Age is but a number when it comes to enjoying the health benefits of dance.
That is the belief of principal Angela Kirkham and trustees at Kirkham Henry Performing Arts Centre, on Horsemarket Road, Malton, who have unveiled grand ambitions to use their skills and facilities to encourage people of all ages and abilities to look at dance as a way of improving their general wellbeing.
As part of the Legacy Building project - to mark the silver anniversary of Kirkham Henry and pave the way for the next 25 years - plans are also underway to introduce dance classes that help people who suffer from different conditions, such as Parkinson’s Disease, a subject about which Angela is only to aware.
The evidence of what she feels can be achieved is the Gentle Exercise class.
Every Tuesday, a group of fun-loving ladies, ranging in age from their 60s to 90s, are put through their paces - gently - by Angela.
The morning begins with a warm up, followed by exercises on the ballet barre, then a simple dance routine set to music, and finishes with everyone decamping to a local cafe for a catch-up. Introduced 25 years ago, it was designed to cater to the needs of the older generation who wanted something less strenuous from the adult ballet, tap or jazz classes offered at Kirkham Henry.
And the class is deliberately reasonable on the pocket too.
Originally costing £1, its price has defied inflation to rise to only £2.50 - a “conscious decision,” says Angela, who does not want to overcharge for a class which has been described as a “lifeline” by its members.
Angela said: “We now have a lovely age range with ladies in the early 60s and going up to Mary, who is 93. Over the years, we have had people in their 50s with back problems where they couldn’t do any adult classes and then joined us because the exercise itself is as good as physiotherapy.
“I have always known the benefits but it’s only over the last few years that everyone else seems to have realised the benefits of dancing and keeping moving.”
Indeed, Angela was invited to a conference in London last year which was focused on Dance and Wellbeing.
“There have been studies that prove that dance helps ease the pressure on the NHS - not just the physical side, but the mental side too - keeping fit, keeping the body working and also everybody enjoying themselves,” she said.
“It’s noticeable how their rhythm improves, it helps enormously with their balance. A lot of my students come in with walking sticks but dance without them.
“I think the music takes them away from worrying and all to do with rhythm and moving in time, it gets the brain going.”
Angela’s ladies are devoted to the class and it is easy to see why.
Sandy Jeffries, a veteran of the Gentle Exercise class for the past 17 years, said: “We come here because it keeps us fit. We use all our muscles and go away feeling happy and relaxed. It’s very enjoyable, there’s a lot of chat and most of us for a coffee afterwards.”
Another class veteran, Kay Ward, agreed: “It’s a good chance for people who are on their own to socialise every week. It makes people feel normal and included. People are chatting and smiling, they are having lovely conversations and it doesn’t matter how incapacitated we are.”
The aim now for Angela and the Kirkham Henry trustees is to create other classes which have a similar impact as Gentle Exercise. Several local groups and organisations have already been contacted to see if they could meet the needs of their clients, such as Ryedale Special Families, Next Steps, Ryedale Mencap, among others.
But first the £150,000 Legacy Building Project must be completed and the dance school upgraded with a two-storey extension, boasting new facilities for people with disabilities, two new studios and changing rooms.
The long term vision, says Angela, is to provide classes which could improve the health of people who may suffer from different conditions, be it mental health issues, a stroke or even Parkinson’s Disease, an area where Angela is helping to spearhead in North Yorkshire.
The English National Ballet has introduced a programme and Angela, who has a friend who has the condition, was inspired to get involved. With the help of Parkinson’s UK, she lead a wildly successful class in York last month.
“There was one man whose wife said he has had Parkinson’s for 20 years and never would she think she would see him dance again. It was quite emotional. It’s a different programme they have geared for people specifically with Parkinson’s. The carers and the spouses joined in and everyone had a good time, not worrying that someone would be looking at them.
Angela added: “We would just love to introduce more. We would like to bring in wheelchair dancing but again we don’t have the facilities at the moment. We have to get them because there are so many people who want to do classes like this.”