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teresa thornber-mann, 60, dancer, london

ageist EDITORS | july 26, 2018

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At 60, Teresa Thornber-Mann says she was deemed too old to be working in London’s financial center—where she had risen to executive assistant—and was let go. She spent the next few weeks searching for a similar job before discovering that none would materialize.

“After the crisis comes a realization that you shouldn’t have been doing that anyway,” she says, “or that it’s outgrown its useful purpose.”

In her case, that purpose was providing the necessary means to raise her daughter after her divorce. But her daughter was an adult now, and thriving. So Teresa began to uncover a silver lining.

She rented her apartment in London and moved to Cheltenham where she had a place in bad need of a renovation. One day, standing amid broken floorboards, peeling plaster and half-finished plumbing, she grabbed a bar stool to support herself and began doing plies. 

“I thought ‘I’m going to be what I want to be, because I’ve got no other choice’,” she says. “I have no need to fulfill other people’s expectations. I’ve got my life back, I’ve got who I am back. I don’t need to try and fulfill what’s expected of me. I can just do anything.”

Life has a way of reminding us – repeatedly – that we can only control so much. There are pivots both necessary and spontaneous, and seemingly straight paths that result in dead ends. Thornber-Mann’s fate was to be a professional dancer, which she excelled at from a young age, winning admission and a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School.

What’s interesting about her story is not that she had to give it up, but what rediscovering ballet at 60 taught her about her own resolve and the kind of life she wants to live going forward.

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While still at the Royal Ballet School, she assisted famed choreographer Rudolf Nureyev. Her career after took her to Germany and then back to London, where she performed in a stage production of Evita. She even got a part dancing the opening credits of Heaven's Gate, director Michael Cimino's controversially costly movie that sounded the death knell for the United Artists' studio. She continued to teach after getting married and the birth of her daughter, but her performing career took a back seat.

Upon divorcing at 34, she moved back to her native Nottingham to start a dance and performance school that was doomed by a bad investor. She taught intermittently in other English cities until her daughter headed off to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.

At 44, Teresa saw an opportunity to start again, and began working in London's financial heart, The City, rising from receptionist to executive assistant over 15 years. Though teaching and the performing arts were out of the question, she danced in the evenings and on the weekends, falling in love with tango, which she studied for 15 years.

“You can never take dance out of a dancer,” she says. “They are one and the same thing. Dancing is never a job, it’s your identity, first and foremost.”

So when she was left without a career, her worry soon turned to excitement at the opportunity that had presented itself. Around the time she began her bar stool ballet training, she heard a story on the BBC about the two deaths of a dancer – the first being when they no longer can dance. It was through the piece she came in contact with Sage, a dance company for those over 50.

She auditioned and, in the supportive environment of the company, worked her way back into dancing shape. The year and a half since have brought projects both from the outside world—like the choreographed flash mob she led at a train station for a London fashion boutique—as well as the beginnings of a performance idea she’s had fusing tango with ballet.  

“You hit a certain age and you suddenly have to reassess—and you have to reassess everything, because if you don’t life makes you, the universe makes you,” she says. “So you have to make a call every day: ‘Do I decide I want to run this marathon, or am I going to play the age card? How much of the age card is real, and how much can I actually do?’ And it’s quite a difficult call, and it’s every day.”

Teresa is being generous. It’s not a very difficult call for her. This is the life she always thought she’d be leading. And, as she puts it, a clear sign of age is when you’re talking about things that are in the past. She doesn’t have to do that.

“I actually do believe it’s sometimes a question of timing,” she says. “Yes I could’ve done more earlier if things had gone a different way, if my life had taken a different turn. But it did what it did. I’m a stronger person and I know more about me. And I’m just grateful I’m doing it now, basically.”