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Adult Ballet: Restarting as an older, wiser dancer

Did you dance ballet as a wee one or teenager? Have you gone on a long voyage away from ballet and are finding that your thoughts are returning to thoughts of pink slippers, marley floors and pirouettes? Here are a few things that you’ll want to consider if you’re pondering starting ballet (again) as an adult.

1. Get your head in the right place.
This is the most important thing. If you go into class without adjusting your expectations, managing your fears, or knowing what will happen, you risk being unpleasantly surprised, and then dropping out before you really give ballet a chance. Here are some common thoughts:

  • Am I too old?No, you are not too old. I can’t stress this enough. I have seen dancers probably well into their 80s–both male and female–in my classes. If they are especially elderly, it’s true that they will usually make some adjustments (i.e. plies instead of grand plies, opting out of jumps), but there is always a full range of ages. And if it comforts you, know that almost every adult beginner or restarter has had this thought, given that the professional ballet world is so intensely focused on youth. But whether you are in your late teens, twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, and beyond–don’t let your age stop you.
  • What should I expect? Happily, ballet classes are as set in stone as an art can be; adult ballet classes will mirror the format of your old childhood classes. Do expect that teachers might feel free to be a little more flexible or creative with adult students; you may have a longer barre, for example. If you need a refresher, check out this summary or the Joffrey ballet’s ballet-fit, which has a complete walkthrough of a typical ballet class.
  • What if I’ve forgotten everything and am worried that I’ll look silly? I promise: you have not forgotten everything, and you will look silly. That’s ok; everyone looks silly when they start, and it’s ok to laugh and enjoy this period of awkwardness. With practice, you will improve, but you should give yourself permission to not be amazing when restarting (even if you were once an astounding dancer in your childhood or teens)! Try and enjoy the process–it’s not a competition, and you’re doing this for your own pleasure. So be silly and relax (and keep going).

2. Assemble your gear!

  • The information in this post will probably be useful.
  • If you are serious about starting and continuing, I’d recommend going to your local dance store to try things on rather than purchasing online. Trying on shoes in person is a must. Getting the advice of an experienced salesperson can also be very helpful. If all you’re buying are shoes, that’s only $20 or so; a full get up including shoes, leotard, tights, skirt, and possibly hair accessories can easily land around $100.
  • You won’t look like you did when you were a child or teenager. That’s natural and totally fine. No unfair comparisons!

3. Find a studio

  • Do your homework! See my list of studios for adult ballet (not complete; this list is built on suggestions from y’all!) as a start. Alternatively, do some creative googling and also check out reviews on yelp.
  • Call the prospective studios and see if they’ll let you observe a class. This might give you a good sense of what class level or teacher will suit you best.

4. Attend class

  • Aim LOW. By that I mean try dancing a level below what you think you really can do. Since you danced before, you may have memories of being able to do certain steps or dance at a certain level. However, mental memory and muscle memory are not the same thing! I recommend dancing a level below because this will 1) help you avoid unnecessary injury and confusion and 2) if you kick butt, give you a nice little ego boost! You can always move up a level or two. But start low. Taking the “absolute beginner” class is not a mark of shame, even if you have danced before.
  • Do let your age inform what you can do. When you are in class, it’s OK to stop or modify if a movement is painful. This goes for all dancers, but if you had danced as a child or teen, you may try to put the same intensity back into your current dancing. Be careful, especially in your first few weeks, and tell your teachers ahead of time if you have a particular physical concern (a bad knee or any other limitations). They can give you modifications or watch out for you.
  • Relearning is a slow process, but faster than learning for the first time. Because you have danced before, you will recall many of the terms and steps. However, it may be frustrating to you that you can’t execute exactly what you can remember in your mind. That’s normal. On the bright side, muscle memory is a wonderful thing and you’ll find that you’ll progress much faster than someone who’s a total newbie. But if it’s going slower than you expect, give yourself a break–with effort, you will improve, and you’re now getting to experience dance in a different way than you did as a kid. That’s a wonderful thing.

I’m something of a serial re-starter. Everytime I move (and I’ve moved, oh, 7 times in the last 10 years) or change jobs, I have to adjust my schedule or switch studios. And if I happen to be doing a lot of job-travel or falling in love or being distracted by other things, I neglect my ballet classes. I imagine that once I have children, I will have to stop taking classes for a little while; and I’m actually in a bit of a lull right now, where I’m only taking an intermediate class once a week (barely enough to maintain!). That’s ok, I have other life goals that I’m working on. For the recreational adult dancer, these things are inevitable and OK.

In your own personal case, you may have had lots of reasons for having stopped ballet–college, travel, work, family. Those are all important and valid things to have in your life. Do know that if you get the urge, ballet is always there, and that it will always be OK to start, over and over again, and I promise that you’ll find something valuable each time that you do.

If you are a re-starter, I would love to hear your story in the comments!