Boomers raise the barre

You don’t have to be young, slim and supple to learn to dance. The Silver Swans programme is helping over-55s spread their wings, says Jan Masters.

When Angela Rippon performed those standing splits on the first live show of this year’s Strictly, a sofa-seated nation gasped. How does anyone do that so gracefully and effortlessly…particularly when they’re 79? 

Angela Rippon with a flock of silver swan dancers

The answer lies partly in the star’s lifelong devotion to ballet. So when Rippon watched 200 Silver Swans from all over Europe flock to the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) in London this October, she described the celebration as a ‘joy to behold’. The Silver Swans programme offers ballet classes to a global community of over-55s, regardless of their ability or experience, and Rippon is its ambassador. 

Don’t panic! Silver Swans (or Boomer Ballet, as some like to call it) aren’t expected to execute anything so advanced. In fact, you won’t be expected to have any dance background at all, although if you’ve had some training, even if you were ten at the time, that’s fine, too. It was my childhood experience of ballet that persuaded me to dip a pointed toe back into the water later in life. 

Recently, ballet’s popularity has surged among older adults. In 2017 the RAD, one of the world’s most influential ballet-education and teacher-training bodies, created Silver Swans to safely teach students aged 55-plus. There are now over 1,000 certified teachers, operating in more than 50 countries. 

From the age of six to 16, I attended classes above the Co-op in the suburban village of New Haw, Surrey, run by the formidable Mrs Gray, with Mrs Bungard on the piano. Each year an examiner from the RAD would descend from London, sit at a felt-topped table and ring a little bell to beckon me into the hall, scribbling notes as she scrutinised my pliés and pirouettes. 

I did well but threw in the legwarmers when the fifth-form boys peered through the window and sniggered. I was silly to pack it in and later I regretted it. Which is why one Christmas, when I was in my 40s, living solo in Sutton and touched by the frosted fabulousness of Nutcracker season, I pulled on my ballet slippers and gave it another go. 

Now I’m 61, and I’ve taken various classes ever since. For me, they tick many boxes. First, as the gym leaves me cold, dance keeps me in shape. I’m nowhere near as supple as Ms Rippon, but the exercises help build muscle strength and flexibility whatever your level. Teachers also offer workarounds if you have a dodgy knee or a stiff shoulder. 

Second, I find ballet reassuring, maybe because its foundations are built on a series of fundamental steps – the same steps I learned as a kid above the Co-op. They form a universal language, so while they can combine in any number of simple or complicated ways, you could go to a basic ballet class anywhere in the world and pretty much follow it. And even if nobody knew each other, you’d all have that in common. 

Angela with Kai Widdrington on Strictly Come Dancing

It’s meditative, too, as it requires focus. You must watch and listen to the teacher intently, so you’re forced to leave your worries at the studio door. And after enjoying the freedom of moving across the floor to such uplifting piano music, whether it’s Tchaikovsky or a classical rendition of ‘Eye of the Tiger’ (trust me, it happens), you might clean forget to pick them up on your way out. 

Then there are the people. Clearly none of us is of an age or standard to be cast as Odette at the Royal Opera House, which makes room for fun. It matters not a jot what you do – or did – for a living. Your gender is irrelevant. Your shape is, too. As for age, it’s immaterial, if you love to dance. Which is why there have been many times in my life that ballet has kept me fit, sane and connected. 

One of the schools I’ve been to most is Ballet4Life in Chiswick, which celebrates its 20th anniversary next year. The founder is Donna Schoenherr, who trained in New York and performed professionally with companies such as the Cleveland Ballet, before moving to the UK. In 2004, after the birth of her son, she had a dream to offer ballet to all ages: proper tuition in proper studios. 

By 2011, older community members were opening up to her. ‘Many told me they’d love to try it but felt they’d be too embarrassed standing alongside reed-slim youngsters. Or wearing tights,’ says Schoenherr. She devised a 50-plus class, no special hosiery required. It was, and still is, a big success. 

Likewise, RAD’s initiative was a response to demand, as well as research from its Dance for Lifelong Wellbeing project. ‘Ballet organisations have provided classes for older learners for many years,’ says Gia Gray, head of dance school at the RAD. ‘What is changing is the perception of ballet. It is seen as more accessible to mature beginners. This, with the growing focus on health and wellbeing, is why it’s becoming popular.’ 

Schoenherr agrees. ‘There are so many benefits: improved balance, coordination, strength. It also sharpens mental acuity as you have to remember the steps. And it gets the endorphins going. My dancers also feel more empowered as they’re embracing their physicality and realising they can express themselves without judgment. It’s lovely.’  

Research shows dancing is associated with greater longevity and quality of life. One study showed that people over 40 who took part in regular dancing for over a decade (any dance that gets you sweaty and out of breath) almost halved their risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, compared to non-dancers. In another study, dancing a few times a week bestowed a 76 per cent lower risk of dementia.  

Ballet goes to the top. Queen Camilla is a Silver Swan and sent a message to Rippon and the dancers. ‘As a devoted, if slightly creaky, Silver Swan myself, I very much wanted to send you my warmest wishes for a wonderful day of fellowship and fun, celebrating the huge benefits that ballet has brought to our lives. To borrow a quote… Keep Dancing!” Or, if you’ve never tried ballet before, I’d add, ‘Enter stage right and give it a try.’

 Grab your slippers and get started

★ Silver Swans is a trademark of the RAD and its classes are delivered exclusively by Silver Swans Licensees who have trained to adapt ballet techniques safely for older adults. These operate in over 50 countries (and growing) around the world.

★ Classes are for both novice and experienced dancers, with the age of 55-plus a guide, not a rigid rule.

★ Silver Swans teachers do not follow a syllabus; their training means they not only understand safe practice but can adapt lessons for a diverse class.

★ You will need a pair of ballet slippers (flats). There’s no need to sew on ribbons as they come with elastic.

★ There is no set ‘uniform’, although you must be able to move freely. The RAD has dancewear on its website specifically designed for Silver Swans.

★ Find a Silver Swans class near you or online at dance-with-us

★ Many ballet schools and professional companies offer classes for older and/or inexperienced dancers within their communities, so it’s always worth doing your own research.

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