Monday morning, 10.30am. It’s break time at Ibstock Place, an independent school on the leafy fringes of Richmond Park.
Seven-year-olds are playing football outside, while in the school hall 11-year-olds are practising their choral pieces. And in a discreet studio, 55-year-olds (and older) are standing at a ballet barre, performing plies, bending and stretching and turning. The first Silver Swans class of the week is under way.
I became a Silver Swan in January and it came at just the right time. The previous year, I’d left the journalism role I’d thrown my heart and soul into for quarter of a century. I lost my sense of purpose, and – worse – the close group of colleagues I worked with, who had become like family.
At the same time, my partner underwent a series of operations, and my 88-year-old mother’s previously robust health started to deteriorate. As the year went by, I whizzed up and down motorways, from one hospital bedside to another, my own wellbeing the last thing on my mind.
A new spring in her step: Sue, centre, practises her ballet moves with fellow members of the Silver Swans
My mother passed away last December, bringing to an end a year of confusion, upset, bewilderment and deep grief.
Normally optimistic and buoyant, I didn’t recognise – or like – the person I’d become. I knew I had to get my mojo back.
Top of my list of things to do was get my own personal health back on track. Throughout my working life, I’d been fortunate to have access to a company gym, which I used two or three times a week. I also walked our West Highland terrier, Teddy, twice a day, and went to a weekly Pilates class close to the office. But when I left my job, I found myself all at sea exercise-wise. Our beloved Teddy died, and I was miles away from my nearest Pilates class.
The area of London where I live throngs with hard-core gyms where alpha City types heave weights and subject themselves to rigorous spin classes. With personal trainers charging up to £75 per session, none of it was appealing.
I needed to find a form of exercise that I would enjoy and which wouldn’t cost the earth.
For a time, I made do with walking and occasional bouts of hula-hooping in my daughter’s bedroom. Then I heard about Silver Swans.
I’ve always enjoyed ballet. From the age of four, I attended Mrs Bart-Smith’s dance class once a week in Sheffield, where I grew up. I continued ballet through senior school, but stopped when I arrived in London in my early 20s.
I knew immediately that Silver Swans was for me. Started a few years ago by the Royal Academy of Dance to encourage older learners to develop ballet skills, classes are now available across the UK.
I became a Silver Swan in January and it came at just the right time. The previous year, I’d left the journalism role I’d thrown my heart and soul into for quarter of a century
Of course, before my first class, I was apprehensive. I’ve always been self-conscious about my shape. I grew up alongside a supremely slender sister, the sort who looked fabulous in crushed velvet hot-pants when they were all the rage. I incline more towards baby elephant, with the short sturdy legs of a Northern pit pony.
Fortunately, in this group, anything goes. Wobbly thighs, generous derrieres, flapping bingo wings, stiff knees, dodgy ankles – anyone, no matter what your shape or size, how flexible or rigid, how tall or short you are, is welcome.
I felt a bit of a twit at that first class when I arrived in leotard and tights – all the other women were in T-shirts and leggings, and they all knew what they were doing far better than I did. But they were kind and welcoming, and by class two I felt like part of the gang.
Make your own after sun
Have you ever tried to make your own sunburn remedy? I remember as a teenager being told yogurt was the thing. Anyway, this after-sun contains ingredients known to soothe and moisturise.
Health advice is if you do get burnt, then apply a thin layer of moisturiser – avoid anything too greasy that will sit on the skin and trap heat.
You can make a batch of this and keep it in the fridge. Massage into the skin, leave it on for 20 minutes then wash it off in a cool shower.
- 1 ripe avocado
- 1 carrot
- 1 tbsp coconut oil
- 2 tbsp aloe vera gel
- Chop the carrot into rough chunks and put in a blender.
- Cut the avocado in half and spoon into the blender along with the oil and gel.
- Mix until smooth.
- Apply to affected areas of the skin twice a day.
At about £150 a term, it’s good value, working out at around £15 for an hour-long class.
I also like it that our classes take place in the midst of a busy school, where the children can see people of their grandparents’ age enjoying regular exercise.
Mary Goodhew, head of dance at Ibstock Place, is committed to making the school a hub for people in the community of all ages.
She says: ‘From the age of four to 90, we allow all pupils to enjoy share our school’s superb facilities.’ The health benefits of dance are undeniable. We all know that staying active and following some form of pleasurable exercise well into old age is something we should all be considering. But dance, in particular, can perform a vital role in ensuring a better quality of life.
In fact, research often puts ballet ahead of other forms of physical activity for the variety of health benefits it promotes, offering improvements to mobility, posture, co-ordination, strength and energy.
Since releasing my own inner swan, I’ve also gained a new circle of friends – we’re all aged between 55 and 65, and we like to round off the class in a nearby coffee shop. We’re always delighted to see one another and catch up on each other’s week and, most of all, we have a good laugh (while working hard, you understand).
So what makes it all so special?
‘I used to do yoga,’ says my classmate Camilla, ‘but my mind would drift off. In ballet you have to concentrate all the time. It’s exercise for the mind as well as the body.’
Pam agrees: ‘One of my legs is weak from sciatica, and doing ballet is a great incentive to improve my strength in that leg.’
Linda’s reasons are more poignant: ‘My mum died a couple of years ago. In the last few months of her life she was so weak she was unable to walk or do basic physical things, such as lift a kettle.
‘Watching her die like that had a profound effect on me. I realised that as you get older, it’s essential to keep active. Walking is not enough.’
Me? I just can’t think of a better way to start the week and I can tell you, hand on heart, I look forward to Monday mornings. The class is uplifting and joyful. And we all leave with a spring in our step.
- For classes nationwide, visit royalacademyofdance.org.
What’s the difference between plaque and tartar?
Plaque is a sticky, colourless substance that builds up between the teeth and around the gum line. With daily brushing and flossing, it can be kept under control. But poor dental hygiene allows the acid inside plaque to eat through teeth, causing cavities and infected gums.
Eventually, the gums will pull away from the teeth, increasing the risk of them falling out.
Tartar is hardened plaque that has not been removed. The yellowish-brown substance is hard and porous because it forms from the minerals that occur naturally in our saliva.
Left untreated, it too causes cavities, gum disease and tooth loss. It cannot be brushed away and has to be scraped off by a dentist.