March 12, 2010

On pointe at any age: Older women revel in ballet


— By

Detroit Free Press

DETROIT — Brazilian-born Christina Kammuller, 53, teaches women ranging in age from their 30s to their 60s how to dance on tippy toe -- in tutus.

It's an entrancing sight.

Kammuller, a onetime principal dancer with a Brazilian ballet company, teaches classes in a Keego Harbor, Mich., studio that attracts women who've mustered the courage to indulge in childhood fantasies of pirouetting across a dance floor. In Kammuller's classes, you'll find senior citizens in tutus and pointe shoes who startle you with their agility, finesse and fluid rhythm.

''It just has amazing ramifications for me,'' says Mintzi Schramm, a grandmother and freelance writer and editor from Southfield, Mich. Schramm, who is over 60, has taken ballet and pointe classes from Kammuller for 20 years.

Charmed by ballerinas as a child, Schramm started ballet classes in her 30s, even as her own daughters shunned them.

''Yeah, it makes me feel better about myself. I feel like I'm accomplishing something and I can do things other people my age can't do,'' says Schramm. ''We're all passionate about it. There's something that makes you a groupie.''

Kammuller's classes draw newcomers and veteran dance teachers alike. She has developed a following among fitness-conscious women who've moved to the area from Japan with husbands who work in the auto industry. For all of these women, the mastery of ballet allows them to celebrate the beautiful ways their bodies can move, regardless of age and size.

This adult-only clientele serendipitously found Kammuller.

Kammuller's classes are structured, so students learn a piece over a two-week period.

''I want to give them a very nicely choreographed class where they feel they are actually dancing, and not doing just mechanical, repetitive steps,'' she explains.

The lure of ballet drew Kammuller in when she was a 10-year-old growing up in Salvador, on Brazil's eastern coast. She preferred ballet to all else, and insisted that her mother change any appointment with a doctor or a dentist that could interfere with her lessons.

She was a principal dancer for several years with Brazil's Guaira Ballet Theatre, which found its footing in contemporary ballet, but which also performed such classics as ''The Nutcracker'' and ''Don Quixote.''

When Kammuller was invited to dance in Canada in 1986, she met her future husband, a native Detroiter and dancer himself. They married and moved to Michigan. After she had a daughter 21 years ago, to keep limber and busy, Kammuller took an adult ballet class through a Southfield, Mich., Recreation Department program and was soon asked by the teacher to take over.

She was ambivalent at first -- as a professional, she was used to seeing dancers in perfect shape. But she was touched by her classmates' desire and determination.

''The minute I started teaching the class, I saw them so willing to learn. They were asking questions. The minute they showed that much interest, I was in it,'' said Kammuller.

She prefers adults over younger, more pliable students. Her only child, a daughter who tired of accompanying her now-divorced parents to dance studios, ''hates ballet,'' jokes Kammuller.

''For me, it's more of a challenge to make the adults dance well,'' she says. Until recently, she was still teaching four of the original seven students she taught in Southfield. Two of those students, both women in their 70s, passed away last year.

At every class, which begins with stretches and work at the ballet barre, Kammuller gently pushes her students. As she watches how their backs are arched, how they hold their hands and heads, how they turn their toes, she finds herself asking: ''How can I suck something out of a body that's 60 years old?''

Sometimes she divides the dancers into teams to challenge each other. Sometimes she ratchets up the music to coax more sweat and execution from them.

In class, they dance to a variety of classical charmers. Over the holidays Kammuller inserted familiar balletic Christmas melodies and Jewish-inspired themes, like the Mazinka or Mezinka -- a dance with Yiddish words that celebrates the marriage of a couple's last child.

Schramm finds herself mouthing the words to it. She has 14 grandchildren, and none of them takes ballet.

''But they have come to watch me,'' says Schramm. And her prowess on pointe has been on display for family and friends at Orthodox Jewish weddings, where it's customary to entertain the bride in a circle of her female guests.

''And when I go to weddings for my nieces,'' says Schramm, ''I put on pointe shoes for them.''

Dance and ballet can benefit people of all ages, says Dr. Steven Karageanes, a sports medicine specialist with the Detroit Medical Center who has treated the Rockettes during the dancers' visits to the area.

''I think a ballet class is wonderful—the flexibility, the grace, and it's just fun,'' says Karageanes.

Like all people embarking on an exercise program, he cautions folks to first talk to their doctor.

Kammuller's students come for a variety of reasons.

The lone male in a Friday advanced ballet class is Jon Atwood, 24, of Sterling Heights, Mich., who is pursuing a degree in dance at Marygrove College. ''Nothing makes me sweat more than ballet,'' he says.

Another student, Peggy Wright, 49, is a ballet teacher who judges young dancers on their mastery of the Cecchetti ballet method.

''You can never stop learning. It's a merciless art form,'' says Wright of Novi.

The informal ballet troupe has fostered tight friendships. Joan Frohlich, 57, of Novi, Mich., has travelled to Japan to visit with women she met through the class who have now returned home. A certified public accountant and grandmother, Frohlich takes 12 classes a week. She started taking ballet when she was 33, along with her kids. They dropped out, but she kept dancing.

Kanoko Uchida, 36, of Novi, will be leaving the class and country soon for Japan.

''I didn't want to take a ballet class. I just wanted to stay in shape,'' she says, but friends convinced her to try Kammuller's program.

''I was never a dancer before,'' says Uchida. ''Now, I am.''

Kammuller says she can still execute all of ballet's steps -- the pirouettes, the leaps.

''I can do everything, but not of the same quality. I learn with the students. I think my quality gets better every year as a teacher. You keep developing every class. You see what they can't do and figure out how to make them do it.

''As a dancer, I get worse. As a teacher, I get better.''

And her students are grateful -- and graceful -- for that.

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