Grow older with Grace: ballet dancer Jane Magain prepares to hang up her pumps
As ballet dancer Jane Magan prepares to hang up her pumps, she tells our reporter about the benefits of ballet for physical and mental health - at any age
The art of ballet may attract a 'get 'em while they're young' type, but pliés and pirouettes are not just for youngsters. Just ask former Spice Girl and fashion designer, Victoria Beckham, who credited ballet classes for her flexibility when she Instagrammed a photo of her leg lifted over her head last March; or 71-year-old British retiree Doreen Pechey, who made headlines last month when she became the oldest person to ever pass the grade six exam at the Royal Academy of Dance, having laced up her first pair of ballet shoes in her 60s. Doreen also dropped five dresses sizes and reduced her blood pressure in the process.
Queue a surge in middle-aged and older women signing up for adult ballet classes, with promises of fun, flexibility and toning benefits.
However, the fruits of the Italian performance dance are not just physical. Earlier this year prima ballerina Alessandra Ferri came out of retirement at the age of 53, admitting that when she stopped dancing it felt as if she had "switched off a light". It is a feeling that Irish ballerina Jane Magan (37) knows all too well.
The Rathfarnham native has been dancing for over 33 years, and has performed in some of the most famous ballets around the world - including Swan Lake, Carmen and The Nutcracker. She has slowly but surely been coming around to the idea of hanging up her professional pointe shoes over the last few years. But ballet, she says, will always play a key part in her health and well-being.
"I feel like I have been sort of semi-retiring for about five years," Jane says. "I am retired in a sense because I don't see myself doing classical ballet anymore, with pointe shoes and all of that type of stuff, but I would like to keep my options open and perform again in maybe dance theatre."
Last September, Jane enrolled in Trinity College Dublin to study for a degree in French and Classical Civilisations.
"It has been lovely, but the first year was quite overwhelming, it has been a lot to take in. There wasn't much time for dancing and I missed it hugely," Jane says. "Not dancing created an imbalance and it made me realise how there is that vital connection between body and mind and the soul as well.
"Dancing is really beneficial in so many ways and because my mind was going 90 at the beginning of my college course, trying to take in all of this new information and I wasn't dancing, I really felt that sort of disconnect happening," Jane says.
This academic year, Jane has promised herself to strike more of a balance between her studies and dancing.
"Dance is something that allows me to escape and to release tension and energy. I am also so used to expressing myself in that way, that I really need it," Jane says. "When you start in the morning with the bar, you have to go into yourself a bit and start focusing and concentrating; so that time to just be quiet and concentrate and also listen to the music is really important."
Jane began ballet at the tender age of four and very quickly became engrossed in it.
"I just wanted to leave school and dance all day," Jane says.
In 1994, during her transition year, Jane travelled to Perm State Choreographic Institute in Russia to spend the year training under Lydia Ulanova.
"I started a ballet class just locally at first, then I went to Anne Campbell-Crawford when I was seven and that is when it started to get serious," Jane says. "Anne had heard about the auditions for Russia and there was a large group of us from her school who went over.
"By the time I got to 15, my mum and dad said 'Okay you can go for the year, but you have to come back'," Jane says.
The experience was a formative one.
"I was shocked when I got there by the bleakness of it," Jane says. "It was a totally different culture. I did love it, but there was a sense of being so very far away from home. That was tough, but once I got into ballet class I was sure it was where I wanted to be."
On reflection now, the most difficult part of this year away for Jane, was returning to Ireland to finish secondary school. However, ballet was still Jane's first love, so after delivering on the promise she had made to her parents to sit her Leaving Certificate, she left Ireland for Monaco and spent the next four years studying under Marika Besobrasova at the Academie de Danse Classique Princesse Grace.
"Marika brought a holistic style to her training. It was tough and strict and she taught us pure, classical ballet, but she also brought in a lot of yoga-type exercises and one of the big things we learned about was breathing," Jane says.
"You really have to know a lot about anatomy as a dancer, but also you need to know your body type to put the corrections you are given onto your body specifically.
After her training in Monaco, Jane went on to work with a number of ballet companies around the world and spent 14 years with Ballet Ireland. While on tour in Italy some years ago, she broke her toe and in 2006, she broke a bone in her foot and had to sit out almost an entire season.
However, after some initial frustration, Jane began to look on these incidents as learning experiences.
"I do some exercises myself at home most days now and when the company is working I try and get in to some classes with them because it is great to be in that professional atmosphere," Jane says.
"You have to work intelligently and know what works for your body. As you get older your body changes in so many ways and you have to listen to those changes. Thankfully as a dancer I am used to listening to my body for what it needs. We are constantly assessing ourselves in that way."
5 benefits of ballet for adults
Victoria Beckham credits ballet for her flexibility as seen on her Instagram page
Exercise: Ballet exercises every part of the body and can be as gentle or as challenging as you like. You choose the pace.
Soul food: Ballet is good for the soul; it is a wonderful way to express yourself and feel beautiful, strong and energised.
Posture building: Ballet is great for posture, flexibility and the bones as it is a weight-bearing exercise.
Brain skills: Ballet keeps the brain agile as you must pick up complicated sequences of steps quickly.
Social: Classes are a great way to meet new people - ballet classes are very sociable and full of fun, humour and positivity.
- Anne Maher, Ballet Ireland
Ballet for beginners
• Join a youth company: This is a great way to get a sense of the profession while working with and learning from other passionate dancers, teachers and choreographers. Summer workshops and programs also provide great experience and opportunities.
• Persevere: Keep going, keep practising, keep learning, keep pushing a little further every day, especially when you are tired or it is difficult. It takes time and patience and courage. You have to be open to trying new things and be aware that it is an important part of learning and improving..
• Make the most of training: training should be an exciting and enjoyable part of the process. Soak up all that your teachers have to offer, be curious, ask questions, make lots of mistakes, learn about your art and other art forms.
• Take care of yourself physically and mentally: Get to know your body and listen to what it needs. It needs lots of fuel so feed it, so do not diet but be sensible; everything in moderation is a great approach and rest is hugely important too. The mind also needs to be trained well to deal with the challenges a career in dance brings. Training from a young age, particularly with ballet, in an intense and demanding environment. We also need to practice how we deal with this, being positive and not letting negative self-talk take over. Mindfulness, relaxation, visualisation, meditation and yoga are all really helpful practices to help with this.
• Enjoy it: Yes it is hard, but it shouldn't be torture. Dance can and should enrich your life in many ways and be enjoyable.
- Jane Magan
Health & Living