Ten Tips for Adult Newbies Who Aren’t New to Ballet

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.”

Adult ballet students perform cambré at the barre.

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

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?

Your degagés: a little sluggish, but passable. Rond de jambe. Not so “rond.” Rond de jambe en l’air? Did you even do these when you were little?

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.

The elbows of dancers as they place their arms in front of their bodies.

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

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 LuKathy 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.

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Comments

  1. Kathy! THANK YOU!!! These “truths” speak to so many of my students. I see lots of my not-newbie adults in your first scenario. The only thing missing is the (sad) disappointment some feel in themselves that they don’t return – there is no amount of encouragement (“You were great! Honest, you did wonderfully for someone who hasn’t been in class in 15 years!”) I can give them in a 2 minute pep talk to get them to come back once they walk out that door. I wish they could read this BEFORE they step foot into my class.

    Kathy and Nichelle, may I share this on my blog with proper credit and links to you?

    Cheers to you and dance on!!
    Leigh

  2. Thank you, Leigh, that’s so nice to hear and please feel free to share: I’d love to help encourage all adult re-beginners to hang in there!

    • Isabel Mattiace says:

      I think the worst part of entering ballet class again is that many teachers keep changing the barr routine so that instead of becoming familiar with the routine and dancing it, all you are concentrating on is “what was the combination she wanted?” Why can’t the teachers just keep the same routine going so that we can learn it and dance it???? After several weeks then change it after everyone is dancing it!

  3. Share away, Leigh!

  4. Thanks to both of you! And Kathy, I just saw you live in New Haven and take class at NHB – I am from there and used to take class all the time with Noble Barker. I LOVE them!!

    Here’s the link back to your post! http://fitballet.blogspot.com/2013/04/10-tips-for-adult-newbies-who-arent-new.html

    • What a small world, Leigh! I love the classes I take with Ruth Barker, Torrie, and others teaching at NHB now.

  5. Loved reading this! What a uncannily-timed article for me, as I posted a story just yesterday at The Classical Girl about “How I Almost Didn’t Go Back” to ballet classes after so many years away. Loved everything you said here, and oh yes, the cramping feet!

    Great article!

    • Terez, I just tracked down your posting. It’s a beautiful piece, and I can completely empathize with the self-inflicted self-doubt. I was just thinking the other day that it’s funny how intimidating any new ballet class can feel, even if it’s at a familiar studio. And, of course, that feeling is compounded when one is returning to ballet after a long time away. I was only half-joking about gaining confidence from “knowing exactly where to drop my bag”: I think that “knowing” little things like that actually do make a difference to one’s own sense of comfort and belonging; knowing how the free-standing barres are arranged in any given class is another…

  6. I can’t wait to hear you expand on “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.”

    I’m finding myself teaching more and more open adult classes (so far always last minute, so I don’t even get to prepare very much) and I’d really like to hear your perspective on good teachers for adults.

    • Hi there, I’d also love to hear some practical ideas for dealing with an open adult class. We have recently started one and we’re finding it difficult to plan, never mind to please all the dancers with varying abilities! Any basic tips on doing a class plan in order to find time to teach some basic concepts while not boring the more advanced dancers would be most appreciated! We keep going back to the idea of running two levels of barre with varying exercises according to dance ability and ability to self-correct. But maybe there’s a better way. Thanks.

  7. Chelsea, we’re here! There are lots of teachers like me who give plenty of corrections to our adult students. Some of us really teach and don’t simply give class!

    ~leigh

  8. Rachel Avery says:

    Dance is for everyone any age,any body size! One must celebrate the “me” inside the body. I suffer from vertigo and alas I can no longer do a dozen pirouettes in a row. But maybe a triple now and again. Our society makes the stereotype of the “classical ballerina” as young and thin. (Although if you are, that is wonderful!) Anyone can dance! Our creativity will allow us to adapt our bodies that may function or look differently. A scarf or skirt around your hips adds confidence. I actually bought a practice ballet tutu to dance in! I love it! Incredible dancing is not about the jete through the air, or splits across the floor. It is the deep feeling that you convey when you dance using your body and imagination as your instrument of communication. I hear it all the time! “that looks like fun!”…”This is fun!” from adults particpating in my childrens’ classes. A sense of humor helps too! As professionals we need to be more inclusive whether disabilities, age, gender or body type. I have taught adult classes with students from 15 to 75. Each student brought her experiences and her own unique way of moving and relating to others. Such is the power of dance. Set no limits and you will be awestruck!

  9. THANK YOU SO MUCH!!! after 10 years of no ballet I returned for a year and was in that same position. Everyone 16 years old and in their peak. My fumbling at the back of the line.

    It was a wonderful experience. Now that I have relocated to California, I am researching schools in the area that might be a fit. I came across your article and I am forwarding it to my mother, pronto!

    <3 <3 <3

  10. Amanda Hazel says:

    Definitely “en pointe”! Everything you pointed out in the article is exactly what I’m experiencing right now.

    Three weeks ago, I walked into a ballet class after about a 15 year break. I’ve got a really good teacher and I love my class. I know that I can’t do all that I used to do, but I find that now I’m more focused on the technique and getting it right as opposed to trying to look like the teacher (who has beautiful lines and so flexible). It will come back in time, and with practice I may be able to get back to where I was.

    I appreciate the honesty of the article and it gives me hope that I can find my inner dancer again!

  11. I wish I’d been able to read this two and a half years ago when I got the brilliant idea to return to ballet after 10 years. Somehow I expected that it would come back to me like riding a bike… some of it did. Most, however, did not! But all these tips ring so true. I think I’ve finally been able to put my childhood dance “career” behind me and focus on the here and now. And, yes, I still wonder what the heck I was thinking when I quit in the first place! I hope many adults considering re-beginning find this and give it a read. Excellent post!

  12. I so love hearing from others who’ve returned to ballet after a long absence! I love it when their’ experiences reflect mine, AND when they are different. And here I’d felt so alone with the experience of returning.

    Kathy, thanks so much again for your great article, your thoughtful reply to my comments, both here and at my blog, and everyone else’s as well. Great to read.

  13. This was a fun read! I’ll be returning to the ballet studio after a 24 year “hiatus” and yes I am wondering why did I stop?? Glad to know there are others out there who have gone back to ballet after a long break and that I’m not the only one. I am finding how many adult ballet beginners there are out there! Thanks so much for posting this.

  14. I just wanted to say thanks to all of you for your comments so far. It’s wonderful to hear that some of my own experience does ring true with others, and it’s always inspiring from others with their own re-beginning stories!

  15. Shannon says:

    I just took my first dance class in 10 years (now the age of 29) and man did I hate feeling like the Senior Citizen of the class! I was awkward and my “feet” were horrible… however I can say that I appreciated the class so much more than when I was younger. Its interesting how as an adult you may not be as flexible or technically proficient as the younger dancers, but life experience in general makes you feel the movement so differently. I did feel a little discouraged because my technique was barely “average”, but my heart was so happy being back in the studio. Thanks so much for this post, I’m going to finish the month of classes I’ve already pre-paid for LOL… glad I’m not the only one out there 😉

  16. I love it when new people chime in on this thread! I enjoyed what you wrote, Shannon, and I was chuckling and nodding. And like you, I’m so glad I’m not the only one out there. Hope other adult re-beginners keep responding and commenting here!

  17. I can totally sympathise with this I have to say after only 3 years I had the same issues! If I’m honest after the first class I was dreading my second one but thankfully I could see my teacher knew I’d done this in the past and just needed adjustments and help to get back in form. Nice to know I’m not the only one who has been through that!

  18. I’ve just been back to ballet after 17 years of not doing it and gone through every single step you describe in the month! I am indeed also wondering why the hell did i ever stop. The funny thing is, I trained for 7-8 years when little, but being a very insecure child, I actually find it way more enjoyable now as an adult, as I am not constantly comparing myself to others or scared of the crazy strict instructor. I think that the self confidence and awareness that comes with age helps a lot to stay calm and focus in one’s own moves and progress. Plus you get to enjoy what you have chosen to do …and love it just for the sake of it 🙂 So, KEEP DANCING 🙂

    • Congratulations on going back to ballet! I completely agree about having a different mindset as an adult. Now that I’m older — despite having a heightened awareness of “flaws” — I feel like I dance much more thoughtfully and appreciatively, and with more curiosity about everything. I’ve wondered from time to time what I really tended to think about or pay attention to during ballet class as a child, since I can’t remember at all!

  19. Oh my gosh, I am so glad I read this. I’m getting ready to go back into the studio for the first time in 20 years and despite the dance coordinator’s reassurance (and recommendation that I sign up for the adult ballet II class) I’m terribly nervous. I was able to finish a dance minor in college (after the dance major was discontinued halfway through my program) so it’s not as if I never danced before but …. I’m over 40 now for goodness sakes. LOL But I’m going through with it anyway. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Thanks for sharing your story, which I’m sure will inspire other readers, too! I hope you loved returning to the studio as much as I did (even if it takes a while to get that comforting sense of belonging again).

  20. Go, Andrea, go!! Do report back here (or contact me at The Classical Girl) on how it goes. Your situation is/was so much like mine, and it’s a subject near and dear to my heart – I’d love to hear how it all turns out for you (and everyone returning to dance after a long break). We should all start a club or something.

  21. I took my first class last night, an intermediate class, and was appalled by how much I’ve lost in the 20 years since I was last in a ballet class. I’d signed up for that level at the encouragement of the dance coordinator but everyone else in the class has been taking regularly for a while. I made it through the hour and 15 minute class, I didn’t fall down, and while I feel that I did abysmally at everything once we left the barre, I did manage one almost decent pirouette and only screwed up one particularly involved barre exercise (how can my brain not hold that much information at once anymore? Seriously!). Still it was very humbling. The class was almost at the level I was at when I quit ballet minus the pointe work. The instructor said I did fine and is okay with me staying in the class but because of my own self-doubt encouraged me to check out the ballet I class too so that I can judge for myself. It is a very warm, friendly atmosphere and the instructor is not overly critical. I’m going to check out the easier class but am leaning toward trying to challenge myself to stick this one out. No one’s watching me anyway right? 🙂

  22. I wanted to pop back in to encourage anyone who is thinking of going back to do so, and if she or he does so, to concentrate on what goes right instead of what she or he doesn’t do perfectly. I’ve now taken four classes after 20 years and it does come back: just not necessarily after the very first class. And regardless, it’s still good for your muscles, and you’ll love yourself for it?

    • So true, Andrea! In my own experience, I think I’ve accepted that there are some things that just don’t “come back” in the same ways as I remember. Rather, there are things I re-learn and try in different and new ways — which makes ballet class as an adult always interesting and engaging, both mentally and physically.

  23. Yay, Andrea – so happy to read your post! I’m always sad to hear of someone returning to the studio, only to be turned off by the experience and not go back. Reading what you wrote up above made me smile. : )

  24. This was so encouraging to find today. I stopped dancing at 18 (started when I was 5) to go away to college. Then I got a master’s degree. I’m going back to my first adult ballet class (beginner/intermediate) tonight after being away for 10 years. Doing a master’s was not good for my body… I’m pudgy and uncomfortable and I’m just worried about being judged harshly after being away for so long. I hope it goes well tonight.

  25. Hi, have you returned to being en pointe since resuming your ballet study? If so, how long did you wait? I know all of our bodies and abilities are so different but I feel I am very much in your former shoes (no pun intended)! and am seeking a little advice from someone who has done it. It has been sex years for me since I ended my formal training in early high school.

    • Hi! it’s been a year and a half (after a 12 year break) for me to be allowed to go on pointe. You can do it!! Its so worth the effort 🙂

  26. HI! I used to dance when I was three years old and continued to do ballet until I was in sixth grade. I broke my foot and never went back. Now I am in eighth grade and I miss it so much!:( I am looking back onto getting into it but I’m not sure if it will be worth it. I have been doing dance but not ballet. I would really like some advice…like how far behind I would be and if I would ever be able to go on pointe?

  27. I am so glad I found this article. EVERYTHING written here is all the things I have been thinking about myself after yesterday’s class.

    It’s funny, but the thing is- I felt ok about going back in the first few classes because I knew how rubbish I would be ( I had a 10 year gap and major abdominal surgery – I just kept convincing myself I couldn’t do it). However – I had to move classes last night because there weren’t enough people in the other class. I felt frustrated because it was so basic. BUT also – doing the very basics, reaaaally slowly made me SO depressed at my technique and ability.

    I genuinely left the class feeling frustrated because I finally had to face up to the things my body won’t do anymore and also embarrassed and sad because I just want to be what I was. I’ve lost a good ballerina somewhere along the line 🙁

    BUT – now I’ve read this I’ve realised I just want to run before I can walk. It will take time – and I should work at the basics to improve from the bottom- up. I’ve obviously got to let go of pride for one thing and not be embarrassed….. But overall – I have to accept that after so long a break, and major surgery – my body is protesting and I need to treat it with care.

    THANK YOU for the uplifting article and I’ve loved reading the comments because I now don’t feel so alone. There aren’t many people around my area getting back into ballet. It’s either teenage wonders or adults who have never trained at all.

    I am going to do the 12 week course of the beginners class and see where I am at the end of it. 🙂

    Good luck to everyone!

    Rach x

    • Rach, I’ve sadly been away from class for a while now (due to a combination of new baby + work + less flexible schedule), and it’s gotten to the discouraging point where I feel like I’ll be re-beginning all over again — but I’m inspired anew by your story. Thank you so much for sharing.

  28. After almost a year there are still moments of doubt after a long break–I say that only to say to others considering it not to give up. I can only fit in one class a week, and since I returned after a 20+ year break, I decided that taking the beginning class really is just fine with me. At the studio where I take, which is also one of the more well-known performing arts theaters in the area with a formal academy, for adults there is the beginning class, which is open to people who have never taken before as well as people who have taken a long break, and an intermediate class. But the intermediate class is really more of an advanced class–the fill-in academy teachers take that class and all the students in that class take at least 2-3 classes a week. (The instructor is the same for both classes and she has said that it is an advanced class even though it’s labeled intermediate.) So, those of us that are taking more for the love of dance and recreation just repeat the beginning class and she tries to give us variations of teach up to our level if there are not newbies in the class.
    Anyway, back to the doubt, last night she decided we would do cabrioles across the floor. And I left thinking, “Did I ever do those?” Because I can tell you, I’m not sure that my brain remembered them but I know for sure my body didn’t!
    Granted last night was a little different because she had three academy graduates who are currently dancing professionally or in college that just “stopped by” for a fun class, so it was a little more intimidating. But still, just when I’d started to think that I really had made a lot of progress–my pirouettes are usually pretty good, my turjetes (sp) definitely passable, I can really dance my combinations like the “old days” instead of just making sure I do the steps–and had come to terms with a few others–the fact that my balance after aging and two concussions is probably never going to be quite what it used to be, that I’m just not sure my ankles will support pointe work again, I hit last night. And felt totally discouraged again.
    But It’s not going to stop me from going back and not going to keep me from signing up for next session. Why? Because my heart and my body love to dance. And if I can’t keep up with the barely 20 somethings who can devote more time, and had fewer body issues than me, oh well. I can only try my best.

    • Andrea, as a teacher I’m thrilled to hear you say you are not giving up after a discouraging night. You do have to look at it as one class in your whole life and realize it was just an hour or 2. 🙂 However, as someone who teaches ALL levels of adults – very new students thru advanced – I have to say cabrioles are NOT for beginners. lol…it’s good that she challenges you occasionally but battu is an intermediate level step, particularly for adults who generally speaking do not have the ballon of teenagers (in other words, doing beats take a little extra effort as one ages and feels gravity more…))

    • When I first encountered cabrioles in an adult open ballet class, that was yet another moment where I also wondered to myself, “Have I even done these before?” It’s one of those steps that makes me realize how unbalanced some of my muscles must be now: on one side, it feels doable, but on the other side, I feel I can barely get off the ground!

  29. Dear Kathy, I also learned ballet when I was 3 years old until 11 years.. And now I missed Ballet. I wonder whether I still learn ballet eventhough there is no adult ballet class for my age (30 years old). please give more tips and advices. Thank you very much

  30. I’ve loved reading this! I recently went back after 40 years (30 if you count 10 years of modern), but it’s uncanny how I put my hand on that barre and it just came flying back at me. I took about a month of Ballet 1 and now I’ve been in Ballet 2 for a month and it’s such a joy. I do have some limitations however, for one I’ve been getting really bad foot cramps. Yesterday I drank a gallon of water, ate a banana and am taking magnesium in preparation for class and it was the worst it’s been. I spoke to the teacher and she suggested my lack of flexibility could be attributing to it and suggested I really stretch before class. I also don’t really go at the jumps at the end of class due to a wonky knee but other than that, going back at 57 has been AMAZING and I highly recommend it! Thanks for keeping this forum going!