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Adult ballet: who can dance?


Ballet has an aura of inaccessibility. It is, for one thing, considered to be an elite form of artistic expression, one supposedly requiring a discriminating and educated audience; one calls to mind mumbling, monocled WASPS squinting politely at the stage. For another, it is old. The stories of the classical ballets–Giselle, Swan Lake, and so on–are old. Melodramatic. Not terribly subtle, and they can feel emotionally distant. And there is nothing more inaccessible than the ballerina herself: young, slim, with a body so stylized by the demands of turnout and line that it can seem deformed, with almost all of her years swallowed up by classes, rehearsal, performance.

In this post, I would like to address the last part of this mythology. I would like to make a case for the adult ballet dancer. Or, more specifically, the adult ballet beginner.

If you are an adult reading this post (provided you aren’t one of my friends who are required by the blog gods to read it), you’ve probably fantasized about taking a ballet class for the first time; or if you danced as a child, you have contemplated returning to ballet. But perhaps you hesitate: is ballet really for someone like me?

I would like to speak briefly from personal experience. When I began ballet, in my very late teens–about 19, I was the model anti-ballerina. I was fat, uncoordinated, and nerdy. (I believe that I am still fat and nerdy, though less fat and less uncoordinated than I used to be–thanks to ballet.) I was running 5 miles a day, 3 days a week, which manifested in my body as the largest, tree-trunkiest calves I have ever seen on a human being. I had never taken a dance class in my life.

But I had always wanted to dance. And always had, flailing and jumping, in the privacy of my own bedroom. I flailed to any kind of music I listened to; Rodgers and Hammerstein, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, U2, Paul Simon, the Star Wars soundtrack, Van Halen. It was an embarrassing secret. It seemed unbelievable even to myself that I–shy, awkward, always the odd one out–wanted to do something so elite, so thin-and-perfect-and-preppy as ballet. But what could I say? I flailed on. And one day, there was a poster in the gym about ballet classes for beginners.

There was no epiphany. I did not one day climb on top of my chair and announce to the world, devil may care, that I was good enough, and doggone it, people liked me, and I would take ballet if I wanted to. I took a more cowardly approach. I convinced a friend to take the class with me. I figured I could hide behind her, and we would both be awful, and I wouldn’t feel quite so bad about myself. So she and I bought ballet slippers, skirts, and signed up for class. (I bought slippers that were two sizes too big for me, but figured it was no big deal.)

There were many, many people in the first class. I remember watching the advanced dancers in the class; you know, the ones that have been dancing for a long time, and to shore up their technique will take the beginner level classes. I watched them dance and I was utterly seduced. They were so beautiful. I thought to myself that I would suffer the indignity of being in this class, if only so I could watch those girls dance. After class, in the dressing room, one of them asked if I was a dancer. She was really a gorgeous dancer: lovely technique, long legs, curly hair. I said, no, no, I’m not a dancer at all. And she smiled at me and she said, oh, everyone is a dancer!

It was cheesy. I know. But I remember feeling the sincerity in her voice and really believing it. She wasn’t being condescending. She believed it. So I believed it.

What I also recall is seeing the look of total panic on the face of my friend during class. She dropped out after the first week.

I kept going, however. Not without a good amount of insecurity: I was terrified to go across the floor, and constantly got cramps in my legs and feet. I looked awful. I was not flexible. I wore these horrible yoga pants that did nothing for my figure, either. My shoes were too big. I couldn’t keep my balance. But I went, every week. If only to watch the girls better than me, if only to make the smallest bit of progress, because the dancing was more important than any sense of humiliation. I told myself that all I wanted to do was to be able to pirouette. Just one pirouette. And then I would be satisfied, and that would be enough ballet.

Six years later, and here I am. I’m still dancing. I can pirouette. I can even do two pirouettes. What happened in the meantime? Ballet has made my life better; it has shaped my body (although I’m still fleshy). It is a wonderful breath in the middle of my studies. It has taught me about the possibilities contained by the human form. It has given me a taste of discipline and sacrifice. And it has certainly taught me many lessons about humility, and about the beauty and value of sheer effort. The most important development, I think, is that ballet is a way to be honest. Taking ballet class is a manifestation of a wish I had for a long time. To dance ballet is to be honest with myself.

So, if you are thinking about taking ballet, I would tell you to go. Be honest with yourself. Everyone is a dancer.

next: getting started with ballet–the essentials.