18 Apr 2019

Silver Swans: Taking up ballet in your senior years

From Nine To Noon, 10:11 am on 18 April 2019

Kathleen Curwen-Walker was teaching ballet for adults who were complete beginners when she met Rosemary Hepözden, who was 60 at the time.

Rosemary had come across a little article in a community newsletter that advertised ballet classes and she thought perhaps that’s something she needed in her life.

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Photo: Auckland Academy of Adult Ballet/ RAD

“It coincided with a time in my life that was very frightening… everything seemed to be going wrong.  Although I didn’t have any huge, genuine, authentic urge to do ballet I was very much drawn to the fact that ballet had this appearance form, formality, containment and tidiness and that was the absolute antithesis of everything that was going on in my life. “

She says she made a complete idiot of herself in her first class.

“I turned up way too early, I had become smitten with the fact that I was now the owner of some little pink ballet flats, I put them on and I started taking photographs of my feet in these ballet slippers because I couldn’t believe what I was doing.”

She found herself standing at the bar next to someone she says was possibly 20 years old and half her size.

“There’s nothing about me that would scream ‘this woman needs to be dancing’, I’m way too tall, I’m way too old, I’m way too fat, but there was something that held me, it was the challenge, it was the fact that there was a form to pursue, there was a perfection that I could aim for.”

She found it hugely entertaining and challenging, she says.

“I hate the fact that when you go to a gym there are sweaty, hairy men clunking weights around and grunting and groaning. You come into a ballet studio and it must be one of the few forms of exercise that you cannot express anything facially apart from this serenity and control.

“I love it so much now that I’ve enrolled in five and a half hours of lessons a week."

Kathleen says: “At the end of that course she told me she was now hooked on ballet but asked would I dare open a class for ladies of her age.”

When Rosemary asked this of Kathleen it wasn’t the first time she’d thought about it – she’d received a couple of emails throughout the year asking for the same thing.

The Silver Swans was born, and classes filled up fast, from four women in 2016 to about 50 students today.

“All the variants that would come to my class, people are coming to the classes with all different issues so I have to be able to set the classes not too easy, I don’t want people to think ‘oh this is just for kiddies’ I have people who are returning dancers, I have people who are beginners.”

It has been an evolving process and Kathleen says she’s pioneered in this field.

There are specific challenges to overcome, she says. Some people have difficultly remembering the steps, and others need modified steps.

“I went into it not really knowing exactly what I was going to do, all I knew is I would need to modify. With my classical ballet teaching experience, I’m very aware of watching for injuries, potential injuries and safe-dance practice.

“We talked a lot, I listened to the ladies.”

The seniors now have a can-do attitude, she says.

The classes follow a traditional ballet class model, but warming up very, very well is important.

“The mantra is to maintain their form…it’s all mutli-level.”

The first half of the class is mostly done at the barre before they come to do centre work.

“They want to feel like they’re doing ballet, if they want an exercise class they can go to yoga or to the gym... I want to offer them everything a ballet class can offer but give them those modifications.”

At the end of the class they do something that moves around the room, like a waltz.

People love the classes so much that someone even comes over from Waiheke.

And the benefits are evident, Kathleen says over the past two years she’s noticed the women retaining the steps much easier than they had previously. And it helps with mood too, helping to combat the isolation that many older people face.

“The whole thing is just entertaining,” says Rosemary, “you actually can’t believe you’re at the barre listening to these magical words… and there is no judgement in that class apart from whether you’re pointing your feet in the right direction or whether you’re lifting your arm up high enough, it’s non-judgemental and yet challenging and we do laugh at ourselves, we’ve got to the stage in our life where we can laugh at ourselves if it all goes wrong.”