I walked into my first “adult” ballet class after almost 10 years of no ballet, preceded by a childhood full of ballet, and I’ve come to wonder why I ever stopped.
I’m perplexed, even a little bit mad. How is it that I didn’t know then how much I would miss it, or how much effort it would take to start rebuilding all my carefully honed muscle memories? How inconsiderate of my younger, silly self!
Over the past seven or eight years of taking adult ballet classes and maturing, dare I say, from an open-class shy Newbie into an open-class debonair Sophisticate (watch me as I stride into the studio and know exactly where to drop my bag!), I’ve witnessed many class Newbies come and go.
One of the constants has been this:
Newbie approaches the teacher at the beginning of class, or the end (perhaps as a way to “explain” their “performance”), and says, “I’m [insert name] and I studied ballet when I was young, but this is the first class I’ve taken in over [insert multiple of 10] years.”
Newbie then apologizes for how “poorly” she did, or she might ask the teacher if there’s an easier class for her to try, or she might laugh about how “things aren’t what they used to be.”
Most teachers will respond to the Newbie with some combination of the following statements, delivered with extra pep for reassurance: “Welcome! You did great! I can tell that you’ve had formal training before. You should stay. There are all kinds of levels here. It’s an open class, so just do what you can. It always takes time to get used to a new studio and a new teacher. Don’t worry if you feel like you can’t keep up. Your muscles will remember over time.”
You know what? It may not feel true at the time – especially if you have the misfortune of picking a first class that happens to be extra-crowded, or a class full of leggy teenagers with no hips to speak of and banana feet by their ears who are stampeding by you in every center combination. But it’s all true.
For Newbies who aren’t exactly new to ballet, I offer ten tips and reflections below, in case my own experience can be of help to others:
1. I’m sorry to report that the dancewear you wore in high school probably doesn’t fit you anymore.
When I first had the brilliant idea to start ballet again after 10 years, I was so excited that I immediately called my mom and asked her to ship me my stash of old dancewear. “Everything! Priority mail, please!”
My old leotards, tights, warm-ups, skirts, Sanshas, Chacotts, jazz shoes, some very aged wads of lambs wool: I patted myself on the back for having the foresight to keep it all. When the package arrived, I stripped and pulled on my trusty old black camisole leotard … nothing fit.
Silly me, I didn’t realize that even if we stop growing taller, our body shapes keep changing after high school and our proportions keep shifting, while once pliable fabrics get old and stiff (try not to dwell on the sad symbolism). Even my shoes, so lovingly broken in, were too small, the elastics, no longer elastic.
I had to find new dancewear that actually fit, which leads me to my second tip…
2. Shopping for dancewear is fun and you may need to restrain yourself.
The market for dancewear has much improved in the past ten years. For starters, there’s this new thing called the “Internet,” where, if online reviews are to be believed, even hairpins for buns have made astounding innovative leaps.
As an adult ballet dancer – and this is one of the most liberating things about being an adult ballet dancer – you are free to wear pretty much whatever you like. In many classes, you won’t even need “dancewear” to dance. Ballet shoes, fitted and purchased at a real store where possible, would be the sole non-negotiable investment in my mind.
Still, it’s possible to spend hours and hours (trust me, I know) browsing sites looking at dancewear and scrutinizing obscure sizing charts, and figuring out your “girth.”
Do indulge in some new things: feeling like a dancer makes a difference in your dancing. But, you are hereby warned that it’s easy to spend a lot of money very quickly, so self-restraint is advised, particularly as you are exploring new classes and observing what other adults are (and aren’t) wearing to class.
3. Don’t expect too much in your first class.
If you’re like me, you’ll settle into your first plié combination with a smug sigh of relief: “I remember this. Ha! I can do this!” You cambré forward and back and you can’t go very far, but hey, it’s your first day back after [insert interval of 10] years! Ballet classes sure haven’t changed much! You feel pretty good in your tendus, but where did your arches go?
A balance in passé, and your calf starts cramping. A développé? You start thinking stormy thoughts. Why is your leg so low? Can’t it go any higher?? A balance in arabesque. You feel a dull ache spreading in your lower back. Penchée? Alas, not so different from your arabesque, which was really not so different from your degagé, come to think of it… Grande battement.
Ouch to the front, side, back, side, and TURN! Fast piqué turns on the diagonal? Easy! But forget about going more than once on each side. You’ll be too busy groping your way along the perimeter of the studio, your head still spinning, trying to look as if nothing’s wrong.
Rest assured that this is all normal. And expect some exquisite muscle soreness the day after.
4. About those piqué turns… you might need to learn how to spot again.
As a child, I was a fearless turner. When I returned to ballet as an adult, I was surprised to discover that, on top of everything else I’d “forgotten,” I could no longer spot effectively. It takes some time to re-learn (I’m still working on it), but know that this, too, improves with time. Remember that your eyes must actually focus on something for the spot to work.
5. Let your memory motivate you, and then move on.
After a long break from ballet, you’ll inevitably be haunted by memories of what you used to be able to do. The disconnect between what you think you should be able to do and what you can actually muster up now will be frustrating. For a very long time, you might be focused on “closing this gap.”
One day, you’ll suddenly realize that you’re no longer focused on the gap. Instead, you’re working solely with what you’ve got today and challenging yourself as you are now – and that’s a marvelous thing. You recognize that you are no longer exactly who you were a decade, or two or three decades, ago. You are now capable of altogether new balletic feats.
6. Don’t worry that other people are watching you.
It’s natural for Newbies to feel self-conscious in a ballet class where at least one whole wall is a huge mirror (and you’re wearing a leotard for the first time in recent memory).
Don’t waste any energy wondering whether anyone’s watching you. Trust me, everyone is too busy watching themselves and fixating on their own imperfections. Or, they will be watching that one dancer in the room who has incredible extension and/or who is truly mesmerizing to watch. (If that’s you, sorry, you’re out of luck: yes, people are watching you!)
Also, sad but true: in many open classes, even the teacher will rarely be watching you that closely. But that’s another topic for another time.
7. Your feet will cramp.
If your feet haven’t had to point for a few years, they will be unhappy and they will make their unhappiness known by cramping up on you at the most inopportune times. Try massaging your sole over the pedestal of a free-standing barre during class, or over a tennis ball, or even a hard golf ball. Any little ball or sturdy cylindrical object will do. I’ve even used a rolling pin.
8. Anticipate some confusing language.
The names of steps that you hear now may be different from what you heard in your previous dancer life. When in doubt, just ask (after class, if you can).
9. Anticipate some confusing corrections.
The best open class teachers acknowledge that there are different schools of thought around how to execute specific steps, and some will even take the time to explain the origins of those differences. Other teachers will simply demonstrate or ask you to do the steps a certain way, which may be different from how you remember learning them.
Go ahead and try different ways of doing things. It may well be that what ends up working for you now is different from what worked for you before. Don’t be afraid to ask the teacher afterward about it and do your own research on the aforementioned “Internet.”
Books work, too.
10. Accept the support of the wild world of “adult ballet”: it is a generous and giving community.
“Adult ballet” can sound a little strange. Even a little indecent. But it’s a beautiful thing. Who knew that there were so many inspirational blogs out there, written by bona fide grown-ups who have discovered and rediscovered the beauty of ballet? I’ve come to understand and appreciate that adult ballet dancers are a special, quirky breed unto themselves.
There are so many different kinds of us from so many different backgrounds, but we are all brought together by the love of an art that we are more than happy to keep practicing, even though we know that true mastery is out of reach in our lifetimes.
We think dance is one of the most achingly beautiful things that humans can do, and if what we see in the mirror falls short of what we see in YouTube videos or on stage, or in dance magazines or books or even calendars – well, at least we’re dancing!
What could you add to this list?
What are some of your concerns or questions as an adult beginner or beginning againer?
Kathy Lu studied ballet as a child and wonders why she ever stopped. She is now an ardent “adult ballet student” with bunions whose favorite open class haunts are Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre in Cambridge, MA (where she used to live) and New Haven Ballet in New Haven, CT (where she lives now). She misses her old pirouettes. If anyone finds them, please let her know.