It was the fall of 2010, and junior Tessa Jones spent her time dancing after school, dancing on the weekends, dancing for long hours in a polished, mirrored ballet studio as darkness settled into the trees outside. And in between the hours of dancing, as Jones headed home with her mind flooded with movement and emotion, she would look at Evans Park, the senior center down the street from her house, and watch the elderly people walk through the leaves.
“I remember watching them walk back and forth across the road from my house last fall, and I remember thinking of ballet. I knew that here was a group of people who would might really appreciate our passion for dance and who might really have a need to be entertained.”
And so the Arts for Elders program, in which Jones seeks to bring her love of ballet to local senior centers, was born.
According to Jones, who has participated in a rigorous class at Boston Ballet since she was seven, the hardest part of transforming her very personal, intimate passion into a larger sphere of service was simply taking the first step.
“I think the hardest part, and I guess it may be surprising to some people, was the very first step—simply walking in the front door of Evans Park across the street from my house and talking to the secretary. I remember I literally just went up to the desk and said ‘Hi, I’m a high school student who does ballet.’ It was like I was pretending, like I was a small child playing grown-up.”
Since Jones walked through the swinging doors of Evans Park, the Arts for Elders program has put on three performances at two different senior centers, and Jones is looking to arrange another performance this spring.
In addition, over the course of the past two years, the program has expanded to include not only a ballet performance but also a piano recital.
According to Jones, she first initiated the program by sending out an email to the dancers in her class at Boston Ballet. They then began to meet Fridays in the free period between ballet classes to pull together the performance.
After years of participating in classes at Boston Ballet, Jones said it was initially strange to suddenly be the teacher and the organizer as opposed to the student.
“During our whole ballet training we are taught to be quiet, disciplined and attentive listeners. This was entirely different. It was all student-run, and I tried to balance the power. I think it was a very good experience, preparing for a performance in such a different setting and different way,” Jones said.
The final performance, crafted by Jones and the other dancers, consists of two parts, Jones said.
The first half consists of a mini ballet class in which the dancers go through a typical class routine in order to “demonstrate to the audience a bit of our dance education,” she said.
“There is a set structure to most ballet classes and a series of combinations that we always go through. In the performance, we condensed these combinations and explained each step to the audience in order to give them an idea of the class routine,” Jones said.
Jones described this section of the performance as nerve-wracking at times.
“As ballerinas, we’re used to performing, but not actually getting up and talking. I definitely had to get over my nerves for that part,” she said.
The second half of the performance consists of each dancer performing a variation, a one-minute woman’s ballet solo, which Jones described as “short but very difficult.” The dancers mastered the variations as part of their repertoire class. Jones herself performed the “Silver Fairy Variation” from “Sleeping Beauty,” a solo dance she described as “one of my favorites.”
Sophomore Luisa Donovan, a member of Jones’ class at Boston Ballet and one of the dancers who participated in the Arts for Elders performances, said that the pairing of the mini ballet class with the individual dancers’ repertoire performances made the overall performance a rich, cohesive whole.
“I think the dual nature of the performance was really nice,” Donovan said. “ It was good to show how we prepared in the studio and how typical classes went, and then to actually demonstrate the results of our practice by performing the repertoire class variations.”
And according to Donovan, the actual performance days have been “absolutely amazing.”
“As a dancer, it’s always nice to have more performance experience. And for me, the Arts for Elders performances have been particularly memorable because of the reactions and faces of the elderly people watching,” Donovan said.
Jones also cited the reactions received from the audience as particularly powerful.
“Many of the people watching were older women, some of whom had done ballet when they were young. We had a question-and-answer session at the end, and many of them shared their experiences, saying things like ‘I remember when I was a little girl…’” Jones said. “I think they really enjoyed seeing all of our youthful energy.”
Junior Winston Huang, a piano student at the Longy School of Music who performed at the two most recent Arts for Elders performances, said that performing in this type of venue and simply “putting smiles on people’s faces” is a striking experience.
“I’ve actually played many times before for this type of audience, and it’s always great because they’re so nice afterward. Not always, but sometimes you can really give someone a lasting impression, and that’s always rewarding.
“I think it’s great to have these kinds of events, where the audience is not always a group of musicians or peers. Any time that there’s a chance to perform more to a ‘public’ audience is great. I hope that they come out of it enjoying the performance and hopefully knowing a bit more of what we do,” Huang said.
Jones said she initially named the program Arts for Elders so that it had potential to encompass a wide variety of art forms, and in the future, she is looking to “continue expanding the performances and continue to incorporate more people and more artistic aspects.”
And in the end, Jones said that the process of starting the program and applying her personal passion for ballet to a different sphere was “much easier than I expected.”
“It’s just about taking a talent or passion, finding a need in the community and then applying it,” Jones said.