This is the first of a new series of posts I have decided to write, aimed specifically at those who are thinking of, or have already, taken up ballet as an adult, either for the first time or after many years.
I took up ballet later than most, in my mid-teens, meaning that after a few years I was able to join adult ballet classes. I have attended a vast range of different ballet classes for adults (and even a summer intensive!), and it is an adult class that I am taking every day at the moment. I know the unique questions and problems experienced by adult beginners, and I also have experience and knowledge about the ballet world from the point of view of the serious student aiming to be a professional. Therefore I have decided to give as much information as I can, addressing everything you might want or need to know about taking up ballet. The completed series should build a thorough guide for amateur adult dancers. This first instalment looks at the questions around taking up ballet classes as an adult.
I find that a lot of people have the belief that they are too old for ballet. Perhaps they feel it is something only for young people, or that they are too unfit and/or out of practice to join classes, or that it is too late for them to learn a new skill that is so vast. Regardless of what thoughts might be causing these feelings, I want to get one thing straight: YOU ARE NEVER TOO OLD TO START BALLET.
Ballet is a beautiful art form, a refined skill, and an excellent form of exercise. It will work your body in a way that develops strong, elongated muscles, increased flexibility, better balance, excellent posture, and a whole new awareness of one’s body. You will develop better co-ordination, improved memory, and musicality. You will learn to move with grace. The benefits of ballet classes extend well beyond the studio. It is also a good opportunity to meet people and make friends.
Even if you do not move as well or as easily as you’d like, you can likely benefit from the class. In the adult classes at my school, we have dancers of all ages. Some might not be able to leap across the room, or bend their knees enough for a grande plié, so they modify the movements slightly to suit their needs. The dancers I have in mind move with more grace and musicality than anyone in the room! If you’re still not convinced, read this article about “silver swans” dancing well into old age; their oldest dancer is 102!
Most schools and studios now offer classes especially for adults, with a variety of levels. If you have never done ballet in your life, don’t be intimidated- find a class suitable for absolute beginners, and let the teacher know that you’ve never done ballet before. It may help to look up the positions of the arms and feet before starting so that you’re not totally lost: I will go through this in another post in this series.
If you already have some experience with ballet, but have been away from it for a long time, it may help to begin with a slower class than you would usually take, then move into a more advanced class after a week or two. This will help your body to adjust, as ballet involves postures and movements which are not natural to the body.
On this note, I feel I should say that for some people, ballet can aggravate existing conditions. Although ballet can help improve many physical problems and aid recovery from certain injuries, other injuries or problems can be worsened by the demands of ballet technique. For example, some knee, hip or back problems might be worsened by working in turnout, or lifting the leg to the back in arabesque. If you are experiencing physical limitations, let your teacher know, as they will be able to advise you. Only ever work within your limits when it comes to injuries, etc., as it is easy to push too far and cause real damage. As long as the teacher is aware of your problem, they will probably be fine with you altering the movement slightly so that you can keep the flow of the exercise without performing the step full-out. The best thing to do is give the classes a try, to listen to your body and don’t do anything you fear will put you at risk of damage, and see how it goes. If you are finding ballet too difficult physically, painful (and I mean joint pain, ligament pain and other ‘bad’ pain, rather than muscle soreness, which is normal when starting a new exercise regime), or it is causing a worsening in symptoms, then it might not be the right thing for you.
There is a lot of controversy surrounding weight and body type of dancers- I address this in more detail in this post about eating disorders in ballet. One of the wonderful things about adult classes is that there are no expectations to look a certain way. You are in the class to learn, to exercise, and to have fun: you’re not auditioning for the Bolshoi next week. There are usually few rules about uniform, too, so if you feel too self-conscious in a leotard and tights, you might prefer to wear leggings, or add shorts or a skirt. Let go of any notion that ballet is only for thin people, or that you have to be strong, or flexible. Strength and flexibility will come the more you practice, and can be helped by cross-training and stretching at home. Your weight, shape, size, height or appearance does not affect your ability to dance. What is important is the attitude that you enter the class with, how hard you are willing to work and your passion for what you are doing. Ballet should be fun: you can’t really enjoy yourself if you are feeling judged. Know that out of all the people in the room, many of them will have had children, many work in stationary jobs, many might be overweight or unfit and are trying to commit to a healthy activity- you won’t be in a class of professional ballet dancers, and no one will have expectations about your body type.
Some people may have trained in ballet for a long time as children and teenagers, but given it up after being told that they had the wrong body type for a career in ballet. This breaks my heart to hear, but if this applies to you, know that returning to ballet as an adult can be such a freeing experience. You can re-connect with what you love without worrying about your body type. People are told that to dance, you have to look a certain way, and many are turned away from professional careers because they are told that they are too heavy, too muscular, too tall, too short, their breasts are too big, or their hips are too big, or their legs aren’t long enough or their feet not arched enough. Let go of any feelings of not being good enough to dance, and just enjoy doing what you love.
Although most ballet classes will have a lot more women than men, don’t feel put off by this if you are man. Teaching men and teaching women is slightly different in ballet, and good teachers know how to do both. More and more men are taking to ballet as adults. There is some notion that ballet is a feminine activity- maybe it’s the tights, but this is frankly ridiculous. Professional ballet dancers have to have so much strength and agility, and the roles they play in classical ballets are usually very traditionally masculine. Ballet will teach you how to move in all different ways, from graceful and flowing to huge, explosive jumps. If you are lucky, you might even be able to find a class especially for men, although these are rare for adults as fewer men are taking adult ballet classes.
In classical ballet, the roles for men and women are very different: women wear tutus, dance en pointe, and perform very light, graceful movements. Men are expected to perform thrilling turns, soaring jumps and lift women into the air. If you are trans, non-binary, or feel uncomfortable with these traditional gender roles, you need to be aware of this starting ballet classes. However, don’t fret too much: in class, the boundaries are much looser. Many men now join pointe classes (although if you are a beginner you will need a lot of training before moving on to pointe), and when the teacher sets exercises in class, they usually allow anyone who wants to try them the chance to do so. If you are a man who enjoys moving very gracefully, or a woman who loves the bigger jumps, just ask the teacher if you can try the exercise. For the most part, when it comes to adult classes, especially at a more beginner level, you shouldn’t encounter problems with very gender-specific exercises, but it is something to keep in mind. This may well change, however, if you have the opportunity to join a repertoire class. This is a class which involves learning the choreography from various ballets, and you will be expected to perform male and female roles.
Ballet can be a costly activity- as well as the cost of classes, there comes the price of dance wear and shoes, then once you get the “ballet bug” you find yourself lusting after books, CDs, training aids and tickets to the ballet! It’s wonderful to be able to indulge your passion, but if your budget is tight, you still might be able to make ballet work for you.
The good thing is, many studios offer adult classes on a drop-in basis, and you can pay per class. This is much more manageable for most people than having to commit to, and pay for, an academic term of classes, or a monthly payment. There are many other ways to cut the cost of learning to dance: this post gives many tips to save small amounts here and there, but these savings really do add up!
So, I hope that this post has convinced a few people to give ballet classes a try! In the next instalment of the series, I’ll talk you through choosing a good studio, buying your dance wear, and a few positions and steps that it’s helpful to know before starting classes.
Until next time!