Birmingham Royal Ballet teaches older generation to move

The Handsworth Elders in rehearsal The Handsworth Elders practise for two hours each week at a local community centre

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Ballet is usually the preserve of fit, young dancers with athletic frames but a West Midlands based dance company is helping an older generation to find their dancing feet.

Birmingham Royal Ballet (BRB) has been providing ballet instruction in the Perry Barr area of the city for three years, as part of the city's Arts Champions scheme. And on Saturday a group of "elders" will make their performance debut.

Professional dancers will be performing at Handsworth Library for an event called 'Ballet? What's that?' as part of the Cultivating Culture season of events. Their support act will be the Handsworth Elders, who aim to prove ballet has no age limit.

"We are like little birds, little butterflies!"

Start Quote

Dorothy Gabbidon

I love everything about it... the teacher is very encouraging”

End Quote Dorothy Gabbidon Handsworth Elders

Kasia Kraus glides her arms gently up and down, elegantly demonstrating the lightness of a ballet dancer's movements.

In front of her seven women from Handsworth's Golden Age Forum copy the shapes, backs straight, chins up, feet in 'first position'.

Clad in a T-shirt reading "Birmingham Royal Ballet - Reaching Out", Kasia moves around the group, guiding their arms and relaxing their shoulders.

Then she starts the music, and as the strains of Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" ring out, the ladies begin their ballet routine.

A former professional ballroom dancer, Kasia is keen on breaking the stereotypes surrounding ballet.

"We are introducing ballet to the community, saying ballet is for everyone," she says.

"At first the ladies were not sure about it. They were especially insecure about the physicality, whether they would be able to do the exercises.

"We had to make them understand that we would keep them safe, that everything was going to be adaptable to what they could actually do."

Members of the Handsworth Elders The youngest member of the group is 69 years old

The emphasis, Kasia says, is always on the health benefits of particular movements, which are being widely felt.

'A little family'

Dorothy Gabbidon, who will be 80 in October, finds the ballet moves help her mobility.

"It's good for our joints, our wellbeing, mentally, physically and socially," says Dorothy, a former NHS nurse.

Birmingham's Arts Champions

  • There are 12 organisations in the Arts Champions scheme, which is funded by Birmingham City Council
  • Each is assigned a constituency to work with for three years
  • The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra has been working in Selly Oak, and the Birmingham Opera Company is in Ladywood

Source: Birmingham City Council

"I love everything about it. We get together as a little family, and the teacher is very encouraging."

She says attending classes near her home makes her feel "more relaxed" than if she had to travel into the city centre for the weekly, two-hour sessions.

As part of the scheme the BRB provides a limited number of £5 ballet tickets for people who attend their community events, with coach travel to and from the city centre included.

Dorothy saw a performance of Aladdin last year. "It was lovely - gorgeous," she says.

'Self esteem'

There are emotional benefits too. Yvonne Messam, 69, was a midwife for 42 years before she retired.

"It's a way of getting out and helping to give me some sense of achievement. It's good for self esteem," she says.

The Birmingham Royal Ballet dancers Dancers will perform a section of their latest production, The Prince of the Pagodas, at Handsworth Library

"I look forward to getting up in the morning and coming here."

While memorising dance steps is difficult for some of the women, Kasia's choice of music has helped.

"They know the words of the Bob Marley song, so it helped them to combine movements with words, not just the melody," she says.

Overseeing the Arts Champions scheme is Ginnie Wollaston, culture officer at Birmingham City Council, which funds the initiative.

"It demystifies ballet, if that's the right word, and brings it down to make it real and touchable in people's lives," she says.

"It also helps the dancers understand the city they live in."

Kasia instructs Yvonne Messam and Ruby Reid Kasia, here with Yvonne Messam (L) and Ruby Reid (R), focuses on movements that help with mobility

The Handsworth Elders' interaction with the BRB will end on Saturday night, but what will remain is a new understanding of the arts in Birmingham, Kasia says.

"They understand that we're not this big posh company dancing in the city centre... it's so important that we can bring the dancers to the community venues."

News of Dorothy's ballet exploits has spread as far as Jamaica, where her son has put it "all over Facebook".

But while nerves are running high among some of the women over Saturday's performance, Dorothy remains relaxed.

"I'm a fun person so even if I mess up I can still laugh," she says.

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