As you may know, I started my dance training much later than most. I took my first ever ballet lesson just before I turned 15. I danced a few times a week at local schools, and I didn’t start serious ballet training until I was 21. If you’re not sure how huge a difference that is to the norm, the standard age most people will start ballet is between 3 and 5 years old. They will start serious training around the age of 11 and full-time training by 15 or 16. So, the age most people start their pre-professional training is the age I started with my first pliés, and I started serious training at an age when most people would already be working in a company.
It’s a very daunting prospect. There are precious few success stories out there of dancers who started late and succeeded- they do exist, but they’re not easy to find. It’s been a real struggle to catch up with my peers, and I still have a long way to go. However, I’ve recently been reflecting on my journey, and thinking about the things I wish I’d known and done right from the outset of my training. I want to share what I’ve learned so that other dancers can have what I didn’t have- someone who believes that they can succeed and is willing to help as much as possible! I’m going to give you one BIG piece of advice, and ten practical steps to speed up the process of getting where you need to be.
All the photos in this post were taken by the wonderful Jake Owens in Regent’s Park.
First thing’s first: you need to BELIEVE that you can succeed. That’s the number one most important thing: the starting point and the bottom line. If you have doubts and uncertainty, they will eat away at your confidence and sap your success. You can apply every other piece of advice I’m about to give you perfectly, but if you don’t believe in yourself, it will amount to nothing.
I know that’s easier said than done! I think that dealing with my doubts has wasted a lot of time on my journey. Being here now, a few years down the line, I know that if I’d spent less time doubting myself, I would potentially be much further along in my career. You owe it to your future self to work on and overcome this– it could save you a lot of time in reaching your goals.
How do you do that? You need to come to this realisation: you might go in to your studio and boldly claim you want to be a professional dancer. You can audition for every school, course and summer programme going. You can talk about your dreams and aspirations- and you might get told “NO” at Every. Single. Juncture.
You might get told that you are crazy for believing that this is possible. You might get told that you are wasting your time. You might be told that you are simply not good enough to make it happen. You’ll likely be told, time and time again, that it is just too late. People might even be sympathetic, and say that you have extraordinary talent, but still conclude it’s not enough to get you where you need to go. You might well face rejection, after rejection, after rejection.
However- none of this can stop you from dancing! It hurts to not get accepted into the programmes you feel you need to progress, or to be told by a teacher you trust that you won’t make it. However it doesn’t mean that you can’t dance. What you have is the ability to wake up every morning and get to class, to cross-train, to read up about dance, to watch shows, to stretch, to do pilates… you can keep working, you can keep dancing and, despite everything and everyone else, you can improve and improve and become the dancer YOU know you can be. You need to know that truth and hold it in your heart every day. Whenever you do something different to the status quo, you will encounter doubters, naysayers, resistance and even anger. That’s been proven by every pioneer throughout history! So many people who did spectacular things were told that they were crazy, but they didn’t let it stop them. And nothing can stop you from dancing. Maybe your journey won’t look the way you expected it to, but that is ok. And maybe you’ll be really rubbish at first, maybe you’ll be rubbish for a long time, but you can always keep getting better and better. The main thing is that you keep dancing, and you KNOW that no matter what, no one can stop you from doing that.
That’s the biggest and most important piece of advice I can give you. Even if you stop reading now, but truly take that to heart, I’d be happy. However there are also lots of practical steps you can take to help you to catch up in dance!
1. BE BRAVE
Something I really regret about my dance journey is that ever since I took my first class, I harboured a dream to become a professional dancer. I just KNEW it was what I was put on this planet to do. However, I also knew that having started so late, my chances of success were slim. I was afraid of being laughed at, or worse, being told very sincerely that it wasn’t realistic and that I should forget it. I felt it would crush me. So I kept my desire secret for years before I finally plucked up the courage to speak to my teacher about it. I think I was about 18 by the time I finally admitted my true ambitions!
I wish I had been brave enough to share my dreams from the outset. I know that my teachers saw potential in me. They used to say that if I’d started younger, I could have been a professional. Every time I heard that, I’d shy away from saying anything because it was compounding my belief that it was too late. However, in retrospect, looking back as an adult, I’m certain they would have been supportive. They may well have told me that the chances of success were unlikely, but I also think they could have given me the extra attention I needed. Just make sure you’re prepared to hear discouragement. Your teacher may be trying to protect you from failure. Recognise that their intentions are good, and convince them you want to go for it anyway. Chances are, they’ll really want to help you, and they’ll know how to do that. If your teacher truly won’t support your ambition, find a new teacher. However I do believe that the majority of dance teachers would support the dreams of their students any way they could. Don’t make the same mistake I made- be brave!
2. GET SERIOUS FAST
As you can see, there was a really long period between me starting ballet, and starting serious training. If your ambition is to become a professional, don’t waste any time. I had fairly good schools and teachers when I started who gave me a solid grounding in classical technique that I was able to build upon once I did get into a serious school, but I wish I’d gone straight into a more serious kind of training. I was desperate to take classes every day, but there just wasn’t enough available at a local level.
I implore you to really do your research here. Learn about the different styles of ballet and decide what you would most like to train in. Then find a school that offers that daily training and enrol. Choose a school that either has a pre-professional training programme attached, or sends a good amount of students on to reputable pre-professional training programmes, and whose students go on to professional careers.
Something you’ll have to do here is convince your parents. I had endless arguments with my mum because I was desperate to train every day and it wasn’t possible for us. I would have gotten up at 4am and walked miles to take a daily morning class if I had to, but there wasn’t one around! My poor mum would give up her lunch break so she could leave work for an hour to pick me up and take me to ballet. We hardly made ends meet but she would pay for my classes and my uniform. I repaid her with shouting matches and crying because I was panicking that I wasn’t doing enough to get where I needed to be!
Now, I am so beyond grateful for everything my mum did and still does to support my dancing. Being fifteen, I wasn’t able to find and articulate what I needed. What we should have done (but neither of us knew any better) was look at serious schools in London I could join full time or travel to a few times a week. For example, the school I’m training at now I’m sure would have given me a chance and taken me through to full-time training much quicker. I would have learned the Russian technique correctly from the start, instead of having to un-learn a lot of what I’d been taught to adapt to the new style. It might seem very daunting because the other students will have a lot more experience, but some schools will take a chance on a ballet newbie with potential, because they can mould you to their style from the outset.
You need to get your parents on board. Be patient and articulate to them how much this means to you, how serious you are, and how important it is to go all-out from the beginning if you hope to stand a chance of catching up. I recommend getting them to read this post. Don’t get frustrated with them if they say no. Arguing will not help your case. Be persistent- keep doing whatever it takes to prove to them how serious you are and to get them on-side. You need to look at the nearest big town or city that has serious ballet training and make an arrangement to travel there, or for them to take you on full-time in student accommodation. It’s a serious commitment from the whole family and it can be expensive. Visit the schools and be open with them about your situation; many will be able to support you financially if necessary, and can help you to catch up. This is important. Being brave and open about where you are and where you want to be, and persistent in your message and your pursuit of this goal, will bring the help you need to you eventually. Again- learn from my mistakes! I got there eventually but I made it SO much harder for myself!
3. YOUR TEACHER
At the same time as picking your studio, you need to try to find a teacher you have an affinity with. Find a teacher who is firstly, really good. If your ambition is to be a professional dancer, it is usually more valuable to have a teacher who had a professional career and has experience training students for professional careers, than it is to have one with a teaching qualification. This isn’t always the case- some people are excellent performers but not such great teachers- but it is something to keep in mind. They know what it takes to make it and so are better equipped to help you get there.
You need a teacher who you like and get along with, and who believes in you and supports you. It’s ok if you find them a bit scary! Strict teachers can really pull a lot out of you and make you work that much harder! But you need to be able to ask questions and take corrections from them. If you struggle to find an appropriate school or studio, finding a teacher to take you on as a private student can be another option.
The good thing about being open with your teacher about your ambitions is that they will give you more corrections to help you to get where you need to be. This might feel like you are being constantly criticised, but know that this is normal and it is a true privilege. Your teacher only passes on their wisdom to you if they think that it is worth their time! Listen to everything they say, thank them, and apply these corrections straight away. When you are corrected on something, if it’s prudent to do so, you should try the step again straight away with their correction in mind. That way you can see what they are trying to say, you get the correct technique into your body, and you show willingness to learn. After every single class, write down all of your corrections in a notebook or journal. I use my dancer’s journal for this! Then look back on previous corrections before your next class.
This is something that is going to accelerate the catching-up process massively.
5. START SMALL
Your teacher may suggest that you take class with students much younger than yourself for a while. This might feel embarrassing but if you’re serious about progressing, do it and take it seriously! When I first started ballet, I used to go in on a Saturday morning to help in the young children’s classes, and I’d take the class at the same time and therefore fill in all the knowledge gaps that I had missed. If the opportunity is there, you might want to ask if you can do this, as it was very useful for me. Then, when I changed school to my current one, I was 21 years old in a class of 13-15 year olds. I felt ridiculous (especially because they were better than me!) but I knew it was what I needed and I took it seriously, working as hard as possible. That class really transformed by technique.
6. DON’T RUSH
Ballet is hard. It does take time, and if you really want to be a great dancer, you need to learn each and every step the PROPER way. Just learning how to stand correctly in first position takes so much muscle control, awareness and concentration: until you can do that, you can’t properly do plies and tendus. Until you can correctly plie, tendu and balance on demi-pointe, you can’t jump or turn correctly. Do you see where I’m going with this? You need to think of it like building a house. The only way to build a decent house is to lay proper foundations and build the bricks correctly from the start. If the bottom of the building is wobbly, you won’t get very far!
If you cheat your technique, you will come unstuck when you try to do a harder step and find that it simply won’t happen. For years I did developpés and grande battements with the wrong muscles because I didn’t know any better and didn’t understand my body. Then, when it came to doing battement long and lifting the leg straight from the floor to a high position, I literally could not move it from the floor. Not even one inch. The other girls had their legs by their ears- yet when we did grande battements, our legs were the same height. Why? Because I had no idea that my posture was all wrong and I was developing the wrong muscles. When I couldn’t cheat and use the big muscle groups I usually used, I couldn’t locate the correct muscles and they were too weak to do anything! I didn’t even know I was cheating but I was, for a very long time. I’m still learning to use my body the right way. Learn properly from the beginning, and although it will FEEL super super slow, trust me, it is FASTER IN THE LONG RUN.
How do you know if you’re doing it wrong? This is why you need a good teacher at a serious studio. Only a really well-trained teacher will be able to see if you are using the correct muscles or not. It’s a very difficult thing to teach and to spot in your students. Doing cross-training exercises like Floor Barre and Pilates will also help you to locate and strengthen the muscles you need for ballet. The other way to tell is, you should be shattered! If you are using all your muscles as much as you should be, and you are lifting up and squeezing and using correct posture, you will be so tired and sweating just from standing at the barre! By the end of pliés, if you are not sweating a significant amount, you are not working hard enough. It’s as simple as that. You can be working very hard, and feel that you’re working very hard, but if you’re not sweating after pliés, you could be working harder.
The same goes for going en pointe. Every girl is desperate to progress on to pointe work, as was I. However if you do it before you’re ready, it will take longer to un-learn the bad habits. You need to have incredible strength and flexibility in your feet and ankles, perfect posture and sound technique. Otherwise at best you’ll find it really hard, and at worst you’ll do yourself serious damage. I recommend getting The Perfect Pointe programme, which does cost money but it’s a good investment. It’s written by a physiotherapist and is designed to help you identify your weaknesses and work on them, as well as building the general strength necessary for pointe work. Also take pointe classes on demi-pointe (you can get demi-pointe shoes, which will get you used to the feeling of working in pointe shoes and build foot strength) to help you to get there quicker.
7. CONSISTENCY IS KEY
I am so guilty of this, which is why I’m warning you about it now… it is no good to go crazy and start doing loads of classes and conditioning and stretches and whatever else for a few weeks, then be really inactive and start skipping classes for another few weeks.
It’s so much better to do a little but be really consistent with it. Go to class daily, or however frequently you are able to, plus choose a daily conditioning routine or perhaps a cross-training activity (like swimming or pilates) to do a few times a week, and a few stretches to do each evening. Doing these things every day or a few times a week, every week, is so much more beneficial than working like a madman for 2 weeks then giving because you can’t sustain that level of activity.
If you want to see real, significant progress, go for CONSISTENCY. I also recommend reading this post about deliberate practice: quality practice that works on overcoming your weaknesses and has a specific focus is so much more beneficial to your progress than large amounts of general practice. I improved more in the few months since I learned about and started using deliberate practice than all the other years of my ballet training put together. If you can do this from the start, you will improve SO FAST.
8. BE A GOAL DIGGER!
It’s important to know where you want to go, otherwise how can you get there? Set short term and long term goals to work towards, break them down into tiny steps and do things to get you there every day. I implore you to read this post about using the grid method to take action towards your goals.
9. BE THE BEST STUDENT YOU CAN BE
When you’re coming into your dance training late, you have so much to learn. Spend your free time reading all about your art form. Get dance books and devour every word, exploring the things that interest you on an even deeper level. Read dance magazines and dance websites. Go to see live performances whenever you can, and also watch them on television and YouTube. Read dance blogs and watch vlogs from dance YouTubers. Study dance nutrition and anatomy- you need to learn about your body if you want to avoid injuries and be the strongest dancer you can be.
Also enrich yourself in other ways. Go to see dance performances in styles outside of your discipline, as well as theatre, films, art galleries and music. Spend time in nature and find the inspiration that’s around you. I’m giving you all of this advice to help you to get where you need to be in dance, but don’t live in a bubble: the best artists are well-informed, well-rounded and enriched by the world around them.
Working hard is something a lot of people understand. You need to work hard to achieve your goals. However, constantly grinding away can actually be counter-productive. Not a lot of people grasp that you also need to rest to progress. You are starting to do something very difficult and fairly unnatural with your body. You need to protect and look after it, because you don’t have time to waste recovering from injuries! Make sure you are getting sports massage when you need it, and invest in a foam roller to roll out your muscles. Stretch every single day, and make sure you’re getting enough sleep. Also take a day off every week if you can, to let your body recover. Listen to and look after your body, and you will be able to dance more and for longer!
This is a long post but if you’re a late starter in dance, these are the things you really need to know about and think on if you want to catch up and succeed. These ten practical steps will help you to catch up to your peers much faster, and to be a better dancer along the way, however what I really want you to remember is the advice I gave you in the beginning. If you dance, you are a dancer, and no amount of resistance from the outside can take that away from you or stop you from becoming great. As I always like to say, it’s not “who’s going to let me?” it’s “Who’s going to STOP me?”
If you’re a late starter currently trying to catch up comment with your story below so that we can show everyone we are not alone in this journey!