Are you dancing? The women of Regenerate, Scottish ballet’s dance troupe for the over 60s, most certainly are. We join them at the Barre as they rehearse their most challenging work yet
From outside the studio in Scottish Ballet’s Glasgow headquarters, the sounds are of a morning warm-up class gently swinging into gear. Piano music accompanies spoken instructions taking the dancers through their stretching exercises – arms are extended, backs are flexed, feet arched and pointed. “And-one-and-two-and-three-and-four,” the words and the music plink-plonk alongside one another, a combined sound to transport anyone who ever did a ballet class in a church hall right back to pink leather shoes and buns in their hair.
Inside, arranged around the mirrored studio, 19 women are being put through their paces. Their feet slide along the floor, their arms stretch out above their heads. It’s not quite effortless, not all the backs are loose and limber, not all the feet go in the same direction at the same time and the odd giggle escapes as the routine slips away from some of them.
“Right then, David,” Emma-Jane McHenry, Scottish Ballet’s education officer who is leading the class instructs the pianist, “let’s have something cheeky this time.” A ripple goes round the studio as a mid-tempo polka belts out from the piano in the corner.
Regenerate is Glasgow’s dance troupe for the over-60s. They’ve been meeting together for an hour and a half of dancing at Scottish Ballet every week for 10 years. Not all of the women standing at the barre on a drizzly Thursday morning – the youngest is in her early 60s, the oldest 84 – have been members since the start, but plenty have been. There’s now a waiting list to join.
“And lift and stretch and breathe and relax,” the instructions float on the music and the concentration is palpable. As they plie, knees bending bums pulled in, the click of knees and hips can be heard over the music. There’s white hair and grey hair, tall women and short ones, there are jazz shoes and ordinary pumps, but almost everyone is wearing a black T-shirt with Regenerate written in white across the chest. There are traces of ballroom dancing in some of the movements and pink cheeks as the speed of the warm up increases. Some women look like they take it very seriously indeed and others look like they’re there for the fun.
The women are rehearsing for Dancing Voices 2012, a large scale project created by Glasgow-based choreographer Natasha Gilmore that they have been learning for six weeks and which they will perform as part of the Merchant City Festival next weekend. Commissioned as part of the pan-London older people’s project for Big Dance 2012 and Capital Age Festival, Gilmore’s company, Barrowland Ballet, is remounting the project which was initially conceived in 2010 in partnership with Glasgow Life. The piece brings together older dancers and singers – there will be 150 people on stage including a choir and dance troupes from Edinburgh, Aberdeen and London as well as Regenerate and several other community groups from around Glasgow who are involved in a dance piece for the first time.
The show is a musical journey from 1948 – the last UK Olympic Games – to the present day with dances that reflect social and political developments, as well as personal change, in the intervening years.
Gilmore has brought everyone together only once, six weeks ago, to run through the entire piece, as best as you can when there are more than a hundred people and no one knows the steps, and since then each group has worked on it alone before they’ll meet back together the day before the performance for a dress rehearsal.
In a different studio, across Glasgow, Gilmore laughs when I suggest she must have nerves of steel. “As long as the groups know what they’re supposed to be doing they’ll pull it out of the hat,” she says. “It will always be interesting, even if it’s not the exact choreography, that doesn’t matter, it’s about them bringing something to it and being engaged with it.
“They’re such a pleasure to work with. They just get on with it and enjoy it.”
Dancing Voices isn’t Gilmore’s first experience of working with different generations as part of her professional and community-based work. Her piece Conversations with Carmel, which was well reviewed at last year’s Fringe, was set at an 80th birthday party and included video projections of older people talking about their life experiences. It was based on conversations Gilmore had had with her own grandmother.
“For the original Dancing Voices project, we spent a lot of time talking about the dancers’ lives and their experiences and we worked some of those stories into the dance,” Gilmore says. “That really got me thinking about working with that particular age group, which fed into Conversations with Carmel. It directly feeds into my work because their stories are so fascinating. Sharing those experiences and creating work in which they’re shared with even more people is a privilege.”
In the studio, Jade Adamson, one of Barrowland Ballet’s dance artists takes over the class. Her job is to talk the women through a complicated segment that includes two lifts, where one woman will be lifted to head height and carried by a group across the studio before being put down in the other corner. If my face shows any concern about a group of over-60s hoisting one of their number over their shoulders and carrying her across a hardwood floor, no-one else’s does. The women huddle around talking to each other about the various moves they’ve got to make and deciding who’s going to stand in for the woman who’s usually lifted but who’s not at today’s rehearsal.
And then they’re off. The stand in lets herself fall backwards and the others support every part of her body as they lift her - one under each arm, one under her head, a couple on her body and her legs. It looks smooth and effortless and there’s something just a little wonderful about seeing older women using their strength and feeling safe enough to take a physical risk over which plenty of people decades younger might hesitate.
“We were a bit surprised can I say,” says Nan Robertson, 67, an elegant, tall woman who beams a smile throughout the class. “Women of our age having to lift someone?
“But it’s been such an enjoyable challenge for us because the last thing we did was rather slow, no nice music, no dynamics. This is a challenge and at the end of it you just feel so exhilarated. It’s fantastic. We all love it.”
When Regenerate was created 10 years ago, the stipulation was that it would be a dance group which would perform in public, not just an exercise class. It didn’t suit everyone, but for some, like Nan, getting to be on the stage is a key part of what they love about the group.
“That’s what I’d always wanted to do,” she says. “I danced when I was young, but nothing fantastic. I’m also in a tap dance class and we perform in the Armadillo every year. I love the performing side of it.
“If you ever have wanted to be on the stage, this is the opportunity to do it. It’s given a load of ladies in the class who would never have dreamt of doing that when they were younger, the confidence to do it now.”
The women start working on a segment that begins with a solo by Nan. She whizzes around the room, smiling, moving her arms like a locomotive, counting as she goes. The music is pumping out of the stereo and some of her fellow dancers are soundlessly singing along. Then another woman joins Nan and they dance together, grinning at each other.
For Gilmore, the main lesson in working with older dancers has been to never underestimate their vitality or energy. She says that there are very few restrictions as to what older dancers can do. This fits with what some of the women whisper about the last choreographer they worked with who, as well as being very nice they’re at pains to tell me, created a work which was slow without much in the way of music. The raised eyebrows tell me it wasn’t exactly to their liking.
“An important approach is not to say they’re older so let’s make it slow and soft,” says Gilmore. “To not make those assumptions is really important. To be open minded and willing to be surprised by them and to involve them in the creativity as far as I can is my aim.
“Sometimes it’s with limitations that the most interesting work can be done. Actually, I never approach it as limitation, I see the work as rich because of all that life experience, the interesting physicalities, the particular ways of walking. All those things become beautiful and expressive.”
The theme of Dancing Voices 2012 is change – change to bring about progress, change in terms of the physical body as we age, the challenge of making change happen – which is why she hopes that all the dancers’ life experience will add to the piece.
“It’s not a history lesson,” Gilmore says. “Those things are just stimuli and then we’re bringing all of the dancers’ life experience to bear.”
Mary McLaughlin has a snow white bob and a cheeky face. She’s 78 and has been part of Regenerate for nine years. She found out about the class in a free news- paper she picked up in Pollock Community Centre.
“I just came home and said I think I’ll write to them, so I sent them a few photographs of myself – I was white headed then too. Next thing was they invited me along and I’ve been here ever since.”
It’s obvious that the class is as much about socialising as it is about dancing for many of the women. In between dancing, there is lots to catch up with what’s going on in each other’s lives. Lunches and dinners are organised and, of course, trips to see Scottish Ballet.
“Some fitness classes you go in and out and nobody knows your name, no one could care less,” says Nan. “We have lunches and days out.”
Mary too knows more than most how important the class can be. “It’s good for arthritis and it’s good for the brain, which is most important,” she says with a laugh. “I can go on to demi-pointe and my family say ‘god’s truth mother, at 78. We cannae do what you’re doing.’ They’re that proud of me.”
It’s not just the dancing though. “I lost my husband, Charlie, three weeks ago, three weeks on Saturday. He died of cancer. This class is so wonderful. The whole while that Charlie was sick they were a great support. There’s a lot of women in the group who are widows so they all know what’s happening.”
The women separate into two groups and spread out across the studio. One half is moving in one direction, the other in the opposite. Their faces are a study in concentration punctuated with the odd grimace when someone forgets their steps.
“As a youngster I did my bronze and silver in ballroom,” says Mary. “When we do that waltz step in the class and we fling our arms from side to side, I say to the girls ‘that brings us right back to the Albert Halls, doesn’t it?’ That was the big dance hall in Glasgow.”
I ask if Mary used to dance with her husband?
“We did modern sequence together,” she says. “It’s always held in wee church halls. On a Friday night we went to Cathcart and on a Saturday night we went to Johnston Castle. We danced together, it was lovely. It lets you dress up and wear a lovely skirt and a top and get the jewellery on. It’s £2 and for that the teacher shows you how to do a new dance and you get a wee cup of tea and a biscuit.
“I keep myself active with classes. I nursed Charlie for 13 months. I couldn’t go the romantic music so I stopped it all, but once I get myself pulled together I’ll get back to it.”
As the women finish up, sipping from water bottles and collecting their handbags, the chat’s still animated about who’s doing what and which move’s needing a bit of work. They’re still talking as they file out of the studio to get changed, and 10 minutes later as I watch them head off down the stairs, they’re still at it.
For Gilmore the enthusiasm and generosity is one of the most rewarding things about working with older groups and it’s clear that she’s ambitious for what they can achieve.
“We may be working with people who aren’t professional dancers but we are doing a professional performance. That is an achievable aim, not something for us to be afraid of. We’ve got costuming and lighting design and it’s in proper festivals too – Capital Age Festival and Big Dance Festival in London and the Merchant City Festival up here.”
Time is tight but Gilmore’s not fazed.
“It’s amazing what you can fix at the last minute. Honestly, you wouldn’t want anyone to see the dress rehearsal, but at the last minute it’s about bringing out a performance and not worrying about the little things.”
• Dancing Voices, Sunday 29 July, 3pm-3.50pm, free, Old Fruitmarket, Candleriggs, Glasgow, G1 1NQ, tel: 0141-353 8000, www.merchantcityfestival.com
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