Cornelia has short gray hair and blue eyes. She’s wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants like the others in her class and is looking at me with some skepticism.
“We live in a society that has sidelined its elderly people, put us in a corner and told us that all we are good for is to be grandparents,” she said, explaining her trepidation at my presence.
We are at the Onassis Cultural Center on Syngrou Avenue, which is hosting movement and dance classes for people aged over 65 every Thursday afternoon through April 4. It is admittedly the center’s liveliest class and the motto here is borrowed from the Soviet poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky: “There’s not a single gray hair in my soul.”
I am surrounded by a group of about 20 people who are looking at me much as Cornelia does, some sternly and some more trustingly, but all wondering what I’m doing here. Each has a story to tell, a reason why there come here week after week.
For Eleni it is about interaction and communication, which she feels she had been sorely lacking. “The classes allow me to get my mind off things for three whole hours,” she says. When she performs her routine you can see that she’s an optimistic, voluptuous and warm woman. She gave me a peck on the cheek and wished me luck after we spoke.
“We feel a part of modern life. It is like a communication game. It’s more than an activity,” says Mrs Pyrrou (she introduced herself as such), who goes through her exercises very earnestly.
Calliope seems to be the youngest woman in the group. She seems very sweet and quiet, yet she approaches me to tell me why she signed up for the classes. “I lost my husband recently and I come here to forget my anxiety and my grief.” She is dressed in black, but can’t help smiling when she starts moving.
“Come on boys and girls,” says the instructor at 5.30 p.m. sharp, starting the class. The group, which consists mostly of women, is arranged into a large circle by instructor Patricia Apergi, a dancer and choreographer and founder of the Aerites ensemble.
The members of the group, some of whom are in their late 80s, start walking around the room. Their teacher (who is assisted by dancer Hara Kotsali) instructs them to look at each other, to hold hands, to perform a series of different movements at different speeds, movements that begin to shape a choreography. The students are all committed to getting their footwork right – you can see it on their faces – and they seem to be enjoying themselves immensely.
The warmup is done to the rhythm of the bossa nova, slowly at first. They breathe in and out, laugh out loud to relax their vocal cords, stretch and then start gearing up for the heavier stuff: a simple dance routine to a Led Zeppelin track with plenty of improvisation thrown in at the instructor’s encouragement. I start getting into it myself.
The second part of the class is all about improvisation and the students are invited to bring in their own choice of music, a selection of poetry or prose, or a prop with which they create their own mini-choreography.
“We have worked with different age groups in the past, such as teenagers, but we wanted to create a forum for this age group, which has become so marginalized in Greek society,” explained Myrto Lavda, the center’s director of educational programs. “There is no age limit to creativity and dance. In the classes, the participants look for a connection between the past, present and future. Our desire was to offer elderly people a stimulating new experience.”
The long-term plan, according to Lavda, is to eventaully establish a company akin to the UK’s Company of Elders, which is based at the Lilian Baylis Theater in London and has worked with numerous eminent choreographers.
Apergi and Kotsali, the two instructors, have gained about as much from the classes as the participants have, they tell me during the 20-minute break.
“It is one of the most wonderful things we have done up to now,” they both agree, while Apergi describes how every class gives them new inspiration.
“We dive into it with them, we experiment and we learn as well,” she says.
The class starts again with the students creating their own group choreography. I see them touching shoulders and holding hands, creating a loose formation that falls into one slow, hypnotic rhythm. One woman in the group breaks away from the circle and kneels in the middle, with her head bowed to the ground. “Are you OK?” asks the instructor. “Of course I am. Didn’t you tell us to improvise?” she responds.
The movements of the group and of the individuals begin to form a narrative, one that gives the rest of us reason to hope, to dream and to look forward to the future.