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- October 20, 2020
Almost every week for the past 18 months — until lockdown — the Duchess of Cornwall has hosted a Clarence House gathering so exclusive that not even has secured an invitation.
It does not involve ambassadors, visiting dignitaries or charity commissioners. There is no vintage champagne in cut-glass coupes, no page boys hovering and absolutely no need for a quick blow-dry in preparation.
For this niche gathering consists of just Camilla, four ‘ancient friends‘, five sturdy chairs and a very friendly Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) ballet teacher from called Sarah Platt.
Together, under Sarah‘s expert tutelage and perhaps wearing leggings or possibly a full tutu, leotard and pink tights (sadly, we‘ll never know), they practise their pliés and chassés as traffic whizzes past outside on the Mall. And, as Camilla, 72, enthused in an interview last week, they absolutely love it.
‘It makes all the difference,‘ she said. We thought at first it was going to be very funny and I was going to laugh at everyone toppling over. But actually you concentrate so hard, we don‘t even know what our friend next door is doing. When I stand [now], I think to myself, ‘Drop your shoulders, breathe deeply.‘ ‘
Ballet has long been the secret weapon of unlikely celebrities. Mick Jagger, Batman actor Christian Bale, Arnold ‘The Terminator‘ Schwarzenegger and footballer Rio Ferdinand studied it for years.
Camilla and her pals, meanwhile, are members of the new RAD Silver Swans movement — for women (and men) from the age of 55, who are learning, or relearning, ballet — which has taken over village halls, retirement villages, community centres and over-60s clubs around the world.
‘It started as an initiative to look into the effects and benefits of dance on older people‘, explains the Academy‘s artistic director, Gerard Charles. ‘But it just grew and grew and really caught fire, and we now have over 1,000 teachers in every size community from London and Sydney to the Outback of Australia!‘
Which might feel a long way from all the gilt, tapestries and intricate cornicing of Clarence House, but they‘re all learning the same thing — pliés, posture, and how to hold yourself ‘as if you have a satsuma under your armpit‘ while remembering that ‘there must always be room for the wind to blow‘.
Camilla — vice-patron of the Academy — originally got talked into it by former newsreader and presenter of Come Dancing, Angela Rippon. Today she is a Silver Swans ambassador and persuaded the Duchess to watch a class in February 2018.
As Angela once put it: ‘She spoke to the ladies and one of them told her: ‘My balance has improved so much doing this that I can put my knickers on standing up!‘ ‘ And that was that. Obviously, Camilla, as much as she might like to, couldn‘t really pull on her leggings and pop to her local village hall.
So she gathered her own group and the RAD sent round Sarah, 47, who found it all a bit different from her usual job. In part, as she joked, because she was nervous about using the Clarence House furniture as a makeshift barre instead of the ‘usual plastic chairs‘.
Today, Silver Swans everywhere — and there are hundreds of thousands of them — eulogise about their mental and physical strength, improved balance, better posture and stronger bones (Camilla is President of the Royal Osteoporosis Society). The list of benefits goes on and on.
Many cite the ‘knicker test‘. Others celebrate being able to put socks and shoes on again without ending up on the floor. An octogenarian told Sarah that, after just a few lessons, she could clean the top of her shower again. Others are standing taller, firmer and more confidently.
‘I get so much joy from the older learners,‘ says Sarah. I don‘t (quite) qualify for the lower Silver Swan age bracket (though Sarah assures me they take younger dancers who don‘t want to risk all the jumping about in the normal ‘adult‘ classes). But my Tuesday evening ballet lessons at Tanya‘s School of Dancing in Stone Village Hall in Buckinghamshire, do seem a very, very long time ago.
I danced for six years from the age of five, and even won Tanya‘s coveted Progress Cup, before packing it in to play the trombone in a brass band instead. But 40 years on, I am creaky and stiff with appalling posture so I leap at the chance of an hour‘s lesson on Zoom with Sarah to revisit my wobbly pliés and pirouettes.
During the warm up, pliéing, waggling my arms, waving my hands in the air as she directs, ‘on your tip toes, crown of head reaching for the ceiling… hips, hips, hips!‘ I feel self-conscious, lumpy and grumpy — goodness knows what it‘s like in a full class.
But Sarah — who teaches 12 group lessons a week, as well as countless private sessions everywhere from retirement homes to Clarence House — is warm, funny, expert at banishing any awkwardness and a firm believer that you don‘t have to be perfect at something to enjoy it, even if, like her, you‘ve been dancing for 37 years.
‘I understand ballet and I love it, but I‘ve not got the right body for it. Who does? One in a million!‘ Happily, there‘s also no uniform or dress code. Some Swans wear tracksuits. Others prefer leggings.
But a surprising number — and no, of course Sarah won‘t divulge Camilla‘s preference — favour pink tights, ballet skirts and leotard. ‘I had one woman, well into her 80s, who wore fishnet tights and a leotard without fail. Another who always does it in heels,‘ says Sarah.
‘And if you fancy something a bit simpler, we have a lovely ballet skirt lady who makes skirts to measure — from size eight to 28.‘ While 55 is the lower age limit, there is no upper limit. Sarah‘s current eldest student is 88 years old, in ‘pretty good shape‘ and used to dance when she was young.
One male Silver Swanner — a highly decorated British World War II veteran living in America — is 101. And he‘s the teacher. Generally, men are very thin on the ground. Partly because it all sounds ‘girly‘, but also because most of the time it doesn‘t occur to men that ballet is for them.
Which is a shame, because the benefits — particularly as we get older — are absolute. One research programme by Western Sydney University found that participation in dance reduces falls by as much as 37 per cent in older people.
It is also great for stress: ‘You are so busy concentrating on the steps you forget to worry about the boiler, or whatever,‘ says Sarah. Camilla says she loves ballet because it‘s done wonders for her posture and discipline, as well as making her ‘very happy‘.
But different students want different things from the classes. Some want the exercise, others want to be creative. A few like to work towards an actual performance. And some are keen to develop their technique and strength.
One lady in her 70s wanted to wear pointe shoes. ‘I said: ‘Don‘t be silly‘, but she was so strong — she used to stand on one leg doing leg raises for 15 minutes at a time — that in the end, I said: ‘Let‘s do it‘.
So now we do a bit of barre work en pointe together each week.‘ For all the exercise benefits, the real joy for most is the social side, which is vibrant. There are Silver Swan coffee clubs, lunch clubs, book clubs WhatsApp groups and social events — many of which are now continuing online at the moment and embracing the weekly free YouTube video released by RAD.
Sadly, given we‘re in lockdown, today it‘s just me and Sarah, smiling and telling me to ‘zip the thighs in, demi-plié. Point the toe, tight and strong…‘ and if all else fails, ‘just flutter your eyelashes‘.
Of course, she is right. And as I balance on one leg, the other lifted up and out, arms stretched high and slightly curved in arabesque, thumbs tucked in, crown reaching toward the ceiling, net skirt wafting behind me and piano music tinkling, I feel a surge of affection towards the Duchess of Cornwall. Good for you Camilla, for sharing this little bit of joy.
Now all you need to do is get Charles pirouetting too, and you‘ll have cracked it.
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