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This free ballet class is giving women over 50 their confidence back

You’re never too old to learn something new ... or become a ballerina.

At a ballet barre in Oklahoma City, senior women stand a little taller. They're not just ballerinas — they're Golden Swans.

The Oklahoma City Ballet offers beginner and intermediate-level classes geared at dancers over 50, with students called the Golden Swans. Taught by ballet pro Macaira Pinto, the twice-weekly (and completely free) classes see anywhere between four and 24 participants working through pliés, tendus and relevés.

Pinto, 46, tells TODAY.com her classes are all about getting her students to grant themselves grace, literal and metaphoric. She uses the grand battement, a ballet dance move which sees a dancer lift her leg high into the air, as an example. It's not about perfection — if students have realized a grand battement is 45 degrees for them, rather than the 180 it usually entails, that’s excellent.

“The key to Golden Swans is that every Swan knows that it’s within what they feel they can do,” she explains.

Macaira Pinto instructs the Golden Swans.
Macaira Pinto instructs the Golden Swans.Courtesy Jana Carson

“We’re looking for them to feel beautiful or looking for them to gain better posture to work on their balance and their flexibility,” she adds. “At no point in time are we asking them to be a prima ballerina. We just want them to be the most gorgeous 'Swan' that they can be. Not to worry about being an ugly duckling.”

Macaira Pinto performing as a professional dancer.
Macaira Pinto performing as a professional dancer.Courtesy Macaira Pinto

The Golden Swans' name serves as a nod to the program's 50-plus-age students and golden 50-year anniversaries, plus the famous ballet "Swan Lake."

The program was started by one of Pinto's instructors from childhood, Laura Jane Ward, in 2015.

Though Ward passed away last year, Pinto continues to carry on her efforts, aiming to work on the students’ flexibility, posture and stability— essential skills for ballerinas and for seniors alike.

As people age, balance and flexibility can mean the difference between taking a fall and recovering from a misstep before hitting the floor. The skill of fall prevention goes hand-in-hand with a sense of independence.

Lise Hilboldt is 69 years old and one of the more experienced dancers in her class. In a past life, she was a professional actor starring in films alongside the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer, Diane Lane and Michael Caine.

“It’s kind of brave to step out and try ballet at 80 years old."

Nancy Brawner

She says her lessons with Golden Swans, which she started last year, remind her how to be intentional about her movements. And when she leaves the classroom, her body remembers what she learned there.

Hilbolt describes an incident where her ballet training helped her land on her feet.

“I was in Los Angeles shopping with my son, and I was walking really fast. I collided into this heavy guy and I went flying,” she explains with an amused smile. On instinct, she knew how to break her fall. “I landed in a plié. It was like he threw me across the floor, and I landed in plié.”

“That’s something I learned as an adult — how to think through my limbs. My hands, my hips,” she says. “Everything is said through movement, and you think through your body.”

The Golden Swans warm up at the barre.
The Golden Swans warm up at the barre.Courtesy Jana Carson

Robin Martin, a 72-year-old student, danced seriously for nearly three decades and earned a ballet degree from Texas Christian University. When she was 27 years old, she took on the role of a lifetime as the Snow Queen in the Nutcracker, but a knee injury during the production, coupled with the news of a pregnancy, ended her career on stage.

"Your body comes along, but your heart goes first. There are different skill levels in the class, and it doesn’t make any difference.”

Lise Hilboldt

“There was a confidence I had back at that age,” she explains. “As you age, life beats you down, you kind of lose your confidence and things like that ... (These classes) resurrected all that for me.”

Martin learned about the Golden Swans while enrolling her granddaughter in the Oklahoma City Ballet school. The next week, she started classes, and has been in the program for five years.

“I’m just so thankful to be at this age and be able to move without pain. The coordination, the posture and the poise. I didn’t realize until I got back into class how I had started to shorten.”

Robin Martin (fourth from the left) dances alongside her fellow Swans.
Robin Martin (fourth from the left) dances alongside her fellow Swans.Courtesy Jana Carson

Unlike Martin, 85-year-old Nancy Brawner started ballet for the first time in her 60s. After nearly a lifetime of wanting to be able to learn to dance in a formal setting, she decided to join the Golden Swans the year she turned 80.

“I decided that I had to do something new to stimulate my brain,” she explains. “I read about the Golden Swans in the newspaper. They were doing classes at a retirement center. I called and asked if I could join, and they said, Sure, come on in.”

In her 20s, Martin was a professional ballerina.
In her 20s, Martin was a professional ballerina.Courtesy Robin Martin

“It’s kind of brave to step out and try ballet at 80 years old,” she remarks with a reflective smile. “Everything else comes to a halt when it’s ballet time. The ballet takes precedence.”


In the years since Golden Swans first started, its program has blossomed to over five locations throughout the metro, including nearby retirement living centers. Similar classes are offered by ballet studios throughout the country.

The classes have meant so much to the Oklahoma women involved that they’ve also adapted to the technologies that give them access to the studio when they’re unable to get there physically.

Carol Sokatch, 88, is a Golden Swan and a member of the 1929-founded women-only piloting program the Ninety-Nines. She lives in a retirement building and joined the Golden Swans almost six years ago. She used to always go into the studio for classes. Now, she attends class virtually to make time for her other activities.

As one of the older members of her group, being around her fellow ballerinas has proved to Sokatch that she can still keep up.

Carol Sokatch stands tall at the barre.
Carol Sokatch stands tall at the barre.Courtesy Jana Carson

“It doesn’t matter what your body image is. You just go ahead, and you enjoy the motion,” she explains. “I’m sure it has slowed down deterioration, just because of age. When I started out, I used a cane (in classes). Now I’m not using a cane.”

The joys of being part of the Golden Swans classes go beyond the physical improvements that it provides. Through the courses, the women have also found a flock.

“It doesn’t matter what your body image is. You just go ahead, and you enjoy the motion."

Carol Sokatch

Brawner says her Swan friends have held her up during a string of hardships — checking in on her in and outside of the studio, and picking her up and driving her to classes when necessary.

In 2006, Brawner’s husband died. Her son, who is 57 years old, has dementia from a traumatic brain injury. Years ago, she found love again, but as time continues its twirl, he fades from her in ways, too. Every day she goes to his assisted living facility to be with him.

Nancy Brawner wanted to dance her whole life, now she dances with the Oklahoma City Ballet at 85 years old.
Nancy Brawner wanted to dance her whole life, now she dances with the Oklahoma City Ballet at 85 years old.Courtesy Jana Carson

“Emotionally, it’s draining,” Brawner says. “But I can come to ballet class and leave here feeling really recharged.”

Hilbolt says the Golden Swans have done more than teach her to land in a perfect plié. Being around these women, she says, has drawn her back to the art of living.

“I love these women. I love them because anybody who has the courage to stand at a ballet barre and do a plie and do a relevé, a portabra with their arms ... it’s so moving to me and so beautiful. You dance with your heart more than your body. Your body comes along, but your heart goes first. There are different skill levels in the class, and it doesn’t make any difference.”