Pas de Deux

By James Ellsworth

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Amalia Schelhorn and David Roland Photo: Sean Doe

“You don't stop dancing because you grow old; you grow old because you stop dancing.” –Unknown

David Roland and Amalia Schelhorn continue to dance through life. They both had distinguished careers in ballet as “youngsters,” performing as principal dancers in several leading classical roles. But passing time presented its challenges. They moved through parenting, family responsibilities and physical changes, and, with no regrets, have turned a page. Now they teach, mentor up-and-comers, and perform in post-career roles. They do what they do quite naturally and provide inspiration to both young and “older” dancers. David and Amalia in Night at the Moulin Rouge, choreographed by Ashley Evans. Photos: Alan AustinTheirs is an attitude to emulate.

Amalia, 57, is a self-described junior senior; and David is 64. We met during the week of October 4th, World Ballet Day, the third annual international celebration of the dance form that has graced our world since the 15th century. One writer commented that it is a day “when even the most flat-footed, ham-fisted hobgoblins, by some incomprehensible magic, can whip out a flawless grand jeté, no sweat.” I can’t claim that feat, but I did witness magic at one of David’s classes and at a rehearsal for an upcoming performance of Pineapple Poll, a Gilbert and Sullivan piece, in which both David and Amalia had parts, as an old sailor and Mrs. Dimple, respectively.

Up three flights of stairs in a large classroom of the Raino Dance Studio, one length of the room in full mirrors and one width bathed in natural light from tall windows, David was putting his 15 advanced-level students through their paces. Looking like a fit Falstaff in white mutton-chops and long rakish hair (as his sailor's role in Pineapple Poll required), David, who estimates that he teaches 24 hours a week and rehearses another eight, had already done his 45 minutes of stretching exercises, called barre. Now he's snapping his fingers to time, flowing through some steps for his students. "Five, six, seven, eight, now tilt, pedal," swirling his arms to a musical interpretation of Vivaldi's Winter. "Show off your balance; nice suspension, hold the movement, arms up and away from the kick and then with the kick like a hurricane, like a windmill." David oozes ballet.

Growing up in rugged Redding in northern California, David admits he felt ballet in his body from an early age. "I need dance as a fabric of life," he says. He leapt, literally, when he won a scholarship to San Francisco Ballet School and later went on to be the principal dancer for the Oakland Ballet and soloist with the Berlin Ballet/German State Opera Company. As well as dancing principal roles in all the major classics, he also has choreographic experience in Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. Until his mid-thirties, David worked with the famed Rudolf Nureyev and prima ballerina Eva Evdokimova, as well as renowned Canadian National Ballet star Frank Augustyn, sharing a dressing room with him at the Berlin Opera Ballet. Even his wife is a former ballerina. Since then, he has been dancing, doing choreography, teaching classical ballet and contemporary dance, plus performing, currently with the Ballet Étoile Canada in Victoria.

Amalia Schelhorn is very thoughtful as we sip coffee on a rainy noon hour. She is slender and presents a centred personality. Just able to squeeze in an interview between classes and rehearsals, she corroborates David's recollection that he first saw her dancing on a piano in Berlin. "But that's ballet, a very transient world"; and she knows of what she speaks.

Amalia has always loved ballet. Growing up in Tennessee, going to an elite finishing school there, and then on to Canada's National Ballet School at age 15, she became a first soloist with the National Ballet. "Dancing is a very integrated experience," she says, and then adds demurely, "Through dance, one interacts with all of the art forms: music, drama, visual arts, literature, fashion... When I dance I feel fully alive; every part of me has to wake up. And using mirrors in the studio teaches that taking an objective look at oneself is essential to progress." For Amalia, life has always presented opportunities and obstacles, both of which allow for growth.

At 27, she left the National Ballet to become a parent and “freelance” dancer. Amalia believes that a person can channel skills into other areas and she is philosophical about it. "Being a ballerina isn't about fame or prestige; it's finding delight in the stage." Or, "Ideally, performing is about sharing what one loves, not about having to prove oneself." She adds, "Every life course is unique. Don't force the sequence though. You may want to have it all, but it doesn't have to be all at the same time. We wanted to be parents more than I wanted to dance, that's all." This attitude has led her to incorporate what she loves into other phases of her life. So, she taught and coached and performed for her kids and students in small town Comox, and later in Victoria, at Dansko Dance for 15 years and now at the Canadian College of Performing Arts, Raino Dance and Ballet Étoile Canada.

Needless to say, both David and Amalia have aged with grace and fluidity. Both admit it is important to stay fit and maintain resiliency as much as one can. Both have been relatively injury-free, and with some creaking they touch the wooden floors for luck. Besides, both see limitations as allowing for creativity and problem-solving.

Amalia once had a student who broke her leg, so Amalia suggested a skateboard as a prop and the student could continue as a crab. David had a torn hamstring when he was 28 and found a chiropractor who administered Active Release Therapy. Both use yoga for conditioning, strengthening and stretching. In addition, Amalia was influenced by the late Amelia Itcush and has incorporated techniques that re-balance the whole body into a new sense of neutral alignment. Through everyday activities of sitting, standing and walking exercises, she can release tight muscles while re-patterning the neuromuscular system and correcting poor posture. She repeats an Itcush mantra, "dance was made for the body, not the body for dance," and explains her efforts to reduce injury and detriment to the body during the practice of dance by having the body be fed by movement.

Health and fitness are essential to be sure. Both agree, however, that it is important to realize obstacles and judgments are not final, but fluid. Even negative reviews can be turned into positive results.

And dancing is not just for the young. Anyone can benefit. It engages the body and the brain. David has seniors attending ballet lessons twice a week, for fitness, ostensibly, but also to fulfill artistic needs. "I teach them to do the impossible, so they can reach the attainable." Amalia teaches senior classes at Raino, too, and once taught an older man, a retired architect, who wanted to use dance to get in touch with his emotions. She also takes pride in being able to perform middle-aged roles and adds that working with Ballet Étoile Canada allows both her and David to give a realistic representation of the world of dance for those aged 20-35 and beyond. She's sure younger dancers sometime see her and David as “shameless,” but it gives them courage to try things and keep trying. It's good to value what you are physically suited for. "Focus on what you're good at, honour the gifts you have, and develop them."

Both take those words to heart – for themselves and to impart to others. They love working with Ashley Evans, the director of Ballet Étoile Canada, who collaborates generously with them and allows for continued creativity. For David Roland and Amalia Schelhorn, life isn't about waiting for the storms to pass; it's about learning to dance in the rain.

Snapshot with David Roland and Amalia Schelhorn

If you were to meet your 20-year-old self, what advice would you give him/her? 
Amalia: Each life unfolds uniquely and there are no ‘musts’ as far as fitting accomplishments into a standard timeline. There are sequences in life, but you don't need to force them; allow them to happen. And pay attention to mentors.

David: Life is an open palette. Make sure whatever you're composing is fulfilling. Try to have no regrets and listen to your teachers.

Who or what has influenced you the most? And why?
Amalia: Veronica Tennant (Prima Ballerina with The National Ballet of Canada for 25 years). Her career was fluid, moving from ballet to film to author. She demonstrated continual learning and the humbleness to learn from even those much younger and less experienced than herself. She once asked me questions about what I was trying to do, a mere corps de ballet dancer, when she was a prima ballerina. It's important to stay open and not let accolades go to your head.

David: Two people, really. One was Rhett Ericson, a paraplegic I did some care-taking for. He taught me there are no hurdles really and inspired me to dance. Also Alan Howard, an early teacher. I was a bit of a lazy teen and Mr. Howard was politically incorrect, but his methods worked for me to get disciplined.

What does courage mean to you?
Amalia: I think courage is embodied in performing. It is a willingness to expose yourself, risk-taking, a desire to try, even if it’s not comfortable.

David: Courage is those students who, at first, were scared of ballet or dance as youngsters, but then come back as adults. I love channeling that courage into confidence.

What does success mean to you?
Amalia: No matter what your goals are, to accomplish what you set out to do. Goals can vary. Success also means not being burdened by regrets.

David:  Being able to work at what you love. That includes playing King Lear or dancing with my daughter in a performance at Butchart Gardens in Victoria.


february 2017 INSPIRED senior living


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Showing 1 to 4 of 4 comments.

Wonderful inspiring article, for me personally, who loves to dance at any opportunity. I am age 74 and I will try to stay nimble!

Posted by Karen M. | February 26, 2017 Report Violation


Posted by Faye G. | February 23, 2017 Report Violation

Great article and very inspiring to keep doing the things you love. Beautiful photos, too. I look forward to being able to see them dance together one day.

Posted by Shirley Kricheldorf | February 3, 2017 Report Violation

David, my 'old' friend, you continue to be an inspiration!

Posted by Ginny B | February 3, 2017 Report Violation

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