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.

18 thoughts on “Adult ballet: who can dance?

  1. lisa

    Lovely writing, as always, and I enjoyed reading about how you got started in ballet. I’d like to add that I started modern in much the same way — always wanted to try dancing, never dared, until one day I sighed to my friend Ying (an accomplished dancer) that I wished I had a dancer’s body. She replied, “Lisa, I think the easiest way to get a dancer’s body is to dance.” Oh. That. I was at Berkeley at the time and their modern classes required an audition. I tried once and knew before the teacher told me that I was never going to survive that class. I had no sense of my body and I was tired by the end of the hour and a half. But I still wanted to do it… so I began yoga, toned up and learned how my body worked, and the next semester I got into the beginning modern class. I did modern for about two years until grad school took over, and I learned so much and gained so much confidence (including a complete non-fear of being naked in front of other people: no changing rooms in the Berkeley studio!!). I’d still like to go back to dancing at some point, but right now I have too many other activities to add any more… but I know I’ll do it again sometime. 🙂

  2. apricot Post author

    It’s funny how fortifying it can be to be told that yes, dance is for you, by a dancer. Particularly one whom you admire. And it sounds like dance was really a vital part of the latter half of your college years…wonderful.

    Well, when you’re ready to get back into it, we could go together! I’ve been thinking about taking flamenco, too! My list is: flamenco, ballroom, Tahitian, and Chinese folk dance. If you ever develop an interest in any of those, let me know.

  3. Lindy

    Dude, I needed this. Tennis is my ballet. I took lessons on and off as a kid, and I was never very good, but it’s great exercise. Unfortunately I also came to associate tennis with my parents screaming at me — they desperately wanted me to be more physically active, and whenever one of them would pop into my room and say “hey, let’s play some tennis!” I had to say “yes” or the next sentence would be “you are playing tennis with me NOW because you are LAZY and you NEVER get ANY exercise.” Fun times. Fun times.

    But I love watching tennis — seeing Roger Federer hit that beautiful drop shot in the exact right spot in the court is awesome. So yesterday Scott and I hit a few tennis balls around, and I stink. I swung at and missed several balls that bounced right freaking next to me. I got frustrated and embarrassed and was convinced that everyone else on the court was watching and mocking me. But having read this, I’m going to give it another go, maybe try taking lessons. If I give up, I’ll continue to stink, after all!

  4. apricot Post author

    OMG Lindy, I have the same sort of history with my parents. Their thing was frisbee. It was very much enforced fun…therefore it was no fun. In Soviet Russia, frisbee throws you!

    You should absolutely take tennis lessons. You’ll suck, absolutely. But in every activity worth doing, everyone sucks at the beginning…and people won’t judge you for earnest effort. Well, there may be a few asswipes who do, but they’re not worth your time. It’s all about you, and the fact that you like tennis, enjoy tennis, and want to get better at tennis.

    I took tennis lessons in HS and I was terrible. I couldn’t do more than like 5 volleys. I once hit my tennis coach in the crotch. But it was fun 🙂

    Onwards and upwards with tennis, ballet, everything!

  5. Anushka

    Hey Apricot,
    I really loved your article, I have been teaching an adult ballet class till about a year ago. Sometimes I miss them, we always had so much fun together. So if you have always wanted to start ballet, do it! It’s good for everyone!
    Greetings from Germany,

  6. apricot Post author

    Thanks Anushka! A devoted teacher is the best thing any adult ballet dancer could ask for 🙂

    I hope you go back to teaching adults and spreading the love!

  7. Linda

    Loved your post! As an adult student I can relate to many of the things that you described. I am sure plenty of people would be surprised if they attended class.

    1. apricot Post author

      Linda, thank you! It’s always a delight to encounter other adult beginners…I have met ladies (and a few gents) as young as 15 and as old as 70 in ballet class! It’s a wonderful group of people.

  8. Pingback: Adult ballet: dancing ballet and being overweight « wandering apricot

  9. Lindsay MacKay

    I really enjoyed your post!! I’ve always loved dancing-I used to go to Highland when I was younger but I would love to start again either that or ballet but I cant seem to find any near where I live (student, no car etc….) I hope I’ll find one eventually though!! 😀
    (Scotland, UK)

    1. apricot Post author

      Hi Lindsay, in case you’re still wondering about a place to go, checkout my list of adult ballet studios! I think there’s one in Edinburgh if you’re anywhere near there…

  10. Daisy-Maella

    Hi, I started ballet when I was 3 and quit when I was 7, giving me 4 years of ballet training at pre-primary, primary and grade 1 level, I guess that was kind of irrelevant but still. A year or two ago I realised how much I missed ballet but never decided to do anything about it, it was only this year in May that I decided to take it up again at age 15. I only have one lesson a week (private) because I’m in year 11 which is an important year for me exam-wise but I do practice as often as I can. I have always had a weak foot which is why I do not have group lessons and I can be corrected straight away and receive undivided attention. I really feel like this weak foot is jeopardizing my chances of ever being able to dance en pointe and that is a real goal for me, ever since I was young, I’ve always admired the whole look of ballet and have wanted to be able to walk on my toes since then too – if I’m honest I have no idea why I gave it up. I have very strong leg muscles and have been told my point with regular ballet shoes is very good – better than some professionals but even so, I feel too embarrassed of asking my teacher what route to take in order to be able to dance en pointe giving the fact I have a very weak foot. Can you lead me in some direction of what I should do?

    1. apricot Post author

      Hi Daisy,

      Sorry for the late response. I think you should simply tell your teacher your goals, ask her if it’s feasible, and if so, what the steps are that you would need to take. Unfortunately there’s nothing better than the wisdom of an experienced teacher in reaching a goal as difficult (and awesome) as pointe! Likely she will suggest some useful strengthening exercises for your weak foot that you’ll be able to do outside of class. Best of luck to you.

  11. Natashna Nicole Simmons

    Have you ever thought about making videos of your progress. I am sure there are many of us who would love to see how far you have come and how great you are now!

    I have been attending adult classes at The Louisville Ballet school for about 8 months now, and take about 3 to 4 classes a week. I am totally addicted to ballet, and obsessed with future progress.

    I wanted to start a video blog about my progress, but of course I coward out! Maybe one day!!!

    Oh, and Thank you for making this amazing blog!!! I love it!!

    1. apricot Post author

      Thanks Natashna! I don’t think I’ll want to inflict my dancing on the internet, but I’m thinking about photos perhaps. Maybe. 😀

      But you should certainly create your video blog!

  12. Victoria

    Five minutes ago I was googling hyperextension and exercises to do to strengthen my knees, and now I’m wondering why I haven’t mustered up the courage to get back into dance. I’m 19 and I took lessons on and off from ages 3 to 16. I never stayed in class long enough for technique to set in and it’s by far my biggest regret. I want to go back terribly, but I now have some health problems and always tell myself that I can’t physically handle it (which is absolutely not true). I’m heading back to college in the fall and want to jump into a beginners course. After reading your experiences I think I might give it a try once again. Thanks for giving me an example of determination and perseverance. You’re inspiring!

  13. Pingback: Adult ballet: dancing ballet and being overweight | wandering apricot « Erica Blog

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