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Published: 7 May 2024

95-year-old former acrobat Jean is learning to flex again 

An old photo of Jean aged 8 with her legs pulled over her head in an acrobatic pose

Jean aged around 8, performing a routine

Jean Butcher might be 95, but it was only a few months ago that she nearly attempted to do the splits.

“I was just leaning over the sofa and thought to myself, I wonder if I can still do that?” laughed Jean. “I started to stretch out and get into position, then I gave my head a wobble. At 95, I don’t think that would’ve gone so well!”

Jean, from Westerham, had rehabilitation at Tonbridge Cottage Hospital between late April and early May 2024, after surgery on her thigh bone, or femur. The stretches that the physiotherapists pushed her to practice are nothing to the former dancer.

From a young age, Jean performed as a child acrobatic dancer, and later as part of a travelling dance troop.

Child acrobatic dancer

My parents noticed my joints were really mobile and they sent me to a dance group when I was little, near Portsmouth where I grew up, just before the war. My uncle was a performer and dancer, so it was in the family.

Jean aged 8 posing as an acrobat, with her legs around touching her chin

Jean aged 8 posing as an acrobatic dancer

“I would get myself into some really unusual positions on stage – legs wrapped around my head, balancing on a stool or chair, anything really. The feeling of watching the audience’s surprised faces was quite something. They’d clap and cheer, I just loved how it made me feel.”

When war broke out in 1939, Jean had to stop dancing while she ‘watched German planes fly from France over the house’ and witnessed a bomb land just behind her back door, creating a huge crater in the ground.

She said: “I don’t remember being scared during the war, to be honest. I do recall that I always loved to dance and I couldn’t wait to get back to it.”

Travelling dance troop

Once the war was over, Jean joined a dance troop of eight, run by a world-famous dancer, after seeing an advert in the paper. She performed alongside comedians like Ethel Revenall and Gracie West, a comedy duo.

Jean standing on her hands on a chair

Jean performing as a teen for military troops

The group started touring all the military bases where soldiers were still stationed but not in action, shortly after the war ended, entertaining the troops.

“We even went out to mobile offshore bases, right in the middle of the sea.

"After the trauma of war, it was nice to feel we were making people happy.”

Jean worked part time in an office and continued to take as many dancing opportunities as she could. She toured all over the country.

“I appeared in pantomimes from Portsmouth, Devon all the way up to Liverpool,” she says. “There were some well-known faces in the shows, including Frankie Howard.

Jean stopped dancing when she met her husband, John, who she describes as ‘six-foot-five and handsome’ who she married age 21. The couple moved to Kent and had daughter Claire in 1958.

“It wasn’t really considered a ‘proper’ thing to do back then, to be on stage, so I gave it all up. John was also a ballroom dancer, but he had to stop due to national service. It was different times.

“But when Anne, my lovely physio here, was talking about her daughter who is at a top ballet school, I felt compelled to tell everyone about it. Suddenly my story was the hot topic on the ward!”


Jean leaning on a frame and stretching her leg out with her physio helping her

Jean is getting stronger every day

Jean stayed for rehabilitation at Tonbridge Cottage Hospital for a few weeks, after she first tore ligaments in her right knee, then fell and needed surgery on her left femur.

The first time she has had a major injury, Jean believes the fitness she built as a child and her activity levels in later life have kept her strong.

“I’ve always walked everywhere, done gardening and like doing everything for myself. I’ve got a beautiful big garden and over the last few years, when standing with a trowel and shovel got too much, I’ve sat down and done it. It takes a long time but it does me good and I enjoy it.”

Jean felt welcomed and ‘at home’ at Tonbridge Cottage Hospital.

She continues: “Everyone on my ward got so much better during their stay here because the staff make you get up and walk around. I had to get myself to the toilet and I wasn't allowed to just lay there in bed all day. They make me go up and down the stairs.

“The staff seem to love their jobs, they are fun and upbeat and it makes it a nice experience, which helps.”

Daughter, Claire: 'Mum has a real resilience'

Jean with daughter Claire

Jean with daughter Claire

Jean’s daughter Claire (pictured with her on the right), 66, explains that her mum has always been a source of inspiration.

She explains: “We lost my dad in 2005, to Parkinson’s, but mum has always had this real resilience and ability to do whatever she sets out to, by herself.

“She was a pretty good golfer and even won a couple of trophies. She loves the garden, and has even built a wall in our garden, herself. She did indoor bowls into her 90s.

“I’ve never thought of her as elderly, as she’s so able. Just a few years ago she was still getting out her tap shoes and doing performances for us.”

Claire explains that her mother has encouraged her to keep fit. The pair go out walking and, in the past, to yoga classes. She also supported her to play tennis and excel at swimming.

“I love looking back at old pictures of her as a girl, that muscle memory has never left her. She’s kept all those photos of those incredible moments, totally pristine. We even have programmes from her pantomimes.

“She had a rod and screw in her femur in the hospital but was up and about walking the next day, which was incredible.

Claire with Ann, her physiotherapist, Ann

Jean with physiotherapist, Ann

“The change we saw in her, as soon as she came to Tonbridge Cottage Hospital, was enormous. There is no loitering in bed, they got her moving and make sure she goes to the loo by herself and things like that. I know she’s better when she gets back to her old bossy self!

"It has been great to get her back home."

The team at Tonbridge Cottage Hospital works with patients to develop personalised care plans which are tailored to their individual rehabilitation goals.