Dancing into your 80s
19 December 2011
Christina Ballard shares her rewarding experiences of teaching adult amateurs
I have had the pleasure of teaching adult amateurs to dance for nearly 30 years and have always loved the experience. I was once invited up to Yorkshire to lecture at an amateur dance club – ages 16 to 76! It was to be an all-day course and I must admit to being somewhat anxious about what I was going to teach, and in the end opted for a warm-up based on simple Jazz technique, followed by several easy dance sequences of different styles, and spread this evenly over the day. The dance group consisted of about 60 people and they met once a month for a class by their regular teacher and occasionally a guest lecturer.
They were such a responsive group – very keen to ‘have a go’ and had excellent energy levels. Towards the end of the day when I was teaching my last sequence, my mind went blank and I couldn’t remember the last eight bars, so not having the courage to ‘own up’, I announced that we would do some improvisation and anyone with ideas could make suggestions about what steps he or she (there were also men!) would like the group to perform.
Well! They had enough ideas to fill a whole programme of dance – so I diplomatically selected a few for the whole group to learn then let everyone do their own thing for the rest of the music. They were off! Using space – whole body movements – interacting with each other, and with no inhibitions whatsoever – a joyful time for everyone. Technique not being the overall concern, but freedom of expression the ultimate aim. I can still visualise the scene now although it was in the early 1980s. I left that day on a high, having loved every minute of it.
Since then I have continued to take regular dance classes for amateurs and have now included a dance genre with the initial ‘Z‘ – no prizes for guessing what that is! I teach the slower version, which is purposely designed for the older active adult. This has been something of a revelation, not to say revolution, as lots of older people, men and women, are turning up to join in the fun. My present classes range in ages from 40 to 80 years old. It is a joy to see the pleasure on their faces, particularly the older ones, when they realise they can pick up the steps and all work within their own ability. Some just cope with the footwork and some can add hips, arms and head movements, but all dance together and, if they know the words of the song, sing along as well.
Some of the group are excellent natural movers – very rhythmic and co-ordinated and certainly could give the Strictly contestants a run for their money!
After the cool down sequence, I like to add some Pilates-based postural awareness exercises as it is something I feel very passionate about. If it’s a ladies only class, I also use piano ballet class music and do some seated ports de bras for upper back poise. This is very popular and they love the calm, gentle quality of movement. Some of them attended ballet classes as a child but lots more always wanted to, so at last they can pretend they’re in a ballet company. After a few classes they tell me they hear my voice in their head if they find themselves slouching. I am very concerned at the level of poor posture I see around me in the general public – young and old, and feel a sense of achievement if I have managed to persuade some of them to wear an imaginary crown on their heads and a diamond in their navels!
There are several important considerations to be aware of when teaching the older population. One is to be attuned to the level of aerobic activity. I don’t do any jumping or add on any ‘fitness’ extras and always take a pause between tracks of music to breathe and take a sip of water. Two, I always say at the beginning of every class that they should ‘listen to their bodies’ and feel free to move away from the group if they feel they need more rest time.
Their levels of confidence and ability definitely improve week by week. Although many come by themselves initially, they soon make friends and enjoy the social aspect of the class which is very important for this particular age group. Some may have recently lost partners and are trying to make a new life for themselves. Some may be full time carers for their partner and the class is their only ‘me time’ in what can sometimes be an exhausting and difficult week.
All my classes are like a party – some groups more lively than others – I think some pop into the pub before class! We all have fun and they are touchingly appreciative of the opportunity to dance, laugh and exercise into a healthier lifestyle. I’m certainly going to keep dancing. Cheers and happy days!
Dance can be enjoyed at any age
Please do write in and tell us about anyone you know who is still dancing/teaching into their 60s, 70s and beyond, or if you are doing so yourself. We would love to hear your stories.
Company of Elders
Company of Elders is a dance and performance group for people aged 60 and over which proves it is never too late to start dancing. Established in 1989, Company of Elders is an offshoot of Sadler’s Wells’ weekly Lilian Baylis Arts Club.
The company rehearse weekly at Sadler’s Wells under the direction of Simona Scotto. The 30 performers may well have retired but they have a wealth of energy. Being a member of the Company of Elders fulfils a creative need and they attract a range of choreographers.
UK performances have been as diverse as the Houses of Parliament, Duckie Cabaret in Vauxhall and The Royal National Theatre. International performances include the prestigious Venice Biennale Dance Festival and, most recently, Rotterdam. The Company of Elders featured on BBC2’s Imagine series in July 2009. For more information see: www.sadlerswells.com/page/company-of-elders
Dance company for the over 60s receives £25,680 grant from The Big Lottery Fund
Following a local campaign to set up a dance company for the older residents of Brighton & Hove, South East Dance is delighted to announce that The Big Lottery Fund has awarded a grant of £25,680 to set up Three Score Dance Company.
Three Score Dance Company will offer those with no prior dance experience the opportunity to work with professional dance tutors and choreographers, whilst having fun and improving health and wellbeing along the way. Members will also receive training and support during this time so that they can eventually continue running the company independently. For more information see: www.southeastdance.org.uk/threescoredance.htm
Bupa’s Shall We Dance Campaign
Bupa’s 2011 campaign (launched by Anton Du Beke and Ann Widdecombe) aims to help older people in care homes waltz, tango or jive their way to better health. For more information see: www.bupa.co.uk/dance