To learn the art of ballet dancing, a student usually starts training in the early stages of life. It normally also requires a strict diet to be fit enough to stand on tiptoes and to dance. However, Samar Ekladious, the owner of the Cairo fitness company Life Up and a ballet school director, has been reversing this long-held concept. She decided to start ballet classes with students who could be as old as 50 or 60 and have absolutely no background in ballet.
“I was a senior college student in 2010 when I started teaching ballet. However, I wanted to have a curriculum that I could teach my students other than ballet,” Ekladious explained, adding that this was how these “other ballet classes,” as she calls them, started.
“I started studying how to teach older ballerinas, as there was no one teaching them at that time in Egypt because the norm was that it would be too hard to start to do anything at an older age,” she said, adding that this had not been easy. Doing ballet at the age of 40, 50 or 60 years old was not seen as possible, when Russian and French ballet schools start with students of seven or eight.
“But we now have people in their mid-60s who do not have any ballet background or experience doing ballet,” Ekladious said.
Ekladious is a German University in Cairo (GUC) graduate who studied management and human resources and has been studying dance for many years. “I studied an American curriculum called dance fusion affiliated to the New York Academy of Dance as well as fitness courses like Pilates and yoga. Now I am studying kinesiology, which helps me to teach others what they are physically capable of,” she said. “For example, I had someone with disc problems in their back, so I had to work around those to help her become a ballerina.”
The methods she uses are different from those she might use for students in their twenties. “It took me a lot of studying of rehabilitation techniques to prepare people for the lessons and to be able to work with those who don’t have mobility or flexibility or stamina or endurance, especially people who are overweight. Many women have also found it difficult to go through with all this at first because of the Egyptian culture,” she said.
She added that some people used to pick on her students for practising ballet, though this is no longer the case. It is important to understand that everyone should be accepted in ballet classes, no matter what their level or background or social status. “The acceptance comes from the very beginning: it’s about accepting your body, as you have to accept your body to be able to do ballet,” she said.
Organising the classes was an experimental process for Ekladious at first. “I was teaching in another place before I had my own school, and I asked the owner ‘why don’t you start teaching other people ballet?’ After hesitating, she agreed,” she said. What she had in mind was basic ballet lessons blended with other techniques to encourage people to get a “ballerina body.”
“Two older women came to the class at first, but now we have 200 or 300 ballerinas who come twice or three times a week. The first classes were once a week,” Ekladious said. She had not expected that so many people would join either. The two women who first joined her lessons now work as ballet teachers with Ekladious after they studied the know-how of teaching ballet. “They are more passionate than original ballerinas because they feel that they learnt it the hard way and want to pass on their knowledge,” she said, adding that she now has a teaching staff of 25, nine of them mature ballerinas.
It is on both the physical and psychological levels that Ekladious, also specialising in rehabilitation techniques, prepares her students, and this mostly comes via peer-to-peer encouragement and support. “We talk about physical and psychological matters to convince them that it is fine and that people will not wonder what they are doing on the Cairo Opera House stage with their size or weight,” she said, adding that there had been challenges for the students at first, but they had been helped by word of mouth from other women.
“For example, the first nine ‘other ballerinas’ who started to dance on stage in their first performance worked under a lot of stress because what they were doing was new, but they managed to overcome their challenges and fears nonetheless. Now these women are there to encourage the rest,” she said.
“This is because people need to see a success story to be convinced. For those who are overweight or physically not fit there are other women who have convinced them to go on and step onto the stage. They convince each other, and in some cases more than the teacher can. Of course, the teacher has an impact, but the real impact comes from within.”
EXPERIENCE: The students also lose weight through the training, though this depends on each person’s determination. The course includes nutritional sessions by professionals and psychologists to speak about the “self-love that comes from within,” for example.
“The idea behind the classes is that we wanted to say to the world that it is never too late to do anything. The second thing is that you have to believe in yourself and not listen to other people who may discourage you,” Ekladious said.
One of her students, an oncologist, said that the ballet classes were more like psychological sessions to her since her soul was free in them “and there was something spiritual in ballet,” she explained. Another 58-year-old student said that when she started she thought that she would only do a few steps for fun and never imagined that she would actually perform on stage wearing a pair of pointes.
“Now I have three generations going to different ballet classes, the grandmother, the mother and the granddaughter,” Ekladious said. “All you need is commitment. I cannot guarantee that you will have the flexibility and mobility of a ballerina or the ability to perform on stage unless you commit to the classes,” she added.
“When students to be contact us, we evaluate those who have some experience to make sure that they go to the right level for their age and skills. For those who don’t have any experience, they just call up and register their names because we accept students by availability.” Classes are organised every October and January, and because more people want to join the classes there will be an additional one this year.
There are also different levels, beginner, intermediate and advanced. After finishing the levels, there can be opportunities to work in teaching ballet. “They get teacher training accredited by the New York Academy that enables them to teach anywhere. We have also recently been offered recognition by the UN cultural agency UNESCO,” Ekladious said.
The obstacles include the students themselves, who may have little faith in themselves because ballet is seen as too challenging since it requires a lot of practice. “So, the big challenge is flexibility – for people who are no longer mobile or flexible because of sitting for long hours in corporate jobs, for example. As a result, our bodies become more immobile. The second challenge is wearing pointes. But people must make efforts, and then they will see the results no matter their age or background,” she said.
The school organises annual events, each based on a different theme. “So far, we have had three performances. The first was ‘other ballet’ performance in Egypt in 2014; the second was the first veiled women dancing ‘other ballet’ in 2017; and the third was the first ‘other ballerinas’ on the Cairo Opera House stage in 2019,” Ekladious said. “The veiled ballerinas also encouraged other veiled women to become ballerinas,” she added, noting that last year’s theme was the evolution of dance as ballet is the “mother of all dance genres” and those who can dance ballet can go on to dance in any other way, including blends of modern and classical ballet like Tango.
“Now we need to qualify more trainers to be able to train ballerinas because not every ballerina can be a teacher. For this reason, our other ballet teachers are chosen carefully. They undergo extensive training, which includes the New York curriculum, and they are particularly trained to deal with the students psychologically,” she said.
Ekladious has a message for every woman who is considering ‘other ballet.’ “It won’t be easy, but believe me it’s worth it. It is worth being able to step onto the stage and feel free and that you can do it, that you are challenged, that you are not doing something that anyone can do, and that you are not doing something that is normally done at your age” she said.
“You can feel proud about yourself, about the journey and about the community you find yourself in. Our ballerinas travel together and feel empowered by each other. That community in itself is worth it,” she concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly