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Ballet class for seniors shows power of the pirouette

Older dancers find a fountain of youth in Barbara Owen's 'Ballet 40/60'

By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

June 25, 2011

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She fell in love with ballet as a child, as many young girls do, and Susan Savage didn't lack for promise.

She learned her first plies and pirouettes at a feeder school for the Royal Academy of Dance in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

But when she turned 13, her family pulled up roots and moved to West Texas, a part of the world known more for football than for fouettes en tournant (spins with a sideway kick).

"Not exactly a hotbed for my life's passion," she says.

Fifty years later, Savage got a chance to return to the pastime she never got out of her system. That was when the retired Galesville resident enrolled in Ballet 40/60, a class offered at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis for people just like her.

"Whether they're coming back after a long time, rehabilitating an injury or just looking to improve their health or balance, I've found that ballet is an ideal activity for men and women in this age group," says Barbara Owen, 75, who started teaching the course for "middle adults" in 1995 and is just beginning her 17th annual summer sessions.

The class Savage took part in on Monday, Basics II, was made up of 11 women ages 52 to 86. Savage, 65, was serene and elegant, maneuvering through a series of battements (smooth kicks from the knee) and arabesques as the class unfolded.

Others were less sure in their movements — halting and awkward at times.

Everyone belonged.

"Look around," Savage said. "Does not everyone here astound you? They certainly do me."

Standing taller

Afternoon light fills the mirror-walled room, and so does cheerful chatter, as women in black tights — a few in tutus, others in simple leggings or slacks — file in one by one for the first class of the summer session, taking their places along one of three barres.

Basics II — one of four sections of Ballet 40/60 Owen is offering this summer — assumes at least a little prior experience, and because more than half the class has taken a course in this program before, the scene feels like a roomful of students returning to school in September.

The "40" and "60" refer to the general age range, though Owen invites anyone over 40. "I don't card," she says.

Owen, her salt-and-pepper hair stylishly cropped, is a gentle presence at the front of the room, greeting each dancer by name upon entrance, then popping a CD into a boombox.

The piano tune that flows forth — "Atmospheric Stretching Music," from an instructional album by New York dance instructor Finis Jhung — is peaceful and evocative, an apt background for supporting the early goals of the class: loosening the muscles and refamiliarizing them with the form's fundamental moves.

"For the most part, we're just getting ourselves back to thinking about basic positions, basic balance, basic turns," says Savage, who like many in the room hasn't danced in six weeks — since the previous Maryland Hall session came to an end.

Facing the mirror up front, instructor Owen rotates her torso upward in a smooth spiral fashion, extending an arm upward as she completes the move.

The class follows suit, some almost perfectly, others in a herky-jerky fashion.

"[That was] a corkscrew," Owen says with a laugh, her conversational tone of voice filling the room. "You're now taller than when you came in."

Those who remember taking up dance as children — often at the insistence of well-meaning moms — recall all too well the pressures that can easily develop, including an unhealthy compulsion to compare oneself to others.

That kind of neurosis feels absent here, a fact that flows directly from Owen, an Annapolis resident who grew up dancing in her native Washington, D.C.

She started out at 4, absorbing the lessons of modern dance — "you learn a lot about your feet," she says — and stayed with it through her teens, when she was first exposed to the teachings of Russian classical ballet.

It was the late 1940s, and the feel of the techniques transformed her.

"I just loved those shapes your body could make, including arabesques [positions taken on one leg, the other extended to the rear]," Owen says. "I loved the beauty and the harmony of it, the way one movement flowed into the next."

She had enough talent to dance semiprofessionally — she rose to the position of soloist with the Civic Ballet of Washington — but let her career languish when she got married and had a family. She returned to dance, mainly as a teacher of children, as a young adult.

When she reached her 50s, Owen says, she decided to return to dance as a form of recreation, but she encountered an all-too-common dilemma: The only classes available to someone of her age included students in their teen years and up.

The instruction in such classes, she says, skews heavily toward the younger dancers, and so do the exercises.

"They asked for a bunch of different kinds of jumps in the center of the floor," she says of one. "I was excited; I could have done those things in my 20s. But it was too fast and complicated."

She left frustrated.

Owen came to a conclusion that has affected hundreds of dancers at Maryland Hall over the past 16 years.

"People who want to dance [when they're older] need a class that challenges them, but that lets them go away feeling good about themselves," she says. "Otherwise, what's the point?"

Balance

Any group that has been together for a while develops a personality of its own, and in this one, a single class member has emerged as a sort of symbol.

Owen clicks the remote control in her hand, switching the music on the boom box to a slow march, suitable for practicing battement tendu — a movement in which the dancer slides a foot forward or sideways, lifting the heel off the floor and stretching the instep.

She directs the class's attention to a woman gently gripping the barre at the end of one row, her face a picture of serene concentration.

Laverne Papian extends a leg, establishing a clean line from hip to extended toe, all at a 45-degree angle.

At 86, she's the oldest student of the class and probably the most widely admired.

"She's my inspiration," says Lynn Yarbro, 66, of Arnold, who has created a passable approximation of the gesture. "I'd love to be doing what Laverne is doing when I'm her age — staying active and enjoying life."

What Papian is doing, in effect, is exemplifying the benefits of dance to those who practice it, especially in their senior years.

She, too, started dancing as a child, growing up in St. Louis during the Depression. Somehow, she says, her school district managed to keep free dance lessons in the budget, and she always excelled.

Papian, too, moved to a part of the country that was less rich in dance, and except for teaching younger people, she let the talent languish.

Until, that is, she heard about the first class Owen offered. That was when she took dance up again, at 72. Except for a brief period when she was sidelined by an injury, she has kept at it uninterrupted.

The reasons are many. She's married to a man in his 90s whose balance has faltered, and she's certain ballet will help her avoid that particular effect of aging. She loves the social contact. It's fun.

All told, it enhances youth.

"I don't know if this is true, but I read somewhere that there have been very few, if any, professional dancers to develop Alzheimer's disease," says Papian, who wears an ankle brace to hold together her left ankle, which suffers from permanent tears to the tendons.

Age and injury notwithstanding, Owen never misses a chance to praise Papian's exceptional form.

"Laverne is like anyone else in that as she gets older, she develops more limitations," the instructor says. "I know that frustrates her. But — did you see those beautiful feet?"

Being regal

Every ballet class draws on one or more formalized approaches — the Vaganova (Russian Imperial) method, for example, which stresses a precise, sequential form of teaching, or the Cecchetti method, which emphasizes awareness of the anatomy and aims at internalization of the basic moves.

Owen makes use of both but also weaves in the more recent teaching principles of Jhung, a longtime dancer who, upon retiring, spent many hours breaking down film of the world's greatest ballet performers.

The conclusion he came to — that every move in dance corresponds with an equal, countervailing move elsewhere — is uniquely suited to mature students.

"It's about balance," Owen says. "It's a cerebral approach, a little too much for kids, but grown-ups really take to it."

At times. As the instructor puts away the barres, breaks the class into smaller groups and demonstrates combinations that will bring them from one end of the room to the other, some of the newer students get a little turned around.

"How did I end up facing this way?" asks a frustrated Monica Keen of Crownsville, already nervous about taking a class higher than Basics I for the first time.

A classmate, Debbie Kirk of Upper Marlboro, stumbles a bit, then stops short. "You would come [to watch] on the first day!" she says to an onlooker.

Owen's response is to break this succession of movements down into their individual stages, and to do it with carefully placed good humor.

"Everybody knows the first arabesque, right?" Owen says, striking a 3/4 pose in front of the mirror and gazing over her shoulder. "Well, [reverse] it, and you have a fourth arabesque. Just an interesting piece of information."

She then describes the moves as a single motion.

"Point that front foot. You want your hips and toes to precede your nose and shoulders. It's not like you're sneaking up on somebody. You've got to have that regal look."

A few do that, and boldly. Savage's balance is noticeable as she bounds across the floor, her head so still she might be carrying a tray on it.

For others, enthusiasm collides with the limitations of injury and age, or, in some cases, inexperience.

Kim Hedden of Annapolis, who danced as a girl, then returned to ballet just three years ago to speed her recovery from a knee replacement, says her joint is healed and strong, but she doesn't fully trust it yet.

It shows in the way she moves — following the right form, but with tentative weight transfers. "I'm looking forward to losing the fear" in this class, she says later.

Keen completes her turn correctly and ends up exactly where she's supposed to, earning a few compliments. She's still not fully convinced.

"This isn't going to be graded, is it?" she asks, and her classmates laugh.

The basics

Savage, it turns out, isn't just a class member, and she isn't just a dancer who has progressed so quickly under Owen that a few classmates assume (incorrectly) that she was once a professional.

She's also a seasoned observer.

Savage started a new career in her 50s, earning a Ph.D. in human development from the University of Maryland and embarking on a life of teaching.

Her specialty? "You'll laugh at this. It was 'optimizing aging,' " says the ex-professor, who retired in 2008.

If these women have one quality in common (and yes, one man is enrolled in the class, though he's absent the first day), it's an outlook far younger than their years would indicate. Savage is not surprised.

"This class is the quintessential example of optimizing aging," she says. "It provides physical challenges, the way [Owen] works in new things all the time, but at an age-appropriate level. It offers cognitive stimulation; nothing demands more of the mind than ballet. And there's tremendous social support. I've made some of my dearest friends here."

Those dimensions of life, she says, are as basic to optimizing aging as plies are to ballet.

That and, well, loving what you do. Like Owen.

"I read a quote from an older choreographer in Dance Magazine — I forget who it was," she says. "But he said, 'I get outrageous happiness' from continuing on in dance. He plans his life around it. That's what I do."

Likewise, Savage, who says she was "crazy" about ballet as a girl, never stopped dreaming of taking it up again. Until she met Owen a year ago, she never saw a good chance.

"When ballet gets in your spirit," she says, "it never really lets you go."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com