Today we have a lady who began taking ballet at 63! Here’s her story…
1. How did you first get involved with ballet and what attracted you to it as an adult?
I have loved watching ballet all my life, being fired by enthusiasm by ‘The Red Shoes’ when I was 5 & seeing my first ballet on stage when I was 9. My mother could not afford ballet lessons for me when I was a child, although I would have loved to go. As an adult I saw whatever ballet productions came to my town or were on TV. The possibility of learning it as an adult did not occur to me (& may well not have existed until comparatively recent times), and while I was working at a demanding job, there would have been no time anyway.
Around 2007, having retired, I picked up a brochure of Norfolk Dance & found they held beginners’ ballet classes for adults. These were full at the time, but I enrolled for the following term & began ballet in Autumn 2007 & have never looked back. At first we could find only one elementary class a week, which we felt was not enough, and I wrote 3 letters to ‘Dancing Times’ (which were all published – & 1 was Letter of the Month) about the need to provide more facilities for adult learners, and commenting when these started to appear in Norwich, with more classes I could go to. Now Norwich has more dance classes than I have time to go to, & excellent teachers. Along the way I’ve tried out other types of dance to fill out my dance education: tap, contemporary, national of different countries, lyrical & jazz.
What attracted me to it? Beauty, grace, elegance, technique, magic & mystery, being another world, to a certain extent living out a dream. Also its keep-fit & weight-loss potential (I had to lose a lot of weight after a sedentary career & lost 4 stone, partly through ballet), & health investment for old age (suppleness, posture, stamina, increased energy). I’ve found the whole weight loss & ballet experience very rejuvenating & invigorating, & I’m certainly fitter than I was 10 & 20 years ago, probably longer. I began ballet at 63 & am now 68.
2. How many classes are you currently taking per week?
Currently I attend 3 ballet & 1 jazz dance classes a week, each 1½ hours long. The jazz & 1 ballet class are at Norfolk Dance, and the other 2 ballet with another independent RAD lady. I do find this rather a lot and was happier with 3 classes a week last term, but I also wanted to try out the new jazz dance course. I have also in the past taken courses at other Norwich dance schools, & could have appeared on stage in a show at one of these, but preferred to concentrate on learning basic technique rather than spending so much time on rehearsals. My different ballet classes are at different levels, which I find useful: I no longer go to the absolute beginners’ one, but to one that I’d call Beginners +, to Improvers, and to a more advanced one.
Through Norfolk Dance & also an over-50s group run by Norwich Theatre Royal, I often have the chance to participate in workshops with visiting dance companies on their current repertoire, usually 2 or 3 times a term. I’ve done them with Northern Ballet, Rambert Dance, Richard Alston and Matthew Bourne, often led by current dancers in the troupes. Norfolk Dance, headed by former Royal Ballet principal Derek Purnell, also runs an annual 3-day summer school – I’ve attended all of these. It involves a daily 1½-hour class followed by the rest of the day learning Royal Ballet repertoire, and usually includes a character-dance element. We have studied extracts of classics like ‘Swan Lake’, ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Romeo & Juliet’ & ‘Coppelia’, though not on point; modern ballets such as ‘Firebird’ & ‘Checkmate’, & humorous items such as the dance of the chickens from ‘La Fille Mal Gardée’ & the foxtrot from ‘Façade’. This has been a most exhilarating experience, taught by Derek & by one of my usual teachers, and allows us who have no hope of a ballet career to live out a bit of a dream of one. Derek has also regaled us with stories of life at the Royal Ballet. Along with 2 colleagues who had also had letters published in ‘Dancing Times’ about the need to do more to facilitate adults learning ballet, I co-authored an article in April 2011 ‘Dancing Times’ about our summer schools (called ‘Indian Summers of Dance’).
3. What do you see as your biggest challenge as an adult ballet student?
My biggest challenge is physical: I can no longer raise my legs as high in développés as I once could, & the turnout of my feet is far from ideal. I’m not much good at pirouettes. I have found the mental difficulties of remembering sequences of steps just as hard as the physical problems, but I note that younger students find this just as hard, so it doesn’t seem to be a factor of age – it just is difficult. I have found ballet the most multi-generational activity I’ve participated in: in our classes one finds representatives of all the decades from the teens to 70 (& tap-dancers are older), and this is very cheering, as everyone gets on very well.
4. What brings you the greatest joy as an adult ballet student?
Greatest joy? Learning the steps, so I can unravel some mysteries & better appreciate the performances I’ve enjoyed watching all my life. Also being able to give time to getting to grips with an art I’ve always admired but had thought was beyond my grasp. That makes retirement such a good time for taking it up, although one is physically less pliable: those with jobs or family duties must find it more difficult to fit everything in. I’m having the time of my life! It is also healthy to widen one’s horizons from what one was doing during one’s career and force the brain to make new connections in learning new skills: let’s hope it helps ward off Alzheimers!
5. Do you have any advice for other adult ballet students?
Advice? Don’t be afraid. You will be able to achieve something, although probably not a career in dance. Everyone can learn. It will bring a lot of satisfaction, whatever level you attain. You won’t look silly: other class members will be too preoccupied with trying to get things right themselves to notice what you are doing. (Once you get past middle age, you probably don’t care too much what others think of you, anyway). Teachers understand the limitations of older students & adapt their teaching accordingly. Opportunities for older dance students are increasing all the time (in Norfolk, anyway).
BIO: Born in Brighton, 1944. Read modern languages at Oxford. After 2 years teaching English at the University of Paris, I spent nearly 30 years teaching European literature & French Language at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, where I also met my husband. I am also interested in creative writing & do quite a lot, and have had many poems & a few short stories published, though not in a full-length collection. I’ve belonged to writers’ groups & attended writers’ workshops. When I retired, I wanted to extend my horizons, and also learnt to make pots and to paint & draw, although I’m not very gifted for the latter. Since 2004 I’ve been very occupied in keep-fit (aerobics, Pilates, yoga, walking etc) & weight-loss, making my starting of ballet in 2007 more feasible. I am also active in my local church, and love cats and gardens/Nature.