26th March 2014 Sofia, Bulgaria

Charlene’s Dance School

by Charlene Bradford

Charlene Bradford moved to Bulgaria eight years ago and settled down in a village close to Karlovo, together with her Bulgarian partner. She fell in love with the country and its people from the very beginning. A few years later when her efforts to find a dancing group for her daughter Gabbi ended without success, she decided to found her own dance school. Despite the challenges and the difficulty in the beginning, today Charlene is happy with her choice to live in Bulgaria, raise her child here and set up a dance school, and very, very proud of her students!

“When I first came to Bulgaria, never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be where I am now! […] if I didn’t think this country had a bright future, I wouldn’t be bringing my daughter up here. The people, the food, the countryside, the life, the charm, I love Bulgaria.” – Charlene Bradford

Charlene's dance students
Charlene’s dance students

My name is Charlene and I live in a village close to the historic town of Karlovo in central Bulgaria. Before Bulgaria, I lived in Greece with my Bulgarian boyfriend Tsetso and after 6 months and much discussion we decided to move here. We arrived very early hours in the morning after being delayed in Athens, so on arrival, I could see nothing! Got to my boyfriend’s house, dumped the luggage and fell asleep. Morning came, first glimpse of Bulgaria. Looked out, saw grape vines, flowers and the mountain! What a beautiful mountain!

After a day of being in Bulgaria, we went into the town. The first thing that hit me was the concrete blocks of apartments, the holes in the road, the trees sticking out of these pot holes! But over the first month, I had stopped seeing concrete apartment blocks, but instead I saw people’s homes with grape vines growing up them. Apartments and grape vines, fabulous! The trees in the pot holes were one of the quirks of Bulgaria, so charming! I fell in love with the old traditional houses in the old part of town, the generosity of people, the charm of the people and when it came to me trying to communicate, the patience of the people!

In 2008, Tsetso and I had our daughter Gabriela. We both decided for her to have Bulgarian nationality, this is where we chose to live and to raise her. When Gabbi turned 4, I looked into clubs and groups she could join, to interact more with children, for activities and sport. There was nothing! In the UK, I had my own dancing school and danced for many, many years and I wanted my daughter to have a chance to learn too.

I told this part of my life story to a Bulgarian friend, in my very bad Bulgarian language, started laughing and said I should open my own school so Gabbi could go dancing. My friend’s face lit up and said “Yes”! I was only joking, but after much encouragement from her, my friends and family in England and from fellow expats in Bulgaria, I decided to go for it!

Finding a room in Karlovo was the hardest part as I wanted to teach tap dancing. For those who don’t know, tap dance shoes have metal plates fitted to the underneath of the shoe and on the wrong type of flooring, can cause a lot of damage. We finally found a room and the dancing school was started.

For the next few weeks, I had very few children but at least the ones I had were coming back the following week. Slowly we expanded our classes and started an adult tap class. In the meantime I also started supporting a local children’s home based in the town of Kalofer, collecting donations of clothes, toys, whatever the home needed, also delivering Christmas presents donated by people in the UK.

We have danced at two of Home’s events and we have the full support of the home and staff and they will ask us to be part of their future events. I now see the children around the town and always get a big “Hello” from them all, practicing their English on me. We hope that some of the children will want to try dancing and this can be another opportunity that they didn’t have before.

Back to now: things really started to move. We were asked if we would like to take part in the evening concert for the Rose Festiva. I also asked my adult tap group to take part in a competition in Plovdiv and they all said yes. The Plovdiv competition was a great day, but was also not the nicest experience.

After a performance, there was hardly any applauding unless it was a performer from your own school. I was shocked! It got so bad, when the hall was packed, that someone would dance their hearts out and hardly anyone clapped! I looked at my dancers and said “Clap!” And they did, which in turn started a few others off clapping. The same happened on the following day, Gabbi and I had red raw hands from clapping for dancers to try and compensate for the lack of applause from the audience.

Anyway, enough of my rant, back to the Rose Festival! After many rehearsals, trauma and stress, the day was finally here! The children were so excited and nervous! This was their first big performance. It was a beautiful evening, warm and packed full of people. The audience was so appreciative of the dancers and gave them all a huge round of applause. Such a difference from the event the month before in Plovdiv! Nothing quite as good as a home crowd! We had a break to change before our next section. The children were fantastic and received a huge applause and cheering from the audience.

And yet more, in September and October 2013, the dancers were part of more events and we held our second Christmas concert. I can’t believe how far the dancers and I have come in such a short time. The confidence that the children have now got, enthusiasm is so high and their dancing ability is improving all the time. Interacting with the children has helped my Bulgarian, helped me with my communication skills and is also helping the children with their English language. Some have even started going for lessons at local language schools.

In February this year, we found a bigger room for our dance studio; except for the pillar in the middle, it is perfect. We also have a changing room and mirrors! And we have the most fantastic event we have been asked to take part in. The opening of the main event of the Rose Festival 2014! I was so happy and nervous when asked, it is such a privilege to be asked and I am so incredibly proud of my dancers, because this is their achievement.

What does the future hold? One idea I have is to hold a charity night, showcasing local talent, a night of song and dance and raising money for a local need, child or adult.

When I first came to Bulgaria, never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be where I am now! Although it’s not always been a smooth ride, I am so grateful to be where I am now. And I feel that it can only get better. I have seen many changes in Bulgaria, over the 8 years I have been here, some good, some not good, if I didn’t think this country had a bright future, I wouldn’t be bringing my daughter up here. The people, the food, the countryside, the life, the charm, I love Bulgaria.