Raising the barre: Pirouetting pensioners

The Northern Ballet studio is a hive of activity during an over-55s ballet class. Picture by Simon Hulme.
The Northern Ballet studio is a hive of activity during an over-55s ballet class. Picture by Simon Hulme.
  • Ballet lessons are for children and lithe young things – but not always. Jayne Dawson meets the ladies who are enjoying pliés and pirouettes much later in life.
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The first surprise is the studio. It’s vast, soars high and is professionally appointed. The sun pours through a window and casts one dramatic, central shadow on the floor. Around the walls are mirrors and practice barres. This is everything a dance studio should be.

I’m not a ballet dancer. Never have been, never will be, but one step inside that studio – in bare feet in my case so as not to damage its floor – and I have a huge urge to don leg warmers and become Jennifer Beals in Flashdance. That’s what that studio does to you.

The Northern Ballet studio is a hive of activity during an over-55s ballet class. Picture by Simon Hulme.

The Northern Ballet studio is a hive of activity during an over-55s ballet class. Picture by Simon Hulme.

The second shock is Gerard. I don’t notice him at first in the shock and awe of the surroundings, but then he begins to play. This is an exercise class with live music! Gerard obligingly stops and starts as teacher Annemarie Donoghue and the ladies of the Northern Ballet Over 55s class require. His melodies provide the rhythm required as he runs through all kinds of big numbers and showstoppers, including, at one point, Shirley Bassey’s signature tune Big Spender.

I’ve called it an exercise class, but it is and it isn’t. This class has more purpose than merely keeping mature people moving, this class really is about ballet. It is held in the Northern Ballet base in Leeds. The studio is so wonderful because that is where the professional dancers and the degree-level students of Northern Ballet do their work – and the Over 55s get to share this bounty.

As I walk to it, the sound of a sexy saxophone drifts out of an open window of the School of Music. This is a good place to be on an early spring morning.

The women of the class think so – and it is all women. They flock to Northern Ballet from all parts of the region, covering ridiculous distances just to be there. They travel from Hull and from Sheffield, from York and from Wetherby, from Huddersfield and Halifax.

The Northern Ballet studio is a hive of activity during an over-55s ballet class. Picture by Simon Hulme.

The Northern Ballet studio is a hive of activity during an over-55s ballet class. Picture by Simon Hulme.

On the day I am in attendance, there are more than 20 of them, and this is only one of the two classes held each week. At the other class there are 30 dancers, because the popularity of ballet for the over 55s is growing and growing. The only thing the participants have in common is that they have passed that particular age threshold. Otherwise they are women from very different backgrounds and levels of skill. And of course they come in many shapes and sizes.

Some of them wear the sort of thing you might wear in the gym, others have a more ballet look with legwarmers, thick tights and skirts over leggings. They are all in ballet shoes, those elegant objects that we are used to seeing on the feet of pretty little girls. Silver hair and ballet shoes is a more unusual combination, and some of these women have health issues: they are cancer survivors, arthritis sufferers. But they are serious about what they are doing.

As she dances past, one tells me this is as much a workout for the little grey cells as it is for the body, and that it beats retiring and sitting in a chair.

Annemarie creates an atmosphere of purpose in the studio. After a warm-up, they are into real ballet moves described using their French names – though Annemarie is also careful to explain what each of those moves entails for the newer members of the class.

The Northern Ballet studio is a hive of activity during an over-55s ballet class. Picture by Simon Hulme.

The Northern Ballet studio is a hive of activity during an over-55s ballet class. Picture by Simon Hulme.

Annemarie, 42, has two roles at Northern Ballet: she teaches some of the classes and is also the academy and graduate programme planner. She lives in Leeds and has a degree in dance, training in contemporary ballet.

She said: “I love teaching women, they have a fantastic attitude – they really appreciate the class and the studio space. I teach very young children as well and those classes are often about managing the children, so this is a lovely contrast.

“The women are all ages and abilities, it doesn’t matter. My oldest student is 86 and she takes part in the summer performance we organise. She also runs half marathons.

“What I teach to this group is essentially the same as in any other, the pace is just a little slower. It began about four years ago, but it is growing in popularity all the time, which is why we have increased the number of classes.”

The Northern Ballet studio is a hive of activity during an over-55s ballet class. Picture by Simon Hulme.

The Northern Ballet studio is a hive of activity during an over-55s ballet class. Picture by Simon Hulme.

Back in the studio, the warm-up continues at a lick, then it is barre work and the ballet moves begin.

“Feet in first, plié, stretch, rise, lower,” commands Annemarie, gracefully demonstrating, and the women concentrate and obey. The room is hot because the company will be following them into the studio , and there must be no risk of muscle injury. I sip water, the dancers carry on.

“Keep breathing, keep smiling, all will be fine, ladies,” says Annemarie.

More ballet terms make an appearance. Annemarie speak of “ronde de jambes”, “demi-pointe” and “en cloche” and each move is explained. Gerard plays on. I really, really want a pair of legwarmers.

After the class, I speak to Madeleine Wuidart, 62, who is one of the women who travels far to attend. She lives between Malton and Scarborough with her partner David and daughter Melissa and drives 60 miles each way to take part. Her passion for dance actually began with a disappointment. “I did a year of ballet when I was aged five, but I decided I wasn’t going to be Margot Fonteyn, and if I couldn’t be her I didn’t want to be anyone. I did actually see her dance Romeo and Juliet with Rudolf Nureyev and it was the most amazing thing I have ever seen.

“I did try dancing again but there was a ten-year gap before I found this class. I would have worried about going into a class with much younger people, but this one is ideal.

“I like it because it is disciplined and it is about being centred and focused but there is also a lightness and flow to it. I love being in movement. It is a workout, my joints and my feet are much stronger since I began, and I feel more confident.”

Sarah Wildon, 58, who lives in Huddersfield with husband Robert, is another regular at the class. She has been attending for two years, but had six months off after knee surgery. Her background is in dance, but she began the Over 55 classes after a break of 40 years.

“I trained from the age of five and boarded at a dance school from the age of 11. I did it to a high level and passed my Royal Academy of Dance Advanced Grade. I wanted to dance professionally, but I was told I was too big. I was 5ft 6in tall and weighed eight and a half stone, but I was considered too tall and too heavy.

“Dance was a different world then, the look had to be much more uniform. If your leg was two inches shorter than the other girls in the corps then that meant you were dismissed. My style was balletic but my body wasn’t so in the end I became totally disillusioned and left dance altogether.

“I had a career in the civil service working in the Home Secretary’s private office, and then set up my own PR company. Life took over but I never lost my love of ballet and when I heard about this class I decided to try it – and it felt like coming home.

“I love the balletic element of it, but some people have never done ballet before and they enjoy it just as much. There is lots of camaraderie and support. We get to do our class in a state-of-the-art rehearsal room used by the company. It is a serious class but at a level at which we can all participate.

“I have severe arthritis in my knees and have had five operations but this keeps me moving. Although we are older people the company are very respectful of us and the level we dance at, they don’t make us feel uncomfortable in any way.”

We leave it at that because both women need to join Annemarie in the next class, which concentrates on balancing and pirouettes. Life is a whirl.

• More details available at northernballet.com