The elderly dancers bringing 1,800 years of life to the stage

The dancers of the Scottish Ballet Elders Company
The dancers of the Scottish Ballet Elders Company
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A NEW dance tour proves that far from being past their best, this corps of over-60s are in their Prime

WHEN I arrive at Dance Base in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket, the main studio is filled with dancers taking a Pilates class. It’s designed to increase core stability, improve posture and keep dancers stronger for longer, which is crucial when you’ve got a tour ahead.

The dancers of the Scottish Ballet Elders Company

The dancers of the Scottish Ballet Elders Company

But unlike most of the studios at Dance Base, this room isn’t populated with teenagers or dancers in their 20s and 30s. Most of those lying on the floor, flexing their stomach muscles, are in their 60s and 70s, because this is one of the regular classes for Prime, Scotland’s first semi-professional dance company for elder dancers.

This weekend, the company will buddy up with the Scottish Ballet Elders Company and hit the road, playing Inverness, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow over the next four weeks. Between them, the 22 dancers bring 1,800 years of life lived to the stage, years filled with triumph and tragedy, love and loss, all of which shaped the people, and performers, they are today.

Opportunities for older people to dance have been steadily growing, with Dance Base and Scottish Ballet two of the UK’s biggest champions. For the past four years, Morag Deyes, artistic director of Dance Base, has been running Golden, a free contemporary dance class for anybody over 60. Out of that, sprung Platinum, a class for dancers willing (and able) to jump. And now, following an audition process, Deyes has formed Prime – a company with 
big personalities and even bigger ambition.

On the day we meet, Deyes and the dancers have just returned from their first international engagement, at the Silver Arts Festival in Singapore. The invitation to perform there came about after a festival representative attended one of Deyes’ over 60s classes at Dance Base, and left rather confused.

“She said to me afterwards, ‘That wasn’t a class for the over 60s,’” Deyes recalls, “and I said ‘Well, it was.’ But it was energetic, funny and a bit wild, which she wasn’t expecting.

“When I started Golden, I didn’t want it to be cute, safe or predictable. Because that would be disrespectful. I’m 62 and feel feistier now than I did when I was 20. And I know that all the people in that room are from the same generation, raised in the 1950s and 60s.”

When the time came to cherry pick the Golden and Platinum dancers to form Prime, Deyes had her work cut out. It was, she says, not just a case of choosing good dancers, but finding the right characters for the company. Aware that there is often a pressure within society for older people to “lock down and behave themselves”, as Deyes puts it, she has spent the past four years giving them a chance to do the opposite.

“One of the things I said at the very first Golden class, was ‘I’m just offering you the opportunity to unlock what you already are. I’m teaching you some steps but the way you do them, and the kind of energy and personality you bring to them, is up to you.’” says Deyes.

“So by the time we got to the Prime auditions, they were all full-on characters as well as good dancers.

Sitting with three of the Prime dancers after their 90 minute Pilates class, I can see they’re all overflowing with enthusiasm.

“I do this for me,” says 65-year-old Moira Berry, a retired medical records clerk, mother and grandmother. “I feel it’s opening up new pathways in my brain, my body feels looser and I appreciate things more.

“Sometimes it’s a wee bit scary, because you’re pushing yourself into new things. But to be at this stage in life, it’s great to still have challenges and something to aim for – to know it’s not all downwards from here, I’m still going forward.”

A former director of the Poverty Alliance, Damian Killeen was 63 when he attended his first dance class. Now aged 69, he’s taken part in countless classes, workshops and performances, including appearing on stage at London’s Sadler’s Wells theatre.

“One of the first things I had to get over was the idea that I should be able to do the same things as the professional dancers who were training us,” he says, “and that was very frustrating. But eventually the penny dropped that I didn’t need to do that – it was more a matter of finding out what capacity I did have.”

Killeen plays a pivotal role in Prime’s first commissioned piece, Tarn by choreographer Angus Balbernie, delivering words written by the whole company.

“Tarn was a very collaborative piece,” explains Killeen. “We were all involved in creating content, and one element was anonymously writing down the worst and best thing that had ever happened to us, and why we want to perform. I created a text out of that, which is very much the emotional heart of the piece.

“We want to make dance pieces that anybody who is interested in dance might want to watch,” he adds, “simply because it’s interesting dance, not because we’re people of a certain age.”

Meanwhile, at Scottish Ballet’s studios in Glasgow, things are looking very busy. The company’s Regenerate class for over-50s started in 2001, and by 2010 there were 30 people on the waiting list. Regenerate 2 solved that problem, until an item about the class on BBC news led to Scottish Ballet being inundated with calls from would-be participants.

So along came Regenerate 3 and 4 to ease the pressure (although there are still 80 people on the waiting list) out of which associate director Catherine Cassidy picked 15 dancers to form performance company, Scottish Ballet Elder Dancers. As with Prime, none of the Scottish Ballet Elders have ever danced professionally, but levels of experience vary.

“Most of the company is in their 70s,” explains Cassidy. “And about a third of them had never danced before joining the Regenerate class. Another third danced as children but haven’t done so since, and the rest have dipped in and out over the years and had a passion as audience members.”

One such dancer is 67-year-old Hilary Stanger, a ballet dancer in her youth but consumed by work and family ever since. What prompted her to audition?

“Well I’m a little bit bolder now and I thought come on, let’s give it a go,” she says. “I don’t have much fear about performing, but it’s good to have a bit of adrenalin flowing before you go on.

“Obviously I’m not like a youngster, I can’t kick my legs up as high as I used to. But I’ve surprised myself that I still have a fair amount of mobility and agility.”

• Prime and Scottish Ballet Elders Company, Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, today; Dance Base, Edinburgh, Saturday; Citymoves, Aberdeen, 18 October; Tramway, Glasgow, 25 October