Learn ballet in your 50s, 60s, 60s and beyond

Averl Hellyer was 76 when she started ballet.

Hellyer won gold as a ballroom dancer of around 25, but quit dancing because she felt “nobody wanted to dance with an old maid”.

“Even my cousin, who I did all the exams with, would rather have a 20-year-old in his arms than me.”

Today, 80 Hellyer is part of a group of older people learning their steps at an Auckland-based dance academy that offers classes for people over 55.

“Here, I can come alone. I come here and I can’t stop smiling,” says Hellyer.

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When choreographer and instructor Kathleen Curwen-Walker started the Dance For Life Academy in 2016 in Onehunga, she was surprised to find there was a demand for classes specifically geared towards seniors.

She said there was a need for adult ballet to become more inclusive.

“I had a few older ladies who said they would like a class for their age group.”

Kathleen Curwen-Walker leads a class of senior swans.

Adrian Malloch/Supplied

Kathleen Curwen-Walker leads a class of senior swans.

Curwen-Walker noted details of those interested in joining. Before she knew it, she had enough names to start a senior class.

“The class size quickly doubled in number…We decided to call ourselves the Senior Swans.”

The program was modified, “to accommodate the more mature body, which included changing the jump section and adding more stretch and balance, which is important for older people.”

“The jumps we do are basically little springs. If they wish to jump, they can add elevation. Otherwise, the baseline is like a small bounce-type move.

Curwen-Walker said that because they are recreational dancers, it negates any requirement to be a certain size or shape, “and we cater for all ability levels.”

“There are no physical requirements other than you can stand on two feet.”

There are 12 to 14 in a class at a time, and she said that even though the moves are changed, the swans are still learning proper ballet technique.

The ladies view classes as a social outing, bonding around their common interests.

Chris McKeen / Stuff

The ladies view classes as a social outing, bonding around their common interests.

“We can certainly still provide a full ballet class even within the limitations of an older body, and that’s very fulfilling. I have the most beautiful ladies who come, for all kinds of reasons.

The social occasion “helped alleviate symptoms of depression in some cases.”

“They all come here early, because they want to talk about what they’ve done, and it connects them. This gives them a goal for the day. It also makes them move. It keeps the joints moving. It really lifts their whole sense of well-being.

“They also dance to beautiful classical music, often things they heard growing up, and that in itself boosts their sense of well-being and makes them feel beautiful. It also gives them strength and balance and connects them with other people their age.

Swans learn modified ballet routines designed to keep joints moving and provide strength and balance.

Chris McKeen / Stuff

Swans learn modified ballet routines designed to keep joints moving and provide strength and balance.

Karen Billings-Jensen, chief executive of Age Concern, said anything that focuses on strengthening balance is “really” important.

“Falls are the most common cause of injury in older people. When people have poor balance which can increase the risk of falling, anything that builds physical function and provides confidence in movement is crucial.

She said the fear of falling can cause people to restrict their physical or social activities.

“After going through lockdowns, one of the concerns was that our seniors weren’t out and about and connecting with people. It can lead to loneliness and isolation, which is not good for mental or physical well-being.

Billings-Jensen said taking dance lessons increases social connections and makes people feel better.

As for Averl Hellyer: “All your joints move and you learn to balance yourself…it’s so much fun.”

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