Young-at-heart South African L

Young-at-heart South African Londoner still dancing her way around the world

At 78 years old, South African-born Elsa Perez is fitter than many people half her age, thanks to her lifelong passion for dancing. She leads two London dance groups, the Iberians and the Proteas, and needs your vote to win them funding.

Young-at-heart South African L

A few weeks ago I watched a programme called How not to get old, which introduced the viewers to Belinda, a woman of a certain age, who had a body that any 25-year-old would be proud of. She shared with us the secret of her success, doing exercises that sculpt the body.

This all brought to mind a super fit lady whom  I have the privilege of meeting a number of years ago,  through the South African High Commission. Her name is Elsa Perez, and at 78 years of age she is a remarkable woman.

Elsa grew up in Rosebank, Cape Town then after the group areas act her family moved to Lansdowne. She left South Africa in 1961 to study further. She trained as a teacher of maladjusted children at London University, although by this stage had already been teaching for six years, with physical education, dance and puppetry very much part of her work.

Elsa has always loved dancing. Her family could not afford dance lessons for Elsa and her sister, but from the age of eight she was allowed to watch the lessons. Of this time she says, “We stole with our eyes and practised at home.” They were both musical and could remember tunes well, even today she can remember the ‘highland fling’ from those days.

Her older cousin taught her to dance from the age of 12, culminating in performances in Sunday school concerts. At 13 her 16-year-old brother taught her to jive and do the samba which she still loves today.

Elsa learnt from her father to ballroom dance and at 13 she attended her first dance, where she danced with the members of the cricket club. To date she has only taken time off from dancing to have her children.

Elsa Perez competes with the London School of Samba in Denmark.
Elsa Perez competes with the London School of Samba in Denmark.

Iberian dance groupThe Iberian Folk Dance group in London was already established when she joined, 13 years ago. A friend asked her to teach her partner the female part of the Argentinian Tango, which she did. After this she was invited to join the group and fell in love with the dances, Spanish, Portuguese and Mexican. After three years she started to teach the newer dances that she had learnt from the guest teachers. She says of herself that she has “a good memory for music and dance”. When the last secretary died, she took over the running of the group.

Elsa also leads the Proteas dance group, made up of mainly expat South Africans, some of whom dance in the Iberian Group.

The Proteas have been going for 10 years and started off doing the quadrille and the Tafelberg Commercial Square. Elsa remembers, “One of the members had a 60th birthday party, and we put our heads together to remember the figures we used to dance in the ‘50s and ‘60s. At the party the men took over and spoilt what we had practised.”

They then decided to start a group and practise dances Elsa has choreographed to South African music. They dance the Cuban Rueda and the Cuban Conga too.

elsa 2 (Medium)To date the Iberian Group has performed 158 times and the Proteas 114 times. They have appeared in various shows and have been interviewed on TV.

Recently I crossed paths again with Elsa when I found myself in charge of a rehab ward full of depressed and bored patients. I asked Elsa if she would put on a show, which she readily agreed, appearing a few weeks later with a group of eight dancers including Jackie who is a trained Zumba gold teacher.

Besides dancing various dances from Cuba, Mexico and Spain, they had the patients participating in chair based dancing. The feedback was very positive; it helped kickstart some of the patients’ rehab progress and some made a full recovery.

The result was that Elsa and her dancers were asked to make a film for the trust I work for. Called Listening to patients, it will be shown at the next AGM to all the different departments of the trust. Because the top management thought this was a very innovative idea, they want to see if this dance programme can be rolled out to other units for the benefit of the patients.

Elsa is extremely busy with dance and other commitments, including:

  • 26 August: She danced with the London Samba School in the Notthing Hill Carnival, leading the Bahianas section.
  • 15September: Iberian group will be dancing at the Swiss Cottage Community Centre Festival
  • 6 October: Silver Sunday, an event held by Age Concern Greenwich to celebrate the achievements and contributions that older people make to society
  • 1 November: Day of the Dead festival at The Horniman Museum
  • 2 and 3 November: Annual Festival of Dancing round the World. Both groups will be dancing at this event, held at Cecil Sharp House, Regent Park Road, Camden.


Elsa does some fantastic work, she is very generous with her time and expertise but like most things, she needs some help to continue.

  • She asks readers to vote for her group, the Iberian Folk Dancers, on the Mars Milk site so that they can get some sponsorship for travel costs and hire of facilities etc.
  • She would like as many people to attend her Dancing Round the World Festival in November. I have attended this event and can promise it’s very entertaining, and you get to learn and practise some new dance moves.
  • Elsa would like more people to attend her fun-filled Saturday morning classes (especially men, which they are short of).
  • Her friend Jackie teaches Zumba Gold (like Zumba but less energetic), which she has adapted to include chair based dancing and is looking for more clients. Her rates are extremely affordable and she teaches one to one or group classes.

Contact Elsa on 02087693919 or

by Moira Rowan