In late August, we visited the movement classes in Richmond Barracks to meet some of the participants and choreographer Aoife McAtamney.

Following the escalation of Dublin to level 3 of the National Covid-19 Plan, all classes have unfortunately been suspended until the level 3 restrictions are lifted.

While we’re sorry we can’t gather in person right now, you can read on below to meet some of the movement class participants and find out about disco chair dancing, Tina Turner routines, and finding meaning in this strange moment.

Aoife has shared a playlist with some songs from the movement class so you can listen along and get in the mood for moving.

“Beyoncé or salsa for the next one?” 

Movement teacher Aoife McAtamney has just asked the group before her what song they’d like to hear next on a recent Saturday morning.

We’re in the over fifties dance class in Richmond Barracks, which runs two days a week in the large gymnasium space and at four votes to one, Robert, the only man in the group is outvoted.

Beyoncé’s voice begins to ring out under the rafters of the Richmond Barracks gymnasium.

The class started in January, and starting off with six participants per class, it quickly grew to around 13 and gained a dedicated following of participants coming to class every week. The week I join follows new government restrictions on August 18th which means the classes have to be reorganised. Cue a busy week for the staff at Richmond Barracks, like many organisations around the country, who spend the week reconfiguring the classes and contacting participants to rearrange their booking and explain that places will now be limited to five per class.

So at the start of this Saturday class there is a hint of frustration in the air at the changes, there is talk of rebooking and of worry of not being able to get a place. There is fumbling with masks and visors. 

But when the class begins, all of that starts to melt away.

Moving through the moment

Aoife begins the class by asking everyone to come into presence, to put their hand on their heart. 

“Any worries about Covid or the government, or anything else lets pretend it’s rain falling to the ground”.

The class start by stretching out on their chairs, going from small to big, rolling themselves small and then spreading out like starfish.  Then it’s chair disco dancing which turns into stand up disco dancing,  while Aoife explains that it helps keep the back muscles loose.

An eclectic playlist that spans Frank Sinatra, Harry Styles, and Janet Jackson keeps the tempo of the class moving in an upwards trajectory and everyone is on their feet.

“We’re up for good now!”, Aoife says.

There’s a Tina Turner routine for her classic anthem Simply the Best which the class have been working on for the last few weeks, which even includes a moment of head banging.

Next it’s a little bit of freestyle dancing, and Aoife encourages a move where everyone waves and says hello to their neighbour, albeit still at a social distance.

It reminds you of that moment in a bar or a nightclub where you start to get to know something of someone by their energy, their movements – something you’ll never learn through a screen, and something that’s been lost a lot during this period of extended isolation. 

All of this is to say, it feels like a bit of a party.

Meeting the movers

I head to the class the following Wednesday (getting to see a second rendition of the Tina Turner routine) and catch up with some of the participants in the Richmond Barracks garden. I meet a group of very active people who are full of chat over tea, and who all happen to be over 50 years of age.

 “We were before you, we tired her out!”, one of the participants calls out to the the next group, who are having their class outside due to a lift in the weather as they pass us by.

Carol has just told us, gleefully, about how she was practicing her Tina Turner routine at home, only to realise her neighbour had been peering in the window, bemused. She doesn’t seem to be worried about what he might have thought.

Everyone in the group has come to the movement class by different means and for some it’s their first class, and for others it’s one class in a busy schedule of dance activities. Many of the group have been attending the Macushla group in DanceHouse for years, the Silver Swans, or regular classes in the F2 centre. 

Rose, who is in her late seventies, runs down her weekly schedule which takes her all over the city with activities like dance and choir six days a week.

Geraldine dryly replies, “And like Jesus, she rests on Sunday, ” to much laughter.

I hear about epic walks in 2km and then 5km radiuses, about a competition to get 25,000 steps three days a week, about how some of the women used to swim, or maybe had to change their exercise due to a health concern, and about how dancing suits them all.

Geraldine captures the general sentiment when she says: “We all do it for the same reasons, to keep fit, keep ourselves out of the hospital, and stay social.”

Carmel – who is out dancing five days a week (with the Silver Swans, Machusla, F2, and at a céilí dancing class as well as Richmond Barracks) spoke to me the previous Saturday and told me why she likes to dance.

“I really enjoyed her [Aoife’s] classes, I do have a lot of health problems and I find they took me mind off things firstly and then I benefited from the different movements – I got less pain.”

Carmel even tells me of a doctor-approved breakout from hospital treatment to make it to her Richmond Barracks class a few weeks back.

Benefits of movement

Beyond the physical benefits, other things keep cropping up too.

Ann, who is also in the League of Celts and goes céilí dancing tells me, “I find it very relaxing. If you have anything on your mind it really eases it.”

Rose echoes this too, “The music lifts you. You feel young again, you might as well be 20 the way it makes you feel.” 

I hear about all the social dances of teenage years – about the Teachers Club in Parnell Square and going as far as Drogheda for dances. Christine tells me about her parents who were ballroom dancers, Rose of meeting her husband at 16 and the two of them going rock and roll dancing at every party there was.

Robert talks of wanting to learn to dance when his sisters were, but as a boy it wasn’t the done thing – he didn’t want to be called a sissy. He doesn’t seem to have any such concerns these days.

Mutual respect

There is a natural affinity between the group and Aoife, evident both in the class and out of it –  and is probably explained by Aoife’s own background. A professional dancer, this is the first class she has taught for an over fifties age group and is informed by her own experience of dancing with her grandad in his nursing home when he had Alzheimers.

She uses the word elders to describe those in her class and believes that aging should be about joy, pleasure, and movement. There’s an easy empathy, respect between her and the participants of the class: “I find them really heroic”, while they in turn talk of her patience, her bubbly demeanor and their enjoyment of the class.

Making space for movement

The group has travelled from all over the city to come to the dance class – from the north inner city to as far as Coolock – most on public transport, or walking if they’re near enough.

Laughter is peppered throughout the conversation. There is a lightness here, in this group but in this strange pandemic year, there are glimmers of other things too.

There is talk of worried sons and daughters ringing up more than usual, imploring them to be safe. There is mention of how previously simple things like getting the bus have become imbued with new challenges. A few people share how difficult they found the lockdown. When asked if they were afraid, there is a universal sentiment of not really and talk quickly turns to worry about kids and grandkids – some of whom were going back to school that week.

Family stories of Covid are relayed, and some of the women share that they have underlying health conditions themselves, which they say the dancing helps with. There is talk of dance being a respite from busy houses full of kids and grandkids, or a change of scene from quiet houses. 

There is talk of the dance class being an escape from reality, and Aoife echoes this herself when she says, “You forget all your issues – that’s why I dance, that’s why I love it.”

Learning through dance

Later that Wednesday, Aoife says she admires the wisdom in the class – how the participants know the importance of coming to class to move, or to shake something off, or just give themselves some time in the day.

This love of movement is something many of the participants share with the younger people in their lives. Carol describes teaching her grandkids how to line dance in the garden (she’s still not worried about what the neighbours think), Rose tells of teaching her great grandkids how to rock and roll at a recent birthday, and Geraldine of sharing her dance moves with her eight year old grandson while he shared his – she now likes to do the floss dance move.

It seems fitting that this love of movement is shared through the generations. It turns out there are lots of lessons to be found in this class – about learning how to move, how to honour the body that belongs to you, how to live within our new reality,  and how to choose joy over fear.

Huge thanks to Aoife and all of the participants for being so generous in sharing their experience of the dance class with us. We look forward to welcoming the movement class back to Richmond Barracks as soon as the government guidelines allow.

In the meantime, if you feel inspired to explore some dancing don’t forget to have a listen to the movement class playlist. So, like Carol, you can now practice your Tina Turner routine at home.