Interview with Gail Hewton – RIPE Dance Founder
Posted by Jennifer (Jenn) Hampstead | Sep 23, 2019
When an opportunity presents itself what do you do? Sit and ponder? Or grab the bull by the horns?
Dance Educator Gail Hewton has never been one to shy away from a challenge.
“I’ve had an incredible, and I think, quite a unique career that has included working professionally as a dancer, teacher, educator, choreographer, administrator, manger, producer and creative producer…I started as a teacher and have come full circle to what I call my encore career in teaching dance.”
Gail is the Founder of RIPE Dance on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. RIPE offers dance possibilities for mature age students of various physical ability, from ballet for the active and agile to classes for those with mobility issues and Parkinson’s.
Gail learnt early on that self-belief and the power of “Yes” can lead to life unfolding in directions you never knew possible.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Brisbane, around Upper Mount Gravatt.
What was your first introduction to dance?
I always loved dancing. My mum loved dancing too, but she was never allowed to learn. My dad never let my sisters and I learn either because ballet was on a Saturday and that would to interfere with his work which was racing greyhounds.
When I was 8, we went to a social function at a community hall in Rocklea. Mum used to make me get up and dance in front of people, which I just hated. Well, they put me on the stage and I just danced and danced. I’ve got the photo. Afterwards this man came up to dad and said “Oh she’s fantastic does she learn ballet?” He then said he’d be willing to pay for my classes because he thought I was so good. That embarrassed my Dad enough that my sisters and I were able to go to dance class. Not to ballet on a Saturday of course, but jazz classes during the week. That’s how I started dancing.
I’ve always wished that I knew who that man was. I would have loved to thank him. If it wasn’t for him, we may never have danced!
How did you get into teaching?
When I left school, I never knew that you could do a dance course and be a dancer! I enjoyed maths and was good at it, so I studied commerce and maths teaching. On graduating from the Brisbane College of Advanced Education I did a year of country service at Tara, past Dalby. There wasn’t much out there for the community so the principal at Tara encouraged all of us who had other skills, to teach outside of school. I taught dance.
I had a pre-school class, a primary class, a secondary school class and an adult class. I taught in the afternoons after school or at night. That year was pretty amazing for me and I just loved it!
When I came back, I was posted to Macgregor State High School as a commerce teacher and I taught dance as an afternoon sport. Some of my kids were students at a local ballet studio run by Carmel Nolan who was a Brisbane ballet guru. Carmel had just lost her jazz teacher so without even seeing what I could do she asked me if I would take the jazz classes at the studio. I said yes!
Carmel introduced me to eisteddfod’s, which I had never seen before and the studio asked if I would choreograph contemporary and jazz pieces for them. At the time no one was doing contemporary at eisteddfod’s and we blew everyone away. Other studios then had me as a guest teacher and were so encouraging, I will forever be grateful for that. One of my biggest inspirations for teaching dance was Bev Nevin. Bev ran classes in the city. She opened my eyes to a whole other world of dance! She inspired me creatively because no two classes were ever the same.
During my second year at Macgregor Anne Silvey, a lecturer from teaching college, contacted me. Anne was involved in launching a pilot program of dance for years 11 and 12, would I be interested? With only 4 high schools invited to trial this program, the first of its kind in Queensland, I went straight to the school’s principal Don Rostedt who gave it a resounding yes!
That’s how dance in Queensland secondary schools began, with Macgregor, Kelvin Grove, Aspley and Caboolture High Schools.
When I eventually left Macgregor Maggi Sietsma, the Founder and Artistic Director for Expressions Dance Company, asked if I’d join the company for its dance education component during the off-season. I then lectured full time at Queensland University of Technology training teachers in jazz and contemporary dance.
After travelling overseas, I received a call from John Aitken. At the time John was a producer and worked at Brisbane’s South Bank Parklands when it was first re-developed after Expo88.
He wanted to hold a big event, something to do with dance in the piazza, did I have any ideas? I suggested a celebration of dance. It would include the best dance studios and professionals, but John needed a headline act.
Now, talk about timing and grabbing opportunities when they happen. The movie Strictly Ballroom had just come out and Paul Mercurio was the hottest dancer at the time. I knew Paul had recently left Sydney Dance Company to start ACE, the Australian Choreographic Ensemble. John had no idea who Paul Mercurio was, but once he did a quick enquiry through his office he came back to the phone and said book him. John then asked if I’d coordinate and produce the entire event. I’d never done anything like that before, so of course I said yes. Within 2 weeks we had sold out.
John then had the idea for a single file Christmas parade on the South Bank Promenade and asked me if I’d choreograph and coordinate that as well. Again, I said yes!
We had a combination of community and professional people. I choreographed all of the schools and studios involved and it ran every night until Christmas eve. Tens of thousands of people came to see it. During this time in event management and production I was still teaching dance, mostly to professionals. Around 2002 I found my body couldn’t keep up. I left teaching and went into creative producing full time working heavily in the community sector.
During this time, I was taking adult dance classes because I needed to keep moving. The teachers were good but usually very young and they had no idea about the older body. I tried multiple styles and it became very frustrating finding something that suited me until a friend roped me into a step class. Suddenly I found myself surrounded by older people who could move well, and I had a light bulb moment! Maybe these same people would like to do a dance class, that way I can cater to my body and their bodies and that’s how RIPE came to fruition. RIPE because we were mature and because we could prove that movement really is possible for everyone.
I completed Dance with Parkinson’s training in 2013 and began seated dance classes in aged care homes. I then started a dance class for people with mobility issues because I knew my classes could benefit everyone. Slowly I’ve introduced more classes like ballet and jazz for the active and agile, ambulant over 60’s and classes for those with mobility issues.
Awarded the AusDance Queensland Robert Osmotherly award for her contribution to dance in 2017. Gail went to the UK for six weeks last year to connect and meet with others delivering dance to mature students across a whole range of abilities.
My classes are first and foremost dance classes, but they are underpinned by health and well-being principles, falls prevention and reablement.
Falls prevention is a big issue. I investigated the most well-regarded evidence-based exercise programs. The exercises involved are all exercises that we do in either a jazz, contemporary or ballet class. So, I turned them into dance. Falls prevention exercises for ankle flexibility, balance, transference of weight, load bearing, are all behind the design of my classes.
One of my dancers is post-polio. When she first started coming, she told me she would be tripping or falling once a week. For just over two years she has been coming to class and in two years she hasn’t had one fall and it’s because of dance. The doctors would tell her to exercise. Well, she said she hates to exercise but she loves to dance. Give the movement intention and make it fun! Its not obvious as we do the pliés etc because I incorporate a relational approach.
Social connectivity is crucial for my classes. Connecting with people. Not just me-to-my class, but my class to each other. We don’t just dance together we have monthly lunches or afternoon teas and we have so much fun! Social connection is key for people’s health and well-being and longevity.
What is your big dream?
Julie Chenery and I have formed Gold Moves Australia. Professional development focusing on dance practitioners. Not all teachers necessarily know what the implications are for the ageing body. We show them in dance what you should and shouldn’t do and what to keep an eye out for.
We had our introduction in July and there is a taster of Gold Moves on 13th Oct 2019 for dance practitioners. Going through the ranges of abilities like active and agile, less agile, mobility issues, aged care. Its not about offering a strict model. Its about incorporating principles like falls prevention and the social aspects into their own practises. How to work within their own genre and style of dance to tailor a bespoke class according to the people they’re working with and in a way that feels comfortable to them.
We hope to get funding so we can offer mentoring. With a workshop people often don’t feel confident enough to be able to transfer what they’ve learnt to so we would love to include mentoring as part of the package. A practitioner may want to start with an active and agile class. They may want to start a mobility class in their area. There really isn’t a lot out there for the older generation so there is a great demand for mature dance classes for various mobility ranges.
“That’s my quest. I never planned this journey. When I started teaching commerce and maths, I never dreamed I would teach dance let alone experience all the other roles I’ve had.
What I did was let life happen and along the way opportunities presented themselves to me that I grabbed. I believe life is short and I wanted to experience as much as possible. At the same time, I’m a perfectionist. I wanted to excel at everything I did, so I worked very hard. I was a sponge. I loved discovering, learning and experiencing new things.
I now bring to my practice a rich palette of knowledge, skills and experience to draw on. However, there’s still more to learn.
While I’ve had these different roles the thing that has been the constant link between them has been my love of dance and my ongoing commitment to dance education.
That’s why we’re doing this. That’s my quest. I want someone doing this for me when I’m older.
I hope I’m dancing forever.”
Gail Hewton – RIPE Dance Founder