it possible for them.
“I want to work with people who aren’t always noticed and help them break down barriers. It’s not about giving them a voice – it’s about giving them a platform to express it”.
“Making mistakes is not acceptable in this culture. I’d happily see a child fall on his face trying to do something than not to do it at all ”.
“Till you find out what is too far for you, you’ll never know what is far enough”.