The Royal Academy of Dance: Breaking Barriers

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Her Move are delighted to being working with the Royal Academy of Dance on a series of articles breaking down the stereotypes of what it means to be a dancer.

In this interview, we meet with RAD Silver Swan - Penny Leake. Penny has the degenerative eye condition Retinitis Pigmentosa, which left her unable to read from the age of 25 and to be registered blind at 39.

Silver Swans classes are delivered exclusively by Silver Swans Licensees who have trained to safely adapt ballet techniques for older adults. As of May 2019, there are over 200 Silver Swans Licensees located around the UK, and 500 around the world. Silver Swans classes are specially targeted at older learners and are for both novice and experienced dancers. Although targeted at those aged over 55, there is no upper or lower age limit to be a Silver Swan. These classes help improve mobility, posture, co-ordination and energy levels, and most importantly, these classes are an opportunity to have fun and enjoy the sense of wellbeing that dance brings. Visit the Silver Swans map to find your nearest Licensed teacher.

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Approaching the age of 72, adult dancer Penny Leake is retiring from the world of counselling.  Penny has the degenerative eye condition Retinitis Pigmentosa, which left her unable to read from the age of 25 and to be registered blind at 39.

Penny started her working life as a teacher, but gave that up when her failing sight coincided with starting a family.  Penny found that she had good listening skills, and later trained as a social worker and counsellor, specialising in working with abused children, who never found her visual impairment any problem to them.  

As a child Penny had always been very bad at sport, because of the start of her undiagnosed eye condition, and kept away from any exercise except horse riding.  She did, however, love the idea of ballet, and would improvise to music at home, dreaming of being a ballerina. 

What inspired you to join the ranks of the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) Silver Swans?  

‘When I heard that an adult beginners’ ballet class was starting in my home town, I immediately wanted to see if I could still fulfil this childhood dream.’

How did you feel before and after your first dance class?

‘Before the class I was both nervous and excited.  I had spoken to Lara, the teacher, beforehand, and she had been very welcoming and mindful of inclusion, so I was hopeful.  She had promised to make sure that I was in the best position for having some sight of her, and that she would be talking things through.  

After the class, I was delighted that, thanks to Lara’s promise,  I had been able to join in and enjoy myself.  All of us at Silver Swans have a good balance between trying hard and not taking ourselves too seriously, so I immediately felt one of the crowd. I had never done so in P.E. at school, where I was more likely to feel I was letting the team down.’

Photo Credit: David Tett

Photo Credit: David Tett

Have you ever been confronted with any stereotypes in relation to your dancing? If so, how do you respond to them?

‘The stereotyping (and discrimination) that I have experienced happened many years earlier.  I had gone to an adult beginners’ ballet class, my first hope of fulfilling the dream, when I lived in a different part of the country. 

There the teacher had not been able to adapt at all to having someone with a visual impairment in the class. I just felt more and more lost, and I soon stopped going. My experience in the beginners’ class had just reawakened all my feelings of being inadequate at P.E. at school. 

This is why I had sought out Lara, the Royal Academy of Dance teacher and Silver Swans licensee, before hand – but my experience could not have been more different. 

I have not experienced any stereotyping since joining Silver Swans – if I did, I would politely say how I felt, but there has never been any need. 

Lara wants us to feel like ballerinas, whatever our restrictions, and we ourselves make decisions about what feels right for us. My classmates also exactly understand what I need, and know when it is helpful for them to model something for me.’ 

What benefits do you feel, both physically and mentally, from dancing?  

‘I definitely feel stronger and more supple. My balance has never been very good, because my eyes cannot give enough feedback to the rest of my body, but I have found that my balance continues to improve through the practice that ballet gives me.

I always feel mentally refreshed after ballet – the rest of the world and its problems go away during that time of absorption. The sense of camaraderie that comes from belonging to a friendly group is also very uplifting.

I often smile at the thought of how different I am now from when I felt such an odd one out when at school.’

What else has dancing added to your life?  

‘Dancing has given me a new group of friends. We go to cafés after ballet, and sometimes meet up between classes. This is a great delight.’

Photo Credit: David Tett

Photo Credit: David Tett

What piece of advice would you give to someone who is nervous about taking up a new form of exercise?

‘If it’s a taught course, I would advise checking it out with the leader in advance, but not to be put off if you are presented with hurdles – instead, see if together you can think of ways round them.  Learning new skills is energising, and it seems to combat the issue of the ageing brain.  Go for it!’   

Is there anything else you would like to add?  

‘I am also now determined to follow ballet performances.  Many theatres arrange for an audio-described performance (via headphones) when a ballet company is on tour. I intend now to make the effort to seek these out, as an additional strand to the new life that has opened up for me.’

By choosing an RAD Registered Teacher you are choosing quality, safety and professionalism. There are over 8,000 teachers registered with the RAD worldwide – many qualified in a range of styles. Find your nearest RAD teacher here.