When Jackie Scannell hung up her ballet shoes 45 years ago, she assumed her dancing days were behind her.
Scannell, who lives in Central Hawke’s Bay, returned to the barre eight years ago. Since then, she has gradually built up her strength to the point where she is able to go en pointe (dance on her toes), something that even young dancers can find difficult.
As her teacher, Esther Juon, points out: “You have to be incredibly fit to do what Jackie has done.”
Spending four hours a week at ballet classes hasn’t just made Scannell fitter, stronger and more flexible. It has also fixed a long-standing lower back problem, and given her a sense of satisfaction and achievement as well as providing what she describes as a workout for her brain.
“The amount you use your brain is incredible, because you have to think about so many different things as you dance.”
She’s one of a small but growing number of so-called silver swans – mostly women who are returning to (or in some cases taking up) ballet later in life. Although they tend to range in age from their late teens to their early sixties, some are much older; according to a recent BBC report, the oldest ballerina at adult classes run by the Scottish Ballet was 102.
A survey by Dance Aotearoa New Zealand (Danz) last year found there are two main reasons people return to or take up ballet as adults. The first is to improve their physical health and the second is to improve their mental health and sense of well-being.
“It gives me strength and muscle tone,” said one respondent. “It makes my day feel better – I leave feeling good,” said another.
In October, the American Association of Orthopaedic Surgeons issued a statement recommending ballet as a way for people of all ages to improve mobility and build strength. Spokesperson Nicholas DiNubile – orthopaedic consultant to the Pennsylvania Ballet – said the artform provides flexibility, strength, core conditioning and agility training.
“The controlled movements produced in ballet, such as demi-plies [knee bends with feet planted to the floor] and releves [toe raises], help to strengthen knees, ankles and feet. Arabesques [leg lifts to the rear] build gluteal and core muscles. Jumps help develop balance and agility.”
He said dancers are also much less likely than athletes who play ball sports to suffer the kind of knee injury that put All Black Aaron Cruden out of last year’s Rugby World Cup. That’s because, unlike athletes, dancers have rigorous training in how to jump and maintain balance.
Ballet is not the only kind of dance that can improve physical and mental health. Many kinds of dance provide similar benefits. A 1998 Japanese study, for example, found that an hour of aerobic dance training two to three times a week is just as effective for building fitness and losing weight as spending the same amount of time cycling or jogging.
US research published earlier this year found that two hour-long sessions a week of a specially created Latin dance programme helped improve the fitness of a group of sedentary Spanish-speaking Latinos aged 65 or older. The researchers are now looking at what effect dancing has on cognitive functioning.
In Britain, Oxford University researchers recently found that simply dancing in time with others increases people’s threshold for dealing with pain.
None of this comes as a surprise to Danz chief executive Anton Carter, who says dancing in its many forms – from ballroom to kapa haka – is much more popular than people realise, with an estimated 630,000 New Zealanders of all ages dancing regularly. “More people participate in dancing than play rugby or netball,” he says.
He describes dance as a bit of a health gold mine that is yet to be properly exploited.
“On a personal level, people who dance regularly certainly understand the benefits and that’s why they do it, but the rest of society hasn’t yet clicked on.”