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Ballet keeps Polish seniors on their toes

By Maja Czarnecka / AFP Dressed in white tutus, seven pensioners from a village in southern Poland love to get on their tiptoes to dance ballet classics like Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.” All these new found ballerinas are grandmothers — one is even a great-grandmother — and the oldest member of the troupe is 73. “If we …


By Maja Czarnecka / AFP

Dressed in white tutus, seven pensioners from a village in southern Poland love to get on their tiptoes to dance ballet classics like Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake.”

All these new found ballerinas are grandmothers — one is even a great-grandmother — and the oldest member of the troupe is 73.

“If we stayed at home all the time to do dishes, we’d just be like old grannies,” declares Ola Szczepanska.

The 63-year-old dancer quickly changes costumes in a makeshift dressing room at the community centre in Lazy, a town of 6,000 in Poland’s southern Silesian coal mining region.

Tutus for Swan Lake are swapped for red skirts and white peasant tops for a dance to the tune of the 19th-century Russian folk song “Kalinka,” the second in the evening’s repertoire.

Dubbing themselves Barborka, after Saint Barbara — the patron saint of coal miners — the dance troupe performed for members of a senior citizens’ university on the Christian feast of Saint Andrew on November 30.

Everything is well planned out, down to the last detail. The dancers’ village of Kopalnia pays for the cost of the dance classes and touring, but these seniors use their meager pensions to pay for the costumes, which are not particularly cheap.

The white muslin tutus had to be custom made as stores with dance apparel do not carry the plus sizes these ladies wear.

“When I see myself in this costume, I completely forget that my waistline is 120 centimeters (47 inches) in size!” exclaims Monika Bator, 65, who worked as a saleswoman in a tobacco shop for 40 years.

“Now I can really let my hair down!”

A belly dance is next in the line-up before a Bollywood-style number and a lively and exhausting French Cancan ends the evening’s performance.

Stage fright

The audience bursts into applause demanding an encore, and these dancers are happy to oblige despite their fatigue.

The seniors’ dance fever all started three years ago. For a laugh, the women decided to don their tutus for the first time to perform a version of Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” at a party marking the December 4 feast of Saint Barbara — a special day in the heart of this coal mining community.

Friends and neighbors in their village of Kopalnia — Polish for mine —loved the performance.

“We gulped down a little vodka before to overcome the stage fright,” recalls Anna Nierobis, the 73-year oldest dancer in the troupe.

“We used old curtains to sew our first tutus ourselves. To look like ballerinas, we wore white stocking and T-shirts instead of dancers’ leotards,” she adds wistfully.

Today, these dancers are being invited to perform on television and slowly but surely gaining fame across Poland.

“Young people congratulate us for our courage,” says Halina Rycombel, at 56, the youngest dancer.

Their costumes are now made by a professional seamstress, while their dancing shoes are custom-made by a cobbler.

“Learning to dance in your sixties and seventies is a real challenge,” admits Karolina Slowik, the group’s choreographer.

“They can’t dance ballet on their toes and none of them studied ballet when they were young, but they are all highly motivated and disciplined,” says Slowik, who could easily be one of their granddaughters.

Rehearsals are in a hall with mirrors, once a week and more often before an important show. Next, they would like to try Flamenco, says Slowik.

“The hardest part for me is to keep my arms in the air and to stay on my toes during Swan Lake,” admits Anna Nierobis.

“I’ll stop the day I run out of strength,” she vows.

For now, no one is thinking of quitting and the group is even considering admitting new members as several other local grandmothers are keen to set aside their knitting needles, kick up their heels and have the time of their lives.

A member of a dance troupe composed of elderly ladies dancing to music of Swan Lake in a performance in her home town of Kopalnia. (AFP Photo/Janek Skarzynskia)

 

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