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Real Life: Dancing like the stars


Leader of the pack: Choreographer Philippa Donnellan has a practice 
session with the group.

Leader of the pack: Choreographer Philippa Donnellan has a practice session with the group.

Leader of the pack: Choreographer Philippa Donnellan has a practice session with the group.

IN HIS swanky bowler hat and tails, two-tone shoes and sporting a white carnation, Liam O'Brien could be one of the winners in the smash-hit BBC series 'Strictly Come Dancing'.

Instead the elegantly clad Dublin man strikes a pose with fellow performers Sandra Byrne, Moira McSweeney and Mary Maguire on the front of an eye-catching flyer for 'Silent Idols', a celebration of dance and the silent film era for people aged 50 years and upwards, which begins on February 7.

The eight-week programme is inspired by the madcap dance routines of stars like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

"I've always been a bit of a frustrated song-and-dance man and I've performed in lots of amateur productions with the Malahide and Baldoyle musical societies. I love dancing," says Liam, a semi-retired ESB contractor.


As part of the project -- the third in as many years -- a team of professional choreographers will host a series of weekly drop-in classes in five venues across Dublin -- Santry, Ballymun, East Wall, Irishtown and Donore Avenue -- from February 7.

Each class will last approximately one-and-a-half-hours and participants will be invited to join as a way to dance, relax and socialise.

The initiative, organised by CoisCéim Dance Theatre's Broadreach programme, in conjunction with Dublin City Council's Arts, Sports & Leisure, and Community Development Sections, runs until the end of March.

At that stage some 'students' will participate in the second part of the project by joining a performance group to create a dance spectacular which will tour to a variety of venues during the Bealtaine Festival in May.

The Bealtaine Festival is a celebration of creativity amongst older people, which is why 'Silent Idols' is aimed at the over-50s.

"The 'Silent Idols' programme is divided into two sections. The first incorporates the classes, which merge popular dance like the tango, the Charleston and ballroom dances with contemporary dance, which focuses on artistic and expressive move

ments," explains Philippa Donnellan director of CoisCéim Broadreach, which has partnered with Dublin City Council for the past three years on projects like this.

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Demand is heavy. Since it was established in 2006, in response to increasing demand for outreach dance activities, CoisCéim Broadreach has attracted more than 3,000 students of all ages.

Over the last three years the over-50s programme has gained in popularity with 90 older people participating in 'La Vie en Rose' in 2009. More than 350 people over the age of 50 worked with CoisCéim's choreographers last year on 'Dance Arias'. 'Silent Idols' is expected to build on that popularity.


However, while Philippa Donnellan would love to see it expand to other parts of the country, for now it is confined to the Dublin area because of limited resources and CoisCéim's partnership with Dublin City Council.

"Maybe down the road we will extend our reach -- we are open to working with other communities," she says.

In the meantime, she explains, the classes encourage people to see new styles of dance.

"It's not a ballroom dance class. You can come alone because you don't need a partner," explains the choreographer.

"Each class starts with very basic simple warm-up, gentle movements and lots of stretching to begin with. Then you build towards slightly more rigorous exercise to help with flexibility and balance.

"After that we start with a simple dance routine. It may emphasise the use of the legs or feet in a different way.

"Week by week we build a dance sequence, eg we mix popular dance steps such as a Charleston with more contemporary and freestyle movement."

Phase two of 'Silent Idols' gives dancers the opportunity to work with Philippa and another choreographer to create a short routine to be performed at Dublin venues next May.

Liam, a big fan of 'Strictly Come Dancing', adores the buzz and glamour of the series.

"I like 'Strictly Come Dancing', which I think is a great idea -- it's terrific! I like watching it. I enjoy the pizzazz and the flair and seeing the movements they do."

But sitting in front of the telly isn't enough for Liam. Last summer the father of five adult children, who is in his late sixties, joined CoisCéim's weekly classes for the over-50s at St Teresa's Church in Dublin's Clarendon Street.

"You get a great mix of people at the classes, older and younger. As you get older your joints get stiff. The dancing gives you more flexibility and you get fitter and enjoy yourself in the process," says Liam, whose favourite dances are the quick step and some Latin American ones.

"I love the music and the movement and the dance. I like to be able to do these things. If you don't have physical and mental exercise you go to seed."

Canadian Beverly Figgis joined the classes in Clarendon Street two years ago. The 66-year-old from Harold's Cross, who has been living in Ireland since the early 1970s, participated in the two previous performances, 'Dance Arias' and 'La Vie en Rose' and, she says, thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

"I love the movement and the learning process. You're coordinating brain and body. It's a wonderful feeling, it keeps you fit and keeps your mind and body tuned and active and in a state of joy.

"You feel much better all the time. Dancing makes you happy. It's a wondrous feeling!"

Contact information: CoisCéim -- 01 878 0558, philippa@coisceim.com www.coisceim.com

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