Phyllis Gibson is 88 and used to work in the cotton mills in Yorkshire. Gwen Marsh is 76 and a former cleaner, and Teresa Lagrutta is 60 and a former nanny. They’re from very different backgrounds - but what they have in common is their love of dance. 

I found them getting into the groove at a dance class for older people in west London with teacher Sarah Platt – a highly enjoyable class combining elements of ballet, tap, and musical theatre. 

It’s one of a number of free classes put on by the Royal Academy of Dance as part of its Dance for Lifelong Wellbeing project. 

Phyllis Gibson is full of enthusiasm for the classes.

“I’ve danced all my life,” she tells me. “I did tap dancing as a teenager, and ballroom dancing, then we had the soldiers there, so we did the jiving. Then when I came to London in ’47, when I got married, I had three children, and when they grew up, I started my first [dance class]. In 2000, my husband died, so I started dancing again.” 

I asked her whether she ever felt too tired to attend classes. “No, no, no, no, no. Because I hate staying in, and when you go out there’s only the shops or park and I’d rather go dancing, so I dance every day except Wednesday. Oh, it's great - it keeps you on the go, you know!” 

Feelgood factor

Gwen Marsh says dancing keeps her well. “I think it makes a lot of difference to my health,” she says. “I have high cholesterol, and it helps to keep it down, and it does me good. I feel good. 

“I still don’t know my left from my right, but I keep going!” 

Teresa Lagrutta moved here from Venezuela to be with her family. She’s been coming to Sarah’s class for just a few weeks. 

“I feel well,” she says. “It helps me to breathe better, to move, my balance, everything. I love to exercise. I love the movement, the music.” 

Later I spoke to choreographer Dame Gillian Lynne, who’s 88 and is currently recreating Robert Helpmann's 1944 ballet, Miracle in the Gorbals, for the Birmingham Royal Ballet. She’s also just made a fitness DVD for older people.

I asked her why she wants more older people to exercise. 

“Well, if you think about it, what are they going to do if they don’t?” she replies. “They’re going to spend too much of the day sitting, which is the worst position for a human being ever to be in. Lie down, or stand, or squat, but sitting is terribly bad for you. 

“It gets the blood coursing round the body, which makes you feel better, makes your eyes more alert, makes you more alive, makes you ultimately feel better.” 

"You have to force yourself"

What would Dame Gillian say to someone her age who might find it difficult to exercise due to poor health? “I’ve got two metal hips and a fused foot,” she says. “I woke up this morning feeling pretty rotten. I am always being part of some function or other, and I do my class and Pilates and I’m preparing a new ballet. So I have all that going on and often feel very tired in the morning. 

“But if you don’t do it then you’re never going to beat it, you’re never going to get as fit as I think you should be. 

“You have to force yourself to do it, even if you only do 10 minutes - standing up, reaching for the ceiling and gradually arching your back, and going right down to the floor, and then straightening the legs so the back of the legs get going and then tucking in the tummy and pulling up the spine, and reaching to the sky and opening out so your bosom gets exercised, and drop your head back, which gets the neck going, and then shake your shoulders and go round and round and round backwards, and then round and round and round forwards. Even if that’s all you did, it would be better than giving in to the fatigue.”

Talking to your body

Dame Gillian herself has a regular morning routine that she sticks to whatever her mood. “My morning routine is I get up, I put on my funny old warm easy clothes, and do my workout for about 20 minutes,” she explains.

“That consists of stretching my body from top to toe, and speaking to it, which is what I’m trying to develop in older people, so that you can have a direct conversation with all the muscles, and make sure they’re working and when they’re not, you can hone in on them, pull them together, get them going.

”Because older people and people who sit forever do not do that. They leave their bodies just sitting there, which is why they get fat and slovenly.” 

What does Dame Gillian mean by ‘speaking to’ her muscles? 

“I mean by saying, ‘Buttocks, pull in tight, no, that’s too far forward, pull them underneath you and stretch them and hold. Stomach! Pull in, not the point where you bulge everything out, it’s as if you’re being squeezed by two strong hands, pull in, push them through to the back of the spine and hold. And so on. I do that all over my body. 

“I just got through a year of terrible pneumonia, and all the doctors said that I wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t had this rapport with my body,” she says. 

The Royal Academy of Dance currently runs free classes in Battersea and Roehampton, and plans to roll out classes nationwide in coming months.

(VoR)