Du Youling hones her ballet moves as she trains with her teammates in Zhengzhou, Henan Province, on July 7, 2021 (COURTESY PHOTO)
Classical ballet made a pas de bourrée into Du Youling's life when she was 60—in 2017. She had been folk dancing for well over a year following her retirement at the age of 55, when she learned her local cultural center, a public institution for organizing cultural activities, was putting together a ballet troupe for senior women.
Du began to develop a passion for ballet when she was a teenager after watching a professional stage performance. "I was fascinated by the dancers' graceful moves," she told Beijing Review. "But there were no ballet training classes back in the 1960s, so pursuing this type of career was a dream well beyond my reach."
So, over the ensuing four-plus decades, she went to college, got a degree and became a professor of physics at a university in Zhengzhou, Henan Province. But her love for ballet never faded. When she heard about the ballet troupe, she immediately applied to join.
Even though all applicants were over the age of 55 with almost zero ballet experience, troupe selection was strict. This was because the purpose of the troupe was to attend competitions for senior dancers at the provincial and national levels, and troupe members were expected to lift their moves to a professional level.
Though applicants were large in number, they were eventually whittled down to only 16 and in January 2017, the team was officially born. The cultural center even hired a professional coach.
Liu Min, now 63, is one of the dancers. Like Du, Liu fell in love with ballet at a very young age but never got the opportunity to take classes. All she could do was to imitate the moves she saw on TV.
"Before joining the group, I had recently retired and was at a loss for what to do next," Liu told Henan Daily. "Retired people are mostly supposed to take care of their grandchildren or go square dancing (a type of public jazzercise popular among Chinese seniors) in parks. I knew I didn't want to be doing any of those things; but I also wasn't sure what I did want to do either, until I made it onto the ballet team."
Meeting a group of women who all shared her enthusiasm was another big bonus. Training was harsh, especially for women over 50. "It was that pure passion for ballet that kept us going," Liu said.
Dancing en pointe, moving about gracefully on the tips of the toes as if floating through the air, is a basic skill for female (and more and more male) ballet dancers. It's normal for young ballerinas to master the en pointe technique within a year or so, but these senior dancers aimed to nail it within six months given they had signed up for a competition in July 2017.
"Even the coach didn't think we would make it because our flexibility and strength could hardly match that of younger students," Du said. "There were also 'safety' concerns as most of us were in our late 50s. But we were ambitious. Very ambitious and determined."
Bleeding feet, toenails falling off... nothing could deter the women from reaching their goal. Xu Yuanyuan is a 63-year-old member in the group. Her middle toe is longer than the other ones, meaning that when she stands on her tiptoes, her weight mostly bears down on that middle toe. "The pain was excruciating," Xu said. "We encouraged one another and no one ever gave up."
When they finally took to the competition's stage in July, everybody had mastered the pointe technique—and they won. "The coach was thrilled," Du said. "A former professional ballet dancer, then in her 70s, even came over to congratulate us and told us we'd created a miracle."
They continued to dazzle during following competitions and they were even invited to perform at several events. Their newfound fame also gained them more support from family members.
"In the beginning, I'd say only a few of us had the full support of our families, who actually had expected us to do more housework after retirement," Du said. "Today, our achievements have earned us that support."
But their achievements are not limited to awards; they also comprise the women's personal changes—both physically and spiritually.
Xu has been on the team for more than five years now. "The change is very obvious. Some lost more than 10 kg through dance practice and everybody feels much more energetic and confident on the whole," she said. "We aren't worried about getting older because we simply don't have the time to do so."
In September 2021, the group was invited onto the China Central Television stage. Du couldn't make it due to an ankle injury. "It's normal for us to get hurt, but no one has ever dropped out because of that risk. We may has not be in the same physical shape as someone 20 years our junior, but our love for dancing can help us overcome all difficulties."
Today, the team has 28 dancers and they train three and a half days a week. They draft housework schedules in advance and always make sure ballet practice comes first.
Du, still recovering from her injury, is already planning to get back on stage for an upcoming competition. "I am much busier now than when I was a professor," she said. "Retirement is like getting a new lease on life. As long as I can dance, I will dance."
(Print Edition Title: Graceful as Swans)
Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon
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