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Ballet classes in Sudbury offer chance to boost fitness and wellbeing – plus friendship and fun – to over 55s

In my mind I see Darcey Bussell, a willowy vision of elegance and poise. In reality, I’m probably exhibiting all the lissom grace of Ann Widdicombe being dragged across the dance floor by Anton du Beke on Strictly Come Dancing.

I am dipping a not-so-elegantly pointed toe into Silver Swans - the Royal Academy of Dance’s ballet classes specially designed for people aged over 55.

As a total novice who has never danced a step in my life I’m acutely aware the effect is likely to be more Jemima Puddleduck than swan.

Barre exercises in The Jetty studio in Quay Lane, Sudbury. Picture by Mark Westley
Barre exercises in The Jetty studio in Quay Lane, Sudbury. Picture by Mark Westley

The great thing is, it doesn’t matter a bit. You’re there to enjoy the experience and the many health benefits it brings … not to audition for the Royal Ballet.

Joining the dancers at the Tuesday morning ‘gentle’ session the welcome is warm from teacher Sue Hewgill Peterson, her husband Jerry who does admin plus meets and greets, and the rest of the group. “It's a non judgemental class,” says Sue. “We all love to laugh with each other, not at each other.”

She runs a separate group for those with ballet experience, whose members filmed a dance for the recent global Silver Swans Celebration Day - an event she helped to plan.

Ballet teacher Sue Hewgill Peterson who runs Silver Swans classes in Sudbury. Picture by Mark Westley
Ballet teacher Sue Hewgill Peterson who runs Silver Swans classes in Sudbury. Picture by Mark Westley

Sue, a life member of the Royal Academy, and another dance teacher Natasha Tobin put the idea to its artistic director, and were thrilled by the event’s success.

Nationally, high profile Silver Swans include Queen Camilla, who has private lessons and is vice-patron of the Academy. And broadcaster Angela Rippon - the project’s ambassador - amazed the judges on this year’s Strictly with her flexibility and elegance at the age of 79.

The programme, launched in 2017, is now global with licensed classes in more than 50 countries including the US, Australia and Mexico.

Sudbury Silver Swans filmed a dance for the global Silver Swans celebration day in October
Sudbury Silver Swans filmed a dance for the global Silver Swans celebration day in October

It is open to all, from experienced dancers to complete beginners, and as well as the joy of dancing it can help improve mobility, posture, coordination, balance, mental flexibility and wellbeing, and energy levels.

Sue holds her classes at The Jetty, the Quay Theatre’s studio in Sudbury, but welcomes members from a wide area of Suffolk and Essex.

The gentle sessions, which last an hour, are preceded by a half-hour class which is partly seated, ideal for anyone who prefers not to be on their feet for too long.

Members of the Sudbury Silver Swans ‘gentle’ class which is suitable for all abilities. Picture by Mark Westley
Members of the Sudbury Silver Swans ‘gentle’ class which is suitable for all abilities. Picture by Mark Westley

Before going to their first class, new recruits like me have a one-to-one with Sue, often at her home, to introduce them to some basic moves.

We start with triple runs - one step, then two on tiptoe - and because we are at her house we go on a circular route from the sitting room through the dining room, kitchen and hall. Then we try out foot positions, plies - which are basically knee bends - and arm positions.

She reveals why ballet dancers always hold their hands a certain distance apart in front of them - it’s so that when they raise their arms they don’t hide their faces.

Teacher Sue explains some moves to the class in The Jetty studio in Sudbury. Picture by Mark Westley
Teacher Sue explains some moves to the class in The Jetty studio in Sudbury. Picture by Mark Westley

The following day, it’s into The Jetty, where a mirror wall - slightly daunting - and barre make it ideal for ballet classes.

Dress code is relaxed. Most choose leggings and a tee shirt, but you can wear anything comfortable and suitable for dancing. I’ve dug out some bizarrely-patterned leggings that haven’t seen the light of day for at least 10 years … Sue says they’re fine.

I’m also wearing pale pink ballet shoes - so soft and flexible you feel almost barefoot - not the satin pointe shoes we’re used to seeing in classical ballet. Dancers can only go on pointe after years of experience to build up sufficient strength in their legs and feet.

Sue has about 40 people on her books but generally there are 12 to 14 at each session.

We limber up with triple runs, then some exercises - at this point I’m probably clinging to the barre a little tighter than others but mostly manage to follow Sue’s lead.

Various routines follow, each to a different piece of music. I feel I don’t do too badly at the early ones.

But as they get more complex it’s trickier to synchronise feet, arms and brain … all the while unable to take my eyes off the mirror where I see what looks like a newborn giraffe struggling to stay on its feet.

But I have to remember it’s my first time, and it’s easy to understand how mastering this would improve strength, balance and coordination, plus giving a real boost from the sense of achievement.

Everyone here has been through this stage … many had never danced before. No-one’s laughing at me and I’m having fun!

Sue, a former professional dancer with decades of teaching experience, grew up in County Durham and had her first ballet lesson aged three. At 10, she went to board at the renowned Elmhurst Ballet School.

“I loved it. I was in the same class as Hayley Mills and Dee Dee Wilde of Pan’s People. Jenny Agutter was also at the school - I was a prefect and had to look after her for a while.

I’m still in touch with a lot of people from Elmhurst,” she says.

She went on to train at the Royal Ballet School, and having taken a break from dancing after meeting her first husband, became a principal dancer at Darlington Theatre.

“Musicals were always a big thing for me. I ended up choreographing at Darlington as well as dancing, then I also started teaching.”

She started a dance school from scratch and built it up to 500 pupils, then became head of dance at Queen Margaret’s School in York. She has also taught for the Royal Ballet School junior associates.

Almost 30 years ago she founded a charity, We Can Dance, for children with special needs, which now funds dance teachers to go into special schools in the north of England.

“When Jerry and I met we went to America and I retired aged 60. But after a year I ended up running a performing arts centre in North Carolina and introduced Royal Academy of Dance exams to the area. They were exciting times.”

She started Silver Swans classes after they returned to England a few years ago, and the group has gone from strength to strength. “It’s only because Jerry is so supportive that Sudbury Silver Swans can flourish,” she says.

“I’d heard about Silver Swans and wanted to do a course to get a licence. Everything was on Zoom at that time because of the pandemic - I did my licence in Sydney, Australia via Zoom.

I did a little publicity and have never had to advertise since,” said Sue who also runs Sudbury Cygnets classes for children.

Last year she published a book, Dance for your Life, which focuses on how the skills learnt through dance can transform health and wellbeing, backed up with inspirational stories. Profits from book sales are going to the We Can Dance charity.

Sue was one of a handful of former Elmhust pupils presented to Queen Camilla - who is the school’s patron - during its centenary celebrations earlier this year.

“She said she really enjoys her Silver Swan classes because for a whole lesson she can focus on that and nothing else.

“Afterwards I wrote to her about my book, then sent her a copy, and got two letters personally signed by the Queen in response.”

There is no upper age limit for Silver Swans. The Sudbury group’s senior member, Patricia, is 92 and joined because she wanted to improve her balance.

“When I was a child I did dancing,” she says. “My teacher wanted to put me in for a scholarship for the Royal Ballet but then the war intervened and everything packed up.

“When I walk out of here I need to use a walking stick but in class doing triple runs and all the movements we achieve I can manage without support.

“I used to do pilates, and was losing my balance, and my osteopath said you would do well to do dance. I googled dancing and Sudbury Silver Swans came up so I rang.

“I find that some of the movements we do are very similar to pilates - instead of squats we say plies.

“It helps my balance. Because of the music and because we do strict timing it helps.”

Another class member says: “One of the great pleasures coming to the class is catching up with old friends and getting to know new ones better. In the studio the years drop away and I am no age.”

And Caroline, who has been enjoying the sessions for around two years, says: “It’s the highlight of the week.

Jane, who has Parkinsons, believes that dancing helps to hold her symptoms at bay. She also does boxing as part of her fitness regime.

Jan has been attending the classes since they started.”I had done all sorts of keep-fit from leaving school, aerobics, gym.

“I had never done ballet but I fancied it and came along and have loved every minute of it. It’s a lovely group of people.

“It has done a lot for my posture, balance and general wellbeing. I find myself doing the positions in outside life.

“I also noticed Angela Rippon is in third position when she listens to the judges’ comments on Strictly.

“It’s a fun way of doing exercise. We do concentrate when we are doing it, but there is a lovely atmosphere.”

Trisch, another member of the gentle class, says: “They are easy movements to replicate at home. Everyone can do them and they can be adjusted.

“You can do the exercises standing at the kitchen sink, and when generally moving around the house. You can also walk upstairs on tiptoe.

“I came to the classes after lockdown. A friend told me about it - I thought it was a different form of exercise. For me it’s all to do with strength and muscles and keeping in trim.

“Anyone can do it. I’ve had no ballet training whatsoever. It’s social as well.”

Meanwhile Julia, who goes to the seated class, says: “I’ve been coming to classes for more than a year. I live next door but one to Sue and she said she was starting a seated class - I have peripheral neuropathy, which causes nerve damage, and arthritis.

“The classes have helped. I find i can get my arm above my head easier at the end of a session than at the beginning. It’s basically balance and coordination. Because I can’t feel my feet I could so easily fall over.

“I’d never done ballet before, but I do like moving to music. I did ballroom and formation dancing in the past.”

Fellow class member Brenda says: “ I’ve been coming for about a year now. When I was very young I used to do jiving and that kind of dancing.

“I’ve done salsa classes with my daughter a few years ago. With the ballet movements you are moving everything.”

As well as classes the Silver Swans go on outings including to see live streamings of ballets. They have also been on a backstage tour of the Royal Opera House, and are planning a trip to the costume department of the ROH next year.

While the vast majority of members are women, the classes are equally open - and just as beneficial - to men, and Sue is keen to encourage more to join the two who already attend.

She stresses the benefits to coordination, strength, and balance, as well as the mental aspects.

“Ballet and dance offer a fantastic opportunity to stay fit and healthy in body and mind. Silver Swans encourages older learners and returners of any gender to experience the joys of classical ballet. It’s completely inspiring and addictive, she says.

And after breaking the ice on Swan Lake for just a small taste of how it feels, I’m sure she’s right.

As someone who blanches at the thought of venturing into a gym and working up a sweat on contraptions that look like instruments of torture, I think I may have found the perfect exercise for me, I’ll be back.

To contact Sudbury Silver Swans go online to suehewgillpeterson.com/courses-3, email suehewgillpeterson101@gmail.com, or call 07730 402005