Seeing 75-year-old Christine Sorrell extend into an arabesque reveals that there can be something rather elegant about a septuagenarian lifting one leg to a 90-degree angle with arms outstretched. A one-time Royal New Zealand Ballet dancer, Sorrell has just ended a 50-year retirement – a hiatus which has hardly diminished her skills. “It’s all coming back to me,” she says as her foot swings to the ground.
Around her, 15 women in their sixties and seventies are lined up inside a mirrored studio inside Auckland Academy of Adult Ballet for their Senior Swans class. Ballet, it turns out, isn’t just for lithe professional ballerinas or little girls in pink tutus. The academy’s founder Kathleen Curwen-Walker began the twice-weekly class in 2016 after a woman in her regular adult class felt uncomfortable next to skinny twentysomethings. That same woman, Rosemary Hepözden, is in class today. Some of the participants are very slim, some have slight paunches and wobbly arms – but all seem perfectly comfortable with their bodies. “We need a Senior Swans calendar!” says class member Ann May Morris. “I’ll be Miss January.”
Curwen-Walker is a warm woman who hugs newbies; yet she’s also a strict teacher who allows for no slacking – especially with an academy showcase on the horizon that the Swans are currently rehearsing for. After warm-up, members practise at the barre: to avoid injury, demi-pliés replace pliés, pirouettes are slow and jumps are banned.
The exercise, however, remains sufficiently strenuous for many to work up a sweat by the halfway break and proves that sport for seniors isn’t solely confined to aqua-aerobics and tai chi. When suitably adapted, ballet is a workout that’s expressive and proven to improve posture, flexibility, strength, balance – and, perhaps most importantly, happiness. Because choreographies require concentration, ballet also helps forge new neural pathways which can ward off age-related cognitive decline.
Before taking up the class, Morris could only slightly lift her right arm following several back and shoulder operations. “Now I can reach the pantry!” she says, beaming. “I don’t like horrible Lycra-filled gyms – but I like how social ballet is.” Many Swans are now good friends: after class, most lunch at a nearby café, sharing photos of grandchildren (or great-grandchildren) and laughing over whichever move they bungled today. So far, no men have joined the group, but “Senior Drakes” are definitely welcome – no tutus required.