Age is no barrier for Edinburgh dancers

The Prime dancers have performed all over Scotland. Picture: Maria Falconer
The Prime dancers have performed all over Scotland. Picture: Maria Falconer
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You are never too old to put on your dancing shoes, as the members of Prime show.

Of all the performing arts, dance is considered the most therapeutic when it comes to keeping fit and staving off the mental and physical ravages of old age.

Rosie Orr is one of the dancers with Prime. Picture: Maria Falconer

Rosie Orr is one of the dancers with Prime. Picture: Maria Falconer

Aside from the appearance of a token older contestant in the Strictly Come Dancing line up however, we rarely see public performances by dancers who are not in their first flush of youth.

But a growing number of choreographers are specifically interested in working with older dancers to develop pieces which tap into their unique talents. And on Sunday, as part of the Hogmanay celebrations Scot:Lands, a group of the Capital’s older dancers took centre stage.

The depth of feeling and emotion from the life experience that an older dancer can bring to a performance is something that is highly prized.

Morag Deyes, creative director of Dance Base, Scotland’s national centre for dance, says: “Older people will have had more life experiences, whether interesting, delightful, joyful or horrible, which they can bring to their performance giving an added meaning.

Dance is soul-ennobling, so why wouldn’t we want to go on enjoying it as long as we can?

Morag Deyes

“Many have also found a self-assurance in their later years which is a real benefit. Confidence plus experience equals charisma, so older dancers can have it in spades.”

Specialist dance companies for older dancers have sprung up all over the UK, often as offshoots of larger companies, such as Scottish Ballet or Sadler’s Wells, but Edinburgh is the first city in Scotland to have a semi-professional dance company for the over-60s. Formed in 2015, Prime was created by Deyes from a growing desire from dancers over 60 to see themselves more widely represented on the stage and in the world of dance.

The company grew out of the classes aimed at the age group held at Dance Base in the Grassmarket.

A class called Golden encompassed many different disciplines – contemporary, tap, jazz and ballet – and proved so popular with older dancers that spin-off classes were created, including one for highly skilled dancers, Platinum, from which the idea of professional performances emerged and led to Prime.

Deyes says that performances by Prime can offer a unique experience: “The group ranges from 60 to 84. They acknowledge their age in their performance but will certainly not see it as a weakness.”

Deyes herself is now over 60 and says: “Physically, we may cut a few corners compared to younger dancers, but we can be more succinct, just as you often find older people are verbally.

“We get to the point quicker in conversation, and similarly in dance we can use one simple gesture to put across complex emotions with patience and beauty.”

She cites a part of the first piece Prime developed, called Tarn, which encompasses spoken word, music and dance. “The dancers come on to the stage, walk slowly to the very edge and engage the audience by just standing and looking at them.

“It is a spine-tingling moment, so moving, and gives a real feeling of the calm and knowledge within the performers.”

Rosie Orr, who is one of the dancers with Prime, agrees. “We might not be able to roll around on the floor or do all the flips and kicks that you would expect of younger dancers, so you have to replace that with something, and we choose energy, attitude, style and expressiveness. It means that the performance is more theatrical.”

Orr says she is typical of the dancers in the company. “We mostly come from a dance background, although one is from physical theatre, but we aren’t professionals.”

Orr didn’t study ballet as a child – although most of the Prime dancers did – but was taught Scottish country dance at school in Edinburgh before being introduced to jazz dance while living in Australia as a young woman.

She says: “I’ve more or less kept that up ever since but taking the classes for over-60s at Dance Base allowed me to branch out into different disciplines.”

Nor was she a natural performer when younger. “Although I enjoyed jazz classes, I wasn’t keen to perform in front of an audience and only reluctantly took part in end of term shows,” she says.

When asked to audition for Prime however, Orr says: “I decided that if I dithered then I would regret it, and I’m so glad I’m involved. Being older, I feel we don’t care so much what other people think and that gives you freedom.”

Auditions were held at the beginning of 2015 and nine dancers – eight members and an understudy – were chosen.

This year the members had to re-audition and Orr says: “Suddenly I realised how much I wanted to stay part of the company and what it really meant to me. The places are very keenly fought over.”

Since its inception, Prime has featured in the Edinburgh Festival twice with performances at Dance Base, and been the subject of a well-received BBC Alba documentary.

The company has just completed its second Scottish tour, taking in Aberdeen, Inverness and Edinburgh, in partnership with Scottish Ballet’s Elder’s Company, as part of the Luminate Festival and they have represented Scotland in showcases and competitions around the UK and abroad.

The reviews have been very positive: Kelly Apter in The Scotsman described their performances as “replete with tender and joyful moments”.

All the dancers bring their own talents and as well as physical beauty in the movements, there is poignancy and charm, strength and a great deal of humour on stage.

Choreographers from around the country have also approached Dance Base to work with the company.

Deyes says: “Whether it is just one or two dancers needed for a specific performance or a choreographer interested in developing a piece and using our dancers to discover what is possible, they are in demand.

“The common denominator the dancers share, whatever their dance background, is a physical vocabulary which is unique and completely different to younger dancers.”

The company faces different challenges off stage. Their funding, which thus far has come from Creative Scotland, has come to an end and while everyone involved has vowed to carry on regardless even if they have to rely on fundraising, Deyes believes that awarding bodies should consider the importance of projects like this.

“Losing funding would be a financial blow but also takes away the respect for the whole project.” They are undaunted. While in previous years Prime’s performance at the Edinburgh Festival has been part of the wider Dance Base offering, Deyes is considering a Fringe run of ten days or so, on their own.

Prime’s participation at Edinburgh’s Hogmanay cele-brations –a performance in the dance strand of the 1 January event Let’s Dance:Land – can only pave the way.

As for those interested in getting involved, the starting point is the classes for over-60s held at Dance Base.

For Orr there is personal fulfilment that she gets from taking part, but also, she is confident that dancing is doing her good, whether she is performing in a high profile event, rehearsing a new piece or just attending the weekly classes.

She says: “As well as all the fun we have, and the physical benefits of staying active, I think of my mother, who suffered from dementia and I know that dance is one of the best ways of combating that. It is physically, mentally and emotionally rewarding.”

Deyes agrees: “Dance is soul-ennobling, so why wouldn’t we want to go on enjoying it as long as we can?”

This article appears in the winter issue of EH50, the Edinburgh Evening News magazine for the over 50s in the Capital. Read the full e-mag here.