Irene Caselli is a multimedia journalist reporting for international outlets including the BBC, Deutsche Welle, The Washington Post, and The Guardian. After a decade in Latin America, working for the BBC in Ecuador, Venezuela, and Argentina, she is now based in her home country, Italy.
For 20 years, members of Ballet 40/90 have entertained audiences in Argentina’s capital, rediscovering a passion many assumed they had outgrown.Initially, her group
Many girls dream of becoming dancers when they grow up. In reality, few do.
But in Argentina, some fulfill this dream when they are more than grown up—when they’re between the ages of 40 and 90.
The person who made it happen was Elsa Agras, a dance and performance arts teacher. In 1995, when Agras was 70, she decided to teach women her age to dance.
“Thin, fat, tall, short, young, not so young: We’re all stars,” Agras used to say.
Ballet 40/90 had only two members. There are now 54 women who perform every week in a theater in downtown Buenos Aires, just a few blocks from the Argentine National Congress. The youngest is 52; the least young is 85.
They are housewives, grandmothers, lawyers, retirees. But they are also dancers. Sometimes their knees hurt. A couple of them suffer from migraines. But as soon as they step onto the stage, the pain is gone.
“When I am on stage, I feel like a different woman,” says María Pagliano, 77. “It’s pure glory.”
“I was a frustrated dancer. When I was a girl, dancers didn’t have a good reputation. I wasn’t allowed to dance. This group, and dancing, brought me back to life.”
Cristina Sobrero, 62, was also a frustrated dancer who worked as a lawyer.
“I used to think that I had missed the boat. If I couldn’t become a dancer when I was a girl, there was going to be no other chance. I was looking for something to feel passionate about for years,” Sobrero says. “Until I found this.”
Agras died last year at the age of 90. It was a hard blow; the group had lost only one other member, and Agras was involved right up to the last moment, when she was hospitalized. The group is now directed by a new choreographer and dancer, Gabi Goldberg.
“Elsa realized their dream, and they decided not to let go of it,” she says.
Despite its name, the group does not focus on classical dance. It does tap dance, folk dance (such as Italy’s Tarantella), tango, and choreographies set to contemporary songs, like “Besame Mucho” and other Spanish-language hits.
The show, which lasts two hours, is a sort of tongue-in-cheek musical comedy. It includes a couple of sketches, some singing, but above all a lot of dancing in colorful set pieces.
It is the product of months of work. The group begins in March and they train two or three times a week, in the evening. Between August and November, the show is every Friday, and the entire day is dedicated to rehearsal and prepping.
The theater is often full of family members, including proud nieces and nephews, and many seniors. Ballet 40/90 advertises the show in retirement centers, and Friday has become a night out for senior clubs, who fill up buses to attend.
The energy is high as the ladies, fully dressed up, greet audience members and show them to their seats.
“It is a party,” says Darío Doria, a documentary-maker who filmed the group for a year and a half. The final product, Elsa y su Ballet (Elsa and Her Ballet), came out in 2011. “It is exemplary. These are women who wanted to dance, and now they do it. They are an example of how to be alive.”
According to Doria, the show is unique because it is a senior group whose work was directed by a senior, and has had continuity over two decades. He says it has lasted because everyone takes it seriously, not just as a hobby. “It is not a dance workshop, or fun. They are committed to the show and to the rehearsals.”
Cecilia Scardamaglia, 57, agrees. “We are no amateurs,” she stresses. “We don't make our living out of this, but we are a professional group, that trains seriously and has a show on every year.”
Scardamaglia, who joined in 2001, is a key figure in the group. When Agras could no longer perform the steps, she acted as her assistant to demonstrate what Agras showed with her hands.
“There is no negotiating here. If you can’t commit to working hard, you can’t join,” says Scardamaglia.
The show has precise choreographies and impeccable costumes, which Agras herself designed. There is no shyness: legs are on show, and many acts include flirtatious moves.
“Elsa taught us that we should never look down at the floor, because it was horrible on the stage, and in life, too,” says Zulma Pereyra, 54, who decided to join two years ago after seeing a show.
“It changes their lives when they join the ballet,” says Doria, the filmmaker. “In such a macho culture, these women leave their men at home, go out, get made up, create a group they feel they belong to.”
Goldberg, who is 51, says the group has taught her a lot as a woman.
“This group is a guarantee of health. These women look after each other, when there are losses or one is sick. Some of them are alone and here they have found their family,” she says. “Here you forget there is an end.”