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Raising the barre: The women in their 60s taking up ballet

A Senior Swans class for over-60s was set up at the Auckland Academy of Adult Ballet last year after Rosemary Hepözden went along for her first lesson at the school and felt out of place.

A group of women aged 60-plus are breaking out their leotards and ballet shoes. Margo White talks to the Senior Swans.

Rosemary Hepözden took up ballet at 60, after reading an article in her neighbourhood rag, the Ōnehunga Community News, about a new local ballet school for adults. The article was illustrated with a photo of a group of women “arranged at the barre looking slender, lithe and supple” – and she wasn’t slender, lithe or supple. 

“First of all, you need to know that I’m obese, have arthritic knees and a fused ankle.” She laughs. “And I’m blind in one eye, which I think affects my balance.”

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But she’d faced a number of challenges in the previous months: her mother had died, her son was ill and she’d shifted house to an unfamiliar suburb. “Life had become surreal anyway, so ballet didn’t seem so strange.”

She rang the school, the Auckland Academy of Adult Ballet and, after being reassured she wouldn’t make a fool of herself, purchased a pair of pink ballet slippers. She remembers turning up at the studio “and having that terrible feeling you get when you arrive at a party and don’t know anyone, or wondering if you’ve turned up at the wrong party”, she says. “So I sat there nervously taking selfies of my feet in their little pink ballet slippers.”

She then found herself at the barre next to a tiny, small-boned woman several decades younger than her. “I’d forgotten that 20-year-olds were considered adults. She seemed to be able to do everything and I was very clumsy.”

“I didn’t think it was for me,” Hepozden says. “I was three times older and three times fatter than everybody else.”

She shared her misgivings after class with Kathy Curwen-Walker, the teacher and founder of the academy. “I didn’t think it was for me, because I was three times older and three times fatter than everybody else. But I asked if there was a possibility we could have classes for 60-year-olds.”

Curwen-Walker thought that a reasonable idea, did some informal research to gauge interest, and last year began ballet classes for the over-60s, the Senior Swans.

Hepözden recalls the first class. “I got the giggles because I couldn’t believe I was actually in a ballet class. It was so ridiculous; there I was, five-foot-eleven, 100 kilos, and 60 years old: too old, too tall, too fat, is how I describe it. But I just couldn’t resist. There was some inner defiance – that you don’t have to be 20, 40 kilos and fresh of limb to do ballet.”

Kathy Curwen-Walker, founder of the Auckland Academy of Adult Ballet.
Why am I writing about ballet for older people? It’s not as if older people haven’t always danced, or done tai chi or yoga. Ballet is a bit different, though, traditionally being the preserve of the lithe and lean, tiny people with turned-out feet who look cute in leotards. Young people. Children.

I’ve only anecdotal evidence to suggest ballet for adults is a growing trend, but that anecdotal evidence is compelling. And, it seems, embedded in the psyche of many women (often women who’ve been excluded from ballet for various reasons) is a could-have-been-a-ballerina-if-my-mother-had-only-let-me and who, even with silver hair, just like dancing.

I sat in on a class of Senior Swans one Friday, as nine women of various shapes and sizes were put through their port de bras. Most were in their 60s and 70s, although a couple might have been slightly younger; there is usually an 81-year-old at the barre, although she wasn’t in class that day. One woman was about size 6 (poised and very good), but most were a mix of dimensions who got through their steps with varying degrees of grace. The class was relaxed, but focused. It demanded precision – where you put your toes, elbows, etc. Then there was the cognitive challenge of remembering what came next. Hepözden tells herself, when she forgets what comes next, or in which direction she’s supposed to be heading, “I’m building new neural pathways.”

There are numerous studies showing that dance, including ballet, is good for the brain, that it provides an excellent antidote to age-related cognitive decline. But this doesn’t seem to be the primary point (no pun intended) of the exercise. The Senior Swans are simply grateful for the chance to learn or do ballet. At their age.

“I’m 77!” says one, after class.

“I’m 72!” says another.

“I’ll be 70 at Christmas!” says another.

Hepözden laughs: “We’re quite competitive when it comes to age.”

Age hasn’t withered their love for ballet, or the pleasure they get from dancing to music. Elaine Worrall, the 77-year-old, first took up ballet 10 years ago at City Dance in Auckland, then one of the few places that offered adult ballet classes in the city. She was 66 and by far the oldest in the class, but had been encouraged to enrol by her niece, who’d learned ballet as a child and was taking it up again in her 40s.

“She knew I always wanted to learn ballet so she encouraged me to go along, so I did this class, and it nearly killed me. I said to my niece, ‘I can’t do this.’ But then I went home and thought, well, I did some of it... So I went back and I’ve lasted 10 years.”

For Worrall, it’s been a breakthrough. “I don’t seem to like a lot of things that women my age do, like bowls and golf and mah-jong, so I was beginning to feel like a bit of an outcast.”

She’d tried tai chi: “Dreadful; it was so boring.” And pilates: “It was too hard.” And yoga: “I didn’t like it. It was all on the floor. And you don’t have the music. I guess I just love dancing. And ballet is my thing.”

Left: Robyn Stanbury at the barre. “The thing about being an ‘old swan’ is the camaraderie,” she says. Right: Elaine Worrall, 77, took up ballet 10 years ago. She drives down from Warkworth for her weekly class.

She took a break from ballet a year or so ago after tearing the cartilage in her knee. “I’m sure it’s because I did the grand pliés. If only I’d stuck to the demi pliés, like I should have, if I’d only been sensible...” After a knee operation, she did go back to an adult ballet class, and everyone was terribly encouraging, but she felt she was holding her younger classmates back so she dropped out. She joined the Senior Swans after seeing an item on the telly last year. “And I thought, right, that’s my age group.”

So once a week she drives down from the farm in Warkworth (60km north of Auckland), and stays overnight in a townhouse closer to the city, but still 25km from the ballet school in Ōnehunga. “When I told my husband where the classes were, he said, ‘Oh, for goodness sake.’” She laughs. “But I said to him, ‘You sometimes have to go a long way to get what you want.’ I said, ‘We have to compromise at this stage of our life. I’ve given you all these years,’ I told him. ‘So now it’s my turn.’”

Senior Swans come from all over Auckland. Adelaide de Guzman-Nicholson, 72, ferries and buses from Waiheke Island. Like Worrall, she’d seen the Senior Swans on TV and enrolled the next day. She grew up in the Philippines and always wanted to learn ballet. “But in the Philippines, only rich people could do ballet. I was one of seven kids, so we couldn’t afford extracurricular activities.” A couple of decades ago, she bought ballet shoes, just to have and to hold. Being able to actually do ballet in her 70s, she says, “is a dream come true”. She pauses. “Oh, I’m getting a bit teary now.”

Robyn Stanbury, 69, was brought along by her friend Lynda Bridget (the two grew up together), although she thought she was going to do a stretch class. “But I ended up being an old swan.” When she told her four adult sons she was learning ballet, “they nearly choked”, she says. “They said, ‘Okay, just don’t do the tutu.’ I said, ‘Fair enough.’

“The thing about being an ‘old swan’ is the camaraderie. It brings back memories – and in your mind, you’re skipping and doing pliés. You’re a dancer.”

“Although it’s very fleeting,” says Bridget, “because then you have to deal with the next movement.”

“And you’ve got the mirrors there, so you know it’s a lie,” agrees Stanbury. “But in your mind, it takes you back to when you did ballet as a child.”

Except the teachers are more encouraging and forgiving. “They were so rude,” says Stanbury, recalling her childhood ballet teachers. “I remember one of them saying to me, after she’d been away on holiday, ‘Oh, are you still here?’”

Unsurprisingly, there have been therapeutic benefits. Stanbury joined the Senior Swans when she was suffering the side effects of chemotherapy. “I couldn’t do anything when I first came. I couldn’t lift my foot off the floor. My feet just ached, it was like they were in the polar regions. I had no balance. I mean, I’m still hopeless, but not quite, quite, quite as hopeless.”

AnnMay Morris had also learned ballet as a child, but in recent years has been plagued by joint problems that have led to two back operations, one hip reconstruction and three shoulder reconstructions.

“Six months ago, I could barely raise my arm higher than this.” She demonstrates by holding her arm just below shoulder height. “Now, look, after six months of this, I can use my shoulder,” she says, raising her arm and waving her hand above her head. “This is what happens – you might have gradual deterioration, but if you do something, you can also gradually improve.”

AnnMay Morris credits ballet with improving her mobility after years of being plagued by joint problems.
Curwen-Walker first introduced adult classes at her ballet school in Christchurch in the wake of the earthquakes and in response to a number of requests. “Some from parents of child students, and some from outside, women who were saying, ‘I just need a distraction.’”

Many of them had learned ballet when they were younger, but not all, so Curwen-Walker introduced foundation classes for beginner adults and even put a few of them through their ballet exams, with good results. “When I came to Auckland, I thought I’d like to set up a ballet school exclusively for adults.”

She’d noticed the emergence of adult ballet classes and schools in Australia, which is where she’s from. In January 2016, she opened the Auckland Academy of Adult Ballet in Ōnehunga, where she now has classes for adult beginners, for more experienced adults, for seniors (the Senior Swans), mothers (Mum and Bubs Barre Stretch) and a class for those looking for a workout based on the principles of ballet (Barrefit).
Kira Schaffler of the Senior Swans.

“It’s a formal ballet class,” says Curwen-Walker, of the Senior Swans. “The only adaptation is we don’t do any jumps, because we do want to protect their joints. There’s no allegro...” Or pointe. “No, that would be too much on the bones. But those are the only things that are out of bounds.”

Any exercise or physical activity is good for body and brain, and ballet clearly helps improve flexibility, stamina, balance and co-ordination. But is ballet-for-adults any different from other exercises, like tai chi or yoga, or is it the latest on-trend exercise for baby boomers?

“It’s so much more than exercise,” says Curwen-Walker. “It’s the art form. It’s what is happening inside you. It’s not just about the muscles, but also the mindfulness. Well, that’s a catchy word these days, but it’s the ability to switch off from the outside world, to focus on the body, on the movement, and then to be able to express yourself. That ability to express yourself through dance really comes through when you have the confidence to move in a way that allows you to express yourself, and that comes from perfecting the technique.”

Also, she adds, “the good thing about ballet is there’s [activity] above the waist. Not everyone has the strong legs and ankles or turnout of the feet of a professional dancer, but there’s a whole world above the waist. And you can learn to perform with it, and express yourself, with your arms, your face, your head. Which is where I guess the joy comes from.”

From back: Hepözden, Ginny McCarthy and Michelle Dragicevich. Numerous studies show dance is good not only for flexibility and balance, but also for the brain.
Has-been and would-be ballerinas lurk in the most unexpected corners. I’d met Hepözden the week before the ballet class at a popular cafe in Mt Eden and when she walked in, an elegant woman behind the counter raised her arms above her head, in fifth position, in a kind of ballerina’s salute. Hepözden explained the woman was the co-owner of the cafe but had once been the principal dancer with the Stuttgart Ballet, a leading ballet company in Germany. Later, as the two women at the table beside us went to leave, one of them (she was probably in her 60s) paused by our table and said that she hadn’t meant to eavesdrop, but ballet for older people? Where could she find out more? Could she sign up?

“The wonderful thing about ballet, and the thing people can’t stand about it, is the refinement,” says Hepözden. “There is purity to it, to the perfection of the movement, when you’re fighting against being too old, too tall or too fat... It’s like bubbles going off in my brain. It’s just blissful.”

There’s a lot involved in simply standing still in the right way, for instance. “When you hold your arms in front of you, you have to think that you’re holding a tiny ball in your armpit,” she says. 

“Then you have to think about how far away your arms are from you, the angle of your wrists. There’s the angle of the thumb. When you lift your arms above your head, you have to keep your thumbs tucked in, and your shoulders down, which is quite hard to do when you’re raising your arm and holding your hands in such a way. Then there’s the head to organise. And the legs and feet. So there’s a lot going on when you’re apparently just standing still.”

She seems to sit up straighter, just thinking about standing still, like a ballerina. “The great moment came when we had to get into an arabesque,” she says. “I was given a modified pose because I’m tall, but that’s when you have to put your weight on one foot, and all hell breaks loose.”

Hepözden has been doing ballet twice a week for 18 months now, and plans to take her Grade Three exam this year. If only “because it’s so ludicrous. To be preparing for a ballet exam when I’m 62!”

Given what else has been going on in her life, she says, “Ballet has been total respite. It would be easy to make fun of us, but why shouldn’t we be doing ballet? Kathy’s natural assumption is that we can all do ballet, with our apprehensions and our aching knees, and as a result we’ve grown into it. It’s a flaming miracle.”

Out of respect for traditional ballet etiquette, most of the Senior Swans have ditched baggy T-shirts and leggings for leotards and chiffon skirts; they remove their jewellery and those with longer hair now tie it in a bun. (Hepözden went online to learn how to put up her hair, and to source a leotard that fitted her from the US.)

The Auckland Academy of Adult Ballet was refurbished last year and to celebrate, the school had an open day, which included a performance by the Senior Swans. “We did the swan dance, of course,” says Hepözden. “We all had head bands with feathers stuck onto them like swan feathers, with our little black tops and everything. So we came out and had to imagine our hands resting on our tutus, although we weren’t wearing tutus. 

“There was an awful lot of arm movement, and we all seemed to be going around in interminable circles, flapping our arms.”

It probably wasn’t the most nuanced performance, she says, but it went down a treat. “To thunderous applause, I might say.”

This was published in the April 2018 issue of North & South.