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Naples Daily News (Florida)
Susan Gregory-Jenkins entered a plié position in a Naples ballet studio. Her heels came together in the familiar position - echoes of a ballet career that started at London's Royal Ballet School and spanned 27 years.
She held the position, lifted her heels and extended her legs, sending her arms overhead, not with grace and elegance but with strength and control.
Nine students in the studio followed her lead on a recent Tuesday as a morning sun cast a shaft of light through a window and onto the studio floor. Since November, Gregory has taught a weekly class at the Naples Academy of Ballet, sharing a technique that strengthens the body's core, develops healthy breathing, improves balance and straightens posture.
And you don't have to be trained ballerina to attend.
"The people who have never done any dancing before, they become in touch with their inner self," Gregory, 56, said. "It's really quite spiritual."
In the hour-long "ballet fitness" class, Gregory teaches stretches and breathing and posture exercises borrowed from Pilates, yoga, barre, back rehabilitation, the Alexander Technique and the Martha Graham Technique.
She developed the movements in her 20s - the "Gregory Technique" - at a time when she needed it herself.
A late bloomer, Gregory started ballet when she was 13 years old. Already an accomplished athlete in swimming and running, she had to choose between training for the Olympics or becoming a professional dancer. But two years later, she joined the Royal Ballet School in London, about 160 miles from her hometown in Sheffield, England.
But when she was 21, Gregory had a horse riding accident. Her back was broken, perhaps the worst thing that can happen to a young dancer.
"You can imagine - I was in ballet school, and they sort of projected that I was going to be one of the best ballerinas in the world, and then you're facing maybe never being able to walk again. It was depressing."
Doctors wanted to operate on her spine, but Gregory refused.
"If you don't know if I'm ever going to walk again without (an operation), how do you know I'm ever going to walk again with one?" she remembered asking.
After six months of rigorous training, Gregory was able to get on her feet again. After another six months, she could walk without a cane. Gregory decided that if she could ever walk again, she would retrain and return to dancing.
"I thought I would just devise my own class structured in a way that will warm up the body, structure the body, balance on the feet, and I will get paid for it," she recalled. "I'll get paid for training myself and other people."
In her class, Gregory taught celebrities, soccer players, football players, bodybuilders with the huge muscles, she recalled, struggled through the class.
And after three years of earning back her own strength, she was able to return to the Royal Ballet School.
"I was so determined that I'd got a second chance, and that's what actually got me through it," she said. "I was really trying to achieve the impossible. I just got stronger and stronger.
"It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. Everything after that was easy."
She went on to have a successful professional dancing career. Gregory took the leading role in "Carousel" and then as a soloist for Sir Fredrick Ashton's "Die Fledermaus" at The Royal Opera House, which was broadcast live on TV. She danced at Covent Garden in the West End of London, and was in the Ballet Company of the Mainz Stadt Theatre in Germany.
Gregory now lives in London six months out of the year, teaching her fitness class at a resort while also substitute teaching ballet classes. The other six months she's in Naples, teaching at the Naples Academy of Ballet at 9:30 a.m. each Thursday.
Gregory adapts the class based on her students' needs, whether they have no dancing experience or are intermediate. A former Red Sox baseball player took her class recently, Gregory said, but he had to take a break.
"This is like lifting a 100-pound weight," she recalled him saying.
That's because students are doing the exercises with the proper posture. They stand with the stomach and pelvis pulled in, neck long and back straight - a position most athletes are unfamiliar with. But with practice, the students improve within just a few weeks. One regular student in Gregory's class is 84-year-old June Roshe. Her spirits were high after completing a recent class alongside students probably half her age.
"It keeps me going," Roshe said of the class. "I've always loved ballet. I'm here with all these younger people; they're like my kids. We have a good time in class. We make good friends."
But the class is tougher than it looks, Gregory said.
"It's quite a holistic way of training the body with the breath and the stretching and trying to get people in contact with the pelvic center and their cores," she said. "After six months of doing these exercises their whole posture changes. They stand up straight and their chin is back.
"I get really a lot of joy from helping people do something that makes them feel better about themselves. ... It makes me happy for them. People have said to me it changed their lives and how they feel about themselves. And it works."
If You Go
The Gregory Technique
When: 9:30 a.m. each Thursday
Where: Naples Academy of Ballet, 1005 Fifth Ave. N., Naples
Cost: $12; money goes toward the academy's scholarship programs for young dancers
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