Pictures by Neil Barnes
A bevy of older ladies are chatting excitedly when I arrive at Bradpole Village Hall on a Wednesday afternoon.
They are looking forward to their weekly ballet class – an incredible 11 of them, with the three oldest members all in their early eighties.
“Some of us have metalwork in our hips,” smiles Sharon ‘Shazza’ Morgan, 69, who returned to ballet aged 65 after a 57-year break. These are the Silver Swans – the saviours of Fee Jeanes’ ballet school, which looked for some agonising months to be on the wane during the pandemic, despite years of success.
Fee, 54, is a Bridport born and bred nurse who spent years working at Bridport Community Hospital before taking a new job at Dorchester’s Joseph Weld Hospice a couple of years ago.
Alongside her demanding job on the inpatient unit there she runs dance classes well into the evening, with all ages from one to 82 enjoying her brand of fun, enthusiastic teaching.
This isn’t the strict ballet tuition some of us might remember, where we had to pull our limbs into uncomfortable shapes to gain our certificates.
“Remember to hold on to that £50 note!” chuckles Fee, reminding her ladies how to extend their back and pull in their bottoms – more to save their backs from pinging out during a plié than to win trophies. I’ll leave it to your imagination where these imaginary £50 notes are to be held – suffice to say the class ripples with mirth each time they are reminded to hold on tight to them.
For one of the oldest ladies there, Valerie Jones, 83, aka ‘Mama Elf’, Fee’s weekly sessions have saved her balance, her fitness and her long-term health.
She is chatting to Carolyn Bailey, 67, from Bradpole, who came along with pal Jackie Dunn, 66.
Valerie has been coming here since the Silver Swans first started last September, having been told to get more exercise. “I’m a lazy crow,” she said.
“I was always losing my balance before. Now I don’t feel so dizzy. I feel much better after a class.”
She added: “I’ve never done ballet before. I was born before the war and we didn’t have things like ballet classes. I didn’t go to school till I was seven.”
The pupils are full of praise for Fee, who started dancing when she was three at Bernard Gale’s School of Dancing in Bridport. Her sister Nikki runs Bridport Youth Dance – the love of dancing runs deep in their family.
She later helped Bernard run his classes and then started her own school, where pupil numbers peaked at 110 before crashing to 38 during the pandemic.
Undeterred, Fee launched classes on Zoom, and she still runs those for some pupils she acquired during that time but who live miles away – most local pupils now attend in person.
The sudden drop-off in numbers made Fee panic. Costs of hiring the hall, insurance and other expenditure made her fear it could be the end for her school. But last autumn she had a brainwave and launched Silver Swans – a class predominantly for older people, but where anyone can join in whatever their age. The idea was an instant hit, with 30 enquiries overnight. She now runs two classes for mainly older people, as well as her classes for youngsters and younger adults.
She said: “Silver Swans has saved my school, it’s as simple as that. I was so worried when the numbers dropped.
“We had had such fun the last few years, even staging Cinderella, which cost £8,000 to put on. But suddenly it looked like the school was in trouble. I was doing hours and hours of Zoom classes, but the classes in the hall were struggling till I started Silver Swans.
“I love this class. We do laugh a lot.”
Mandy Beer, 55, went to school with Fee and now drives from Somerset to enjoy the classes.
She said: “I have hypermobility and this gives me strength, which helps a lot.
“Fee teaches with a great deal of fun and joy. She has a great affinity for dance and it just rubs off on everybody. It’s great for your mental health.”
Susannah Hills, 69, from Beaminster said: “It’s very accepting here. I wrote on Facebook that I’d like to take up dancing but I didn’t want anyone looking at my bum, and people told me to come here.”
Other ladies chime in: “I always go away much happier…” “It’s massive for your mental health…” “It helps with incontinence and short term memory…”
One thing’s for sure, they have a great time and you can clearly see how much the classes help them with mobility, balance and strength.
The school is trying to raise money to buy another couple of portable barres, which cost £350 each, and a few other expenses.
To help, go to gofundme.com and search for Fee Jeanes Ballet, or to enquire about classes, go to infofeejeanesballet.co.uk or facebook.com/ feejeanesballet, call 07918 838896 or email feejeanes firstname.lastname@example.org.