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Lady In Red back on her feet and ready to fly

As Maiden Voyage unveil their new dance Epilogue tonight, as part of the Belfast International Arts Festival, Gail Bell catches up with one of the dancers, Jane Mooney, and hears how even severe arthritis in her feet will not stop her from performing at the age of 67 and "flying" on stage

Jane Mooney returns to the Belfast International Arts Festival this week - 33 years after her first festival performance
Gail Bell

GRANDE dame of Northern Ireland dance, Jane Mooney, still stands on one leg to brush her teeth every morning, but now, at the age of 67, she is ready to bring her bare-footed balancing skills back to the stage again.

It is quite the coup for choreographer Eileen McClory to have enticed the former professional dancer - now living in Holywood - out of retirement for a vibrant new performance with Maiden Voyage Dance, but it seems 'old age' and even severe arthritis in her 'big toe' joints could not hold her back.

Dancing with fellow sexagenarian Sandy Cuthbert (61) from Belfast in Epilogue as part of this year's Belfast International Arts Festival, Mooney is delighted to be back - and even more delighted to have been chosen as the 'cover girl' for this year's festival brochure.

Photos were shot in Ormeau Park and wearing a striking red dress, she looks every inch the svelte contemporary dancer she once was: the body may not quite be able to nail the gravity-defying moves of youth, but grace and poise are timeless and still very much in the frame.

"Every day I do strengthening and stretching exercises for my toe joints, ankles and calves, while focusing on balance to increase awareness through my feet," she explains when we catch up for a chat ahead of her debut (on film) at Havelock House, Ormeau Road, tonight.

"Standing on each leg at a time for a minute as I brush my teeth works a treat for me.

"In the morning, it's hard at first, getting the feeling back in the feet, but once I've done the work, it's just great. I have learned that I'm not going to let my feet stop me - I just need to work with them.

"Arthritis in my foot has been the legacy of dancing on hard floors in bare feet - we didn't know as much back then about sprung floors and how to look after your feet - but I have no regrets.

"I tend to see things that happen in life as opportunities and this has been an opportunity to nurture my feet and get to know them. Feet are amazing."

Interestingly, the performance of Epilogue will mark a triumphant return to the festival for Mooney who first danced in a piece entitled Crossing Water at the former Belfast Festival at Queen's 33 years ago.

Even with a varied and high-level career spent mostly in London and the north east of England, she still pulls that one out as a highlight.

"Crossing Water will be referenced in the new choreography," she enthuses, chattily.

"If I had told my younger self that I would be back dancing in the same festival at the age of 67, I am sure she would be bemused at the very least..."

Her older self is also rather astonished at the unexpected turn of events, having been contentedly working in dance behind the scenes until receiving a call from McClory - the festival's artist-in-residence - asking if she would like to dance again.

And despite her arthritic feet, the pull proved too much, particularly given the piece is centred around honouring the mature woman and putting the spotlight back on the sheer wonder of her, age spots and all.

A creatively collaborative artwork, Epilogue - also featuring poet, Maria McManus and film-maker, Conan McIvor - is described as "an honest reflection of what 'the dance' took from and gave" to the two dancers involved.

"It's a very layered project and quite poetic," elaborates Mooney who is ecstatic at being - bizarrely - pain-free while dancing. She is so astounded, in fact, that she is tempted to tell her consultant.

"Is it an extreme version of mind over matter?" she ponders. "I don't know, but it's like my body has just gone, 'I know this'. Part of me now wants to tell my consultant that if I keep on dancing, I will be absolutely fine."

It helps, of course, that her choreographer has built movement material sensitively with both dancers, regarding the project as an opportunity to celebrate the "lived-in body, rather than make it try to copy what we were in our youth".

While aware of the natural restrictions of age, Mooney - who has served as chair of Dance UK - was delighted to find she had not lost the ability to "really travel across the floor" and has enthusiastically compared the project to a "liberating exploration"; a feeling of being in a "sweetie shop, discovering all different kinds of exciting new things".

The reference to childhood is significant for the former board member with Northern Ballet Theatre (she has also worked as artistic director with Ludus Dance and with one of the first UK national dance agencies, Suffolk Dance - now DanceEast - as well as co-founding Still Standing dance theatre company) because it brings her back to the pivotal day her mother first gave her "springs" to fly.

"As a child, I always wanted to fly, so when I was five, as a Christmas present, my mother bought me a set of springs attached to straps that I could wear on my feet and bounce, so that I would have a feeling of flying," she recalls.

"When I dance on stage, I always feel like I am flying - it is a magical feeling."

A love of dance was sealed first through Irish dancing classes with Patricia Mulholland in Belfast and later through creative dance lessons with Helen Lewis.

An opportunity to train at Laban Centre and Goldsmith's College in London followed but was delayed when her mother died when Mooney was just 15.

"Dance was always serious for me, but I had to have a Plan B," she says.

"I couldn't leave my sister [Bernadette] who was younger than me; there was no way I could take off to dance college at that time. I also needed to be around my twin brother, John. We needed to be together as a family, to grieve and to heal.

"I worked as a secretary in a hospital for four-to-five years until I could go. I just kept telling myself that I would have to wait - luckily I got a grant as a mature student which was fantastic.

"When I did get to Laban, it was the happiest time of my life."

Married to second husband Mark Blake and with a grown-up son, Rory, from her first marriage to Raymond Johnston [who passed away in 2006], she has been back 'home' in Northern Ireland since 2012 and is keen to keep on dancing on the local stage.

"I've been doing mentoring, project management, that sort of thing, but I will not stop dancing, now that I have found it again," she says.

"There is absolutely no way I won't do this again because I have not felt as alive and as much 'myself' in a long while.

"I'm starting to teach with Maiden Voyage, for their movement choir, in the autumn, so Epilogue has opened other doors for me, too.

"I think, as a woman, there is a certain invisibility as you get older, so I hope this performance helps others step out, be seen and happy to celebrate what life has given to them."

:: Epilogue, a film installation from Maiden Voyage, will be screened at Flax Studios, Havelock House on the Ormeau Road to a socially distanced audience, from tonight to Wednesday October 13. belfastinternationalartsfestival.com

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