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Dancing delight


Colleen Ahern pops on her pointe shoes, or tackles a timestep in tap class, every week – not bad for a woman who recently celebrated her 80th birthday!


By Victoria McGuin


Colleen Ahern has just finished her ballet class, dancing en pointe under the guidance of her teacher, Fiona Jopp, at The Dance Academy in Maleny. Colleen was born in June 1943, and is a shining example of how you can relish new challenges and keep learning at any age.


“I grew up in Cairns, in a musical family, and all my siblings played a musical instrument,” said Colleen. “I danced until I was 11 years old when my teacher went to Sydney, and since then I managed to dance for a year in my early 20s and a couple of years of jazz in my 30s.”


Colleen’s two great loves have been ballet and mathematics. “I worked for a few years as a statistician, but desperately wanted a child, so I left and took up teaching for the hours and school holidays.”


Colleen had a little boy, who has grown to be a familiar name in the hinterland, musician/conductor Kim Kirkman.


“I noticed Kim’s motor coordination took longer to kick in, and it informed my teaching, to realise that not all kids were the same. When Kim was three, I took him to a Musical Inspiration class, and that was where his path began really.


“I am musical like him. I remember when Kim started conducting the Cathedral Choir in Rocky, and I took over for him for a while. I love music, and if I can’t hear phrasing when I’m dancing, I can’t dance properly.”


In 2005 Colleen was living in Rockhampton and had Glandular Fever and Ross River Fever at the same time. She developed Chronic Fatigue as a result and needed to take long service leave.


“When I retired from teaching, I took up tap dancing in Rockhampton for three years, then when I moved to Maleny I did some more tap dancing for a few years.


“And then my luck changed as I met Dawn Thomas at the show in Maleny and she had just started her dance school, The Dance Academy. In August 2018 I began adult ballet with her and a lovely group of women and one man, although now we sometimes have two men.”


“We teach Colleen three times a week,” said Dawn, “in ballet and tap, along with about eight-to-twelve other regulars in her class. She is a great tapper!”


“Some of the group have been tapping for years, and we even have a lady come up from Glasshouse to dance with us,” shared Colleen. “They are all lovely. The class came out to help me celebrate my 80th birthday, and every Christmas Tabitha, who dances with me, organises a Christmas lunch which I really enjoy.”


As for the ballet, teacher Fiona is impressed with how far Colleen has come in such a short time.


“I can push Colleen quite hard, as she is very strong,” said Fiona.


“Fiona encouraged me to go en pointe 12 months ago in June,” said Colleen. “I enjoy pointe work very much, but it is hard work as the technique has to be very precise. Fiona gives me lots of encouragement and allows me to progress at my own pace.


“I do about three-and-a-half hours of ballet a week, and one-and-a-half of pointe work, in half hour blocks, and one hour of tap. As I suffer from Chronic Fatigue and vertigo, I have to pace myself very carefully. Sometimes I overdo it and have to take a week off to rest.”


“Colleen’s strength gain over three years has been impressive,” Fiona continued. “When she first came it was hard to do a grand plié, and now she can do them easily. During Covid, Colleen had private lessons, and they really helped her improve.”


“Fiona is a hard taskmaster,” Colleen admitted.


“I forget you’re 80!” laughed Fiona.


“And it’s funny how the class has to get used to the French terms in ballet,” said Colleen. “One student calls grand battements, ‘great Batmans’.” (‘Battement is French for ‘beating’, a ‘grand battement’ is a controlled throwing up of the working leg to its full height, while keeping both legs straight.)


“Fiona also doesn’t let me rest in tap class,” Colleen added, her eyes twinkling. “I was having trouble with a step and Fiona just said, ‘get on with it!’” The two women laughed, enjoying the playful banter.


“Colleen is great at tap, she can do a good pull-back, and has a killer time step,” Fiona shared.


“I danced as a child” said Colleen, “it’s an advantage, you don’t forget it. But regardless of that, we are so lucky to have such professional teachers, and I fully attribute my progress to them,” she continued.


“Many have danced professionally overseas and in Australia, and I value the advice and expertise they pass on.”


I asked Colleen how dancing made her feel.


“I get transported. Fiona gets me to flow in my movements, and when I am dancing properly and can hear the music, I forget all my inhibitions,” Colleen enthused.


“You go into a different world where nothing else matters,” agreed Dawn.


“I feel uplifted afterwards,” continued Colleen, “energised… I feel great. People who know me know that I rabbit on about ballet!


“We have a wonderful supportive class, and I guess I am a bit of a mascot for them, as they would like to keep dancing when they are my age. It gives them hope too, that they can achieve what I have, and maybe more.


“It’s a wonderful thing to do, and you can still improve at 80!”


The Dance Academy has classes in Maleny, Landsborough, Mapleton and Caloundra. Visit thedanceacademy.com.au for more information.


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