Friday, 19 August 2022

Video: Meet the 71-year-old ballerina

A PENSIONER who had a knee replacement two years ago has become the oldest person in Britain to pass the Royal Academy of Dance's grade 6 ballet exam.

A PENSIONER who had a knee replacement two years ago has become the oldest person in Britain to pass the Royal Academy of Dance's grade 6 ballet exam.

Click here to watch our video report Doreen Pechey, 71, memorised and performed a series of barre and floor routines for the 40-minute assessment.

She had to master several moves including the plié, in which dancers squat while bending both knees outward, the demi-pointe, in which she supported her entire weight on the front of each foot in alternate steps, and the pirouette.

Mrs Pechey, a retired engineer and mathematician who lives in Crays Pond with her husband William, learned she had been successful last week.

It was the culmination of eight years' work as she took up ballet in 2008 but suffered a setback when she had to undergo surgery on her left knee in 2010 and again in 2014.

Mrs Pechey started lessons with Mo Cleaver, of St Andrew's Road, Caversham, in 2008 and within a few weeks she had built her own practice barre in her kitchen using a wooden rail from a DIY store.

Now trains for at least half an hour a day at home and 90 minutes once a week at Mrs Cleaver's studio.

She is the oldest pupil in her class by many decades as the others are typically in their teens.

Mrs Pechey, who worked for several companies including electronics firm Racal-Milgo, of Fleet, before retiring, said: "I had always secretly wanted to learn dance but as a child growing up in the Fifties it wasn't the sort of thing we could afford. I wasn't terribly sporty then either - I much preferred my maths.

"In those days we knew money was very tight so I would never have dreamed of asking my parents for lessons. When the opportunity came up in 2006 I just went for it.”

Mrs Pechey was initially learning the Royal Academy's intermediate syllabus, which is its lowest vocational grade and consists of more than 80 exercises which can take many years to perfect.

She later started working towards the easier intermediate foundation, which can be mastered in a year or two with practice and is equivalent to a high grade A-level.

However, in early 2010 she noticed her left knee was beginning to give way during exercises when it had to bear her body weight.

She had keyhole surgery which made a slight difference but she still felt some discomfort which hampered her progress.

She eventually realised it wouldn't get better on its own so went back for an unicompartmental replacement, in which the surface of the knee is partially resurfaced with metal.

This was successful but it was some time before she developed the confidence to tackle the plié or kneel on the floor.

Mrs Pechey said: "Looking back, I'm surprised I put up with it for so long. I had days when I couldn't make it to class, which I hated."

To aid her recovery, Mrs Pechey visited physiotherapist Jo Nitsch, a former GB and Leander Club rower, and personal trainer Laura Howard, both based in Henley.

She decided to prepare for grade 6 as it was less challenging. The biggest obstacle she faced was plucking up the confidence to kneel for the free movement section. She finally mustered the courage in January and decided she was ready for the exam.

She said: "The exam is very formal. You have to remove any jewellery, come in on tiptoes and curtsy to the examiner before it starts.

"I was quite lucky because I was only asked to do one pirouette, pulling my bent leg inwards, or 'de dans', which I find easier than pushing outwards, or 'de hors'.

"At the end I felt like I'd done enough to get through. I'd done some bits better than ever before so I had my fingers crossed.

"I was really pleased to pass as I got similar marks to some of the young girls and I don't believe they made any allowance for my age. There's a strict standard and you either meet it or you don't.

"My husband was over the moon - he keeps teasing me that I'll be too busy answering fan mail to help with the housework!"

Mrs Cleaver said: "Doreen is a delight and great fun to work with - I've enjoyed every minute of teaching her. I was thrilled to bits when she passed the exam."

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