Tina Leverton was 62 when she bought her first pair of ballet shoes. She says slipping her feet into the soft leather was very emotional. “I felt utterly transported. I took a photo of them and sent it to my daughter. I said: ‘I’ve waited a long time for these.’”
A few weeks earlier, Leverton had taken the first ballet class of her life, after an advert in a freesheet caught her eye. It showed older women at the barre. “It really evoked a strong memory from when I was a child. I thought: ‘Let’s go for it.’” The class was near Leverton’s home in Mumbles, on the Gower peninsula in south Wales. “As I came in the door, I twirled around,” she says. “Big smile on my face. From the minute I started, it was wonderful. It felt like coming home.”
Leverton had longed to dance as a child. From the age of four, she repeatedly drew pointe shoes, although she has no idea where she saw them or how she learned their “beautiful shape”. If an adult asked what she wanted to be, she always answered: “Ballet dancer.” When she was nine or so, she accompanied a friend to classes. The friend danced. Leverton watched, “all the time imagining I was dancing with her”.
Leverton’s parents were first-generation immigrants, born in India before partition. Her father was a train driver on the underground in London; her mother held two cleaning jobs and worked in a cafe near the family home in the north of the city. “We were poorer than other people, but it never bothered me,” Leverton says – not even when her parents told her they couldn’t afford ballet. “They were so busy trying to survive.” Nonetheless, she harboured dreams of being a ballerina. “But they were just that: dreams.”
Although her parents felt shame – at the shortage of money, at being immigrants – it didn’t pass on to her. “I guess I’ve just got a really lucky disposition. I’m generally quite contented. My mother used to say: ‘If anyone asks, tell them you’re Spanish or Portuguese.’ It’s only when I met my current husband, who’s a psychotherapist, that we explored that together. It was very emancipating to say to people: ‘Actually, I’m from Pakistani heritage.’”
Leverton went to art school, then veered towards customer service. Eventually, she stopped drawing. Then, when her daughter was three, Leverton took her to ballet. “She loved it. And I loved it. I was living vicariously through her.” She sees now that her love of ballet “has been lying dormant. It’s come to the forefront at just the right age for me.”
Had she known as a child that dancers with low arches and “poor turn-out from the hip” rarely excel, she “would have been crushed”. Instead, she has watched herself grow.
At first, a grand plié – lowering to the floor with bent knees – was out of the question. “I’d bend down and couldn’t get up again,” Leverton says, laughing. It has taken three months to master the pirouette, while leaping and landing on one foot presented “a psychological barrier”. Being overweight, Leverton feared her ankles wouldn’t take it. “But they can,” she says.
“I love the struggle, the challenge, learning something new. When I get it, I feel absolutely elated,” she says. “People in their 60s have a lot of self-limiting beliefs: ‘I can’t do it,’ ‘I’m not good enough.’ And maybe they’re not good enough. But it doesn’t matter,” she says.
Ballet has been transformative. At a medical appointment a few months after Leverton’s first class, a nurse measured her at 163cm (5ft 4in) – half an inch taller than she had thought. She made the nurse double-check. She attributes the discrepancy to improved posture. Her muscle tone has improved, too, and her lower back pain has eased.
Dancing has brought new friends, a “sisterhood of older, more independent women”, working towards a team award with the Royal Academy of Dance. And then, of course, there is “the feeling, the joyfulness. Ballet is all the therapy I’ll ever need.”
Leverton now plans to buy some pointe shoes: “I will get some – and I’ll draw them.”