By Tom Bailey. Images by Paula Solloway
Carol singing; pantomime; charades; the Nutcracker; I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day at karaoke; the Strictly Final… So much of our festive experience is wrapped up in watching and taking part in performance. What is it about performing that gives people a buzz? We meet some older people who love to express themselves through music, drama and dance to find out more.
It’s clear that the
performing arts gives
people some- thing special.
You will have noticed that performances are back. Theatres, concert halls and music venues have opened after a year’s closure. Some of you will have been the first to get back to seeing a play, a gig or a piece of dance. Others are, understandably, more reticent. However, it’s not all about being in the audience; some of us take part in regular workshops and rehearsals, more and more of which have restarted after Covid restrictions have
One such person is Shirley Hoyland. She’s a member of LIDOS, which has put on amateur plays, musicals and pantomimes since the 1970s. LIDOS stands for Leeds Insurance Dramatic & Operatic Society - the group was formed by a group of theatre enthusiasts who worked in Insurance. Shirley is currently busy directing Cinderella at the Carriageworks Theatre, which will be on at the end of January 2022. When did Shirley first fall in love with the stage?
“As an 8-year-old pupil of Ingram Road School, each of the four Houses put on an end-of-year show,” she says. “I was pushed forward to sing a solo. Bless this House was my song of choice, accompanied at the piano by one of the older girls - who on the actual day dropped out, resulting in me singing to the whole school unaccompanied! Undeterred by the event I loved singing and later joined the church choir. Throughout my teens I was captivated watching musicals at the Leeds theatres. I wanted to be up on stage emulating the performers, it was such a magnet to me. At the age of twenty, I joined the Leeds Gilbert & Sullivan Society performing at the Civic Theatre.” Shirley then went on to join the Headingley Operatic Society. “Such exciting times!” she recalls.
Shirley is convinced that the stage gives her something special. “There’s something about performing on stage to a live audience which cannot be equalled,” she says. “It’s a two-way experience really, you feel their presence and it lifts the character being played.” That relationship between performer and audience is vital. Shirley started performing young; however some people take it up later in life. Jean Horsman (now 83) joined the Leeds People’s Choir in 1990, shortly after it was established. “I joined to learn the South African National Anthem!” Jean says. Leeds People’s Choir is the oldest community choir in Leeds; everyone is welcomed to sing, no matter their choral ability.However, performing in front of an audience isn’t the focus for Jean. “It’s not my background at all,” she admits. “I joined to sing.”Jean finds that the act of singing is meaningful in itself, whether or not an audience is present. “It’s so therapeutic is singing,” she says “It’s got me through some difficult times. In the early days, when I first joined, my marriage was ending. And I was teaching. I had 3 children. So life was quite stressful. But after going to the choir on a Wednesday evening, I’d always feel strong and resolved to keep going for the rest of the week. It’s about the joy of singing. I don’t read music; I just like singing. I’m not religious but I do like singing hymns, which confuses some people!” The Leeds People’s Choir does perform in front of people and there are elements of the process that Jean likes. “I love the purpose of leading up to a performance. But I don’t often get nervous. We always get a really supportive audience.”
Many of the performing arts groups that welcome older people do not put the emphasis on the public side of their work. However most do perform – and support members through the process with kindness and patience. Maureen is part of the Over 50s Dance Group in Woodlesford. The group meet weekly and welcome everybody. “When we started the dance group it was not the intention to dance in public,” Maureen says. “But we were asked to dance at the Town Hall. Everyone was very nervous and worried that they would not remember the steps. When we had finished, everyone cheered and told us how they enjoyed it. This gave
everyone a boost and when we were asked again to dance in front of an audience it was not as scary. Our group does not look for dancing in front of people, but if we are asked, we can usually rely on some of our group to volunteer and have a fantastic time doing it!”
Age Proud Festival
Both the Leeds People’s Choir and the Over 50s Dance Group took part in the recent Age Proud Festival, organised by Time to Shine. For many older people, this event was the first time they’d performed (or for that matter been in an audience) for around 18 months. “Our ladies still talk about being asked to dance at the festival,” says Maureen. “People were worried because some hadn’t done the online classes and hadn’t danced for a long time. But they absolutely loved it and were so pleased to have been asked.
Shirley Hoyland caught the performing bug when she was 8. It took Roger Smith until his 70s to realise he
was a dancer! Roger attends dance workshops with Ascendance dance company. He has Parkinson’s and
Ascendance run specialised classes for people with movement disorders. The idea is to keep the mind and body active, as well as to increase confidence, mobility, balance and flexibility. “I started when the pandemic started,” says Roger. “I used to go to a Parkinson’s exercise class. That stopped and I got invited to this online thing on Zoom. I didn’t realise it was dance! I’ve never been a dancer. I said I don’t fancy it, but I’ll give it a go. I’ve loved it ever since. I used to think it was going to be like Strictly and that sort of thing – but it’s not. I think it’s wonderful. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
Like the Over 50s Dance Group, the focus is on using people’s creativity to stay healthy. But the group was
able to perform in an online initiative that aimed to raise awareness about Parkinson’s and the benefits of dance. The Jersalema Dance Challenge was an online collaborative piece that saw 13 dance groups
performing together on Zoom “Jerusalema was brilliant,” says Roger. “It was fabulous. I was at home, dancing to the music. We were joined up with a group in North America. That was very interesting.”
Performing alongside people all over the world is a phenomenon that has sprung up through Covid. Musician Terry Barnes believes that (in some ways) the pandemic has “brought people together”. Terry plays keyboards and saxophone and creates oral soundscapes using digital technology. “I don’t make songs in the conventional way,” he says. “My music is quite laid back.” He hasn’t always been a performer either. “It was a bit of an accident really,” says Terry.
“About 30 years ago, I got really ill. Eventually I found out I had Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. I had to re-evaluate my life – and that’s when I started getting into music. I started playing, went to college and studied. My first performance was to other people in college. I was a bit older than most of them. It was interesting and fun. It was good to do it and to get over those nerves, thinking, is this good enough?”
Before the pandemic, Terry was a regular at several local Open Mics, including the Cloth Cat night known as The Mos Eisley Cantina – named after the bar in Star Wars. But when the pandemic struck, these Open Mics had to close. “When I realised this Covid lark was serious, I went online to try and get in touch with other people,” says Terry. “I found an international Open Mic based in Prague – musicians from all over the world.”
Cloth Cat’s Open Mic went musician’s networking support group on Zoom. “There are people from the UK, the Netherlands, America, Barcelona, Canada – we’ve had a woman on from Japan. That group came together because of Covid. It has put people in touch who would never have met.”
Terry also makes music with people who he meets online. He’s currently working on a concept album about nature, power and beauty. “I have a friend in the Netherlands who plays the flute part. I’ve got another friend on the Isle of Wight, she’ll play the strings part. I’ve also got a friend in Nevada. She’s a poet and was looking for a musician to collaborate with. She sent me a poem and we’re going to work out what to do together. Covid has been horrible and everyone has been struggling. But that struggling has made me reach out to people.”
Many performing groups met online throughout the pandemic. But Zoom isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Shirley Hoyland from LIDOS explains: “The company performed a virtual show for the audience to watch from their homes. The younger members adapted immediately to being filmed in their home or a garden setting – but it wasn’t for me!” Jean Horsman at the Leeds People’s Choir wasn’t ready to go online. “I didn’t participate on Zoom,” says Jean. “I had a major tragedy so couldn’t really deal with meeting online at that time.” Many people did attend Zoom sessions but couldn’t wait to get back to face-to-face meetings.
Margaret Bending is part of Performance Ensemble, a theatre company for older people. “I am really enjoying physically working with people again, rather than virtually,” say Margaret. “It was great to be able to stay connected through the lockdowns and restrictions, but we were limited in what we could do.”
It’s not always easy get back to “normal” meetings. “It was a difficult decision about when to start our group
again after lockdown,” says Jenny, who established the Over 50s Dance Group some years ago. “Many of us said we were very nervous about dancing as a group again. The first few weeks were hard. We were (and still are) cautious - we take everyone’s temperature, ask everyone to sanitise their hands and keep distances and the doors ajar for ventilation. Gradually most of our ladies have returned and we also have some people who joined us - we are all now enjoying a social hour and activities once again.”
Roger from Ascendance agrees that ‘real life’ is better: “It’s easier to talk to people in real life. If you are in a
room together you get more feeling of presence. You can have a chat with your neighbour quite easily, but
that’s hard on Zoom.” However Roger has a word of warning. “They were talking about packing in Zoom but I said that’s a silly idea. Because of being disabled, it’s difficult to get out to all the venues. Especially in winter. You’d look out of the window and think, ‘I can’t go out today.” Ascendance now offer ‘blended’ sessions, where some people are in the room and some people are at home. “We call it Zoomers and Roomers!” says Roger.
Shirley is very pleased to be back in “proper” rehearsals for Cinderella. “There was a certain amount of trepidation,” she admits. “But in the rehearsal room it was like putting an old coat back on. We take twice weekly lateral flow tests and we ensure everyone is as safe as possible, mindful of ventilation and social distancing.” Jean at the choir has returned too. “I wasn’t sure about going back,” she says “But I could just creep back and join in. It wasn’t pressurised. It’s a lovely environment, some lovely people. Really supportive.”
All the people we spoke to find joy in the performing arts. And each of them has a different story to tell.
“It’s that buzz,” says musician Terry. “Giving something out to people. It’s about expression and passion. There’s something about the saxophone. The sound comes from within, it starts from inside your diaphragm and it comes out of you. The ultimate thing is to achieve oneness with my instrument. It’s expression. It’s about connecting with people. It’s a great feeling.”
Roger is really enthusiastic about dance, despite his initial scepticism. “It feels fantastic,” he says. “I wish I’d done something like this before. It keeps you fit and keeps you moving.” Margaret, from the Performance Ensemble puts it simply: “I am involved in performance purely because I am having so much fun!” Mary, another member of the Over 50s Dance group, is upbeat too. “I find dancing takes my mind off my daily chores,” she says. “It’s challenging but great fun. Performing in front of a live audience gives me a buzz and it’s fabulous. Everyone is very friendly and supportive.”
Shirley from LIDOS is similarly enthusiastic about the social element of theatre. “It keeps me involved with
lots of lovely people I’ve met over the years and in many cases, learnt from,” she says. “In fact we never
stop learning.” Shirley doesn’t perform quite so much these days, preferring to direct. “The days of hectic
dance routines may be distant,” she says “But I have wonderful memories. And I consider myself blessed to
have been given the opportunity of treading the boards in many glorious productions.
It’s clear that the performing arts gives people something special. A buzz; a connection; a sense of fun. Whatever it is, and whenever you’re ready to return: enjoy it.
The photos from this article are from the first Age Proud Festival in Leeds that took place earlier this year. Older people in drama, dance and music groups had their first chance in 18 months to perform to an appreciative audience – in real life, not on Zoom! The Festival spreads the message that it’s time to feel good about ageing. Leeds is a great city in which to grow older and the range of performers who were involved is a testament to that. The finale of the Festival saw performers from Yorkshire Dance’s Dance On project don their best gladrags and strut their stuff on the red carpet. Elegant elders, retired rockers and punk pensioners united to strike a pose. At the fashion show’s conclusion, the audience joined in with a spontaneous boogie and Leeds Museum was overtaken by older and younger people dancing joyously together.
What a performance!
To find out more about the Age Proud Festival and the events that took place you can visit: www.ageproudfestival.org.uk
Leeds Older People’s Forum hopes that the Age Proud Festival can be the first of many in Leeds. Watch this space!
Fancy getting on your dancing shoes, giving the ukuele a go, or just dressing up and having fun? Below are some useful contact deatils and links to local organisations:
AVSED Bollywood Dance
0113 250 1702 firstname.lastname@example.org
Heydays – theatre, music, creative writing and dance
0113 213 7296
Dance on at Yorkshire Dance
Ukulele Shape Shifters at Bramley Elderly Action
Leeds People’s Choir
Over 50s Dance Group
0113 5246979 ext 800
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