Get Moving with the Silver Swans: A Class for Older Ballet Dancers

Photo: David Tett

Dozens of young dancers representing 13 nationalities are in Toronto vying for recognition this week at the prestigious Genée International Ballet Competition.

The event began last week with five days of intensive coaching. Semifinal performances begin today and continue Tuesday and the final, a public performance, will be held at 7:30 p.m. Thursday (Aug. 29) at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.

The Genée is open to dancers aged 15 to 19, from around the world who are studying the British-based Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) syllabus.

It’s the first time the competition has been held in Toronto since 2008.

It’s an exciting event for the dance world and, especially, for the up and coming young dancers we’ll soon be watching on the world’s stages.

Even more exciting for the rest of us who are, well, not young, not up and coming but have trouble getting up from kneeling down, the RAD is launching a new program in Toronto following its success in the U.K., U.S., Australia and Hong Kong.

It’s called Silver Swans, for people 55 plus including men — but no one who is 45 will be turned away.

Older women learning ballet
Photo: David Tett

During the Genée Competition, some Toronto area dance teachers are being trained to teach Silver Swans classes by visiting RAD instructors and will be licensed to offer the classes.

“It’s a much more holistic type of practice,” explains Sarah Haslock Johnson who is leading the  training program in Toronto for prospective Silver Swans teachers.

“We’re not expecting Silver Swans to put on point shoes or do lots of jumps. Believe it or not, one in four of us is going to live to be over 100 years old, and dance can help us get there with autonomy. The research shows that dance can help with everyday movement and can increase mobility, flexibility and stamina.”

In the Silver Swans classes that Johnson teaches, she uses “mostly instrumental music — classical, and music with a rhythmic quality, music from West Side Story, Singin’ in the Rain.… we’re not trying to have a rock festival.”

Carmen Cairns, who teaches at Canadian Contemporary Dance Theatre in Toronto, is participating in the Silver Swans training program.

“It’s exciting,” she says. “It used to be seen as something for young people and able bodies and it got ruled out if you got to a certain age.  But the RAD saw a demand for ballet classes for older people and backed it up with research.”

Cairns suggests that the popularity of Strictly Come Dancing may be inspiring older people to take dance classes — “and for longevity, you have to just keep moving.”

She explains that “ballet is an all round mind-body experience. There’s an emotional connection with the music. I dance because of music.”

If all goes according to plan, Cairns says, she hopes to start offering Silver Swans classes at Canadian Contemporary Dance Theatre in January.