From Barbells to Ballet Slippers: If you're considering a ballet class, read this first
BALLET FITNESS IS TOTAL FITNESS--body and mind--not just for your teens but for a lifetime. Overwhelmingly, as our needs and expectations from fitness have evolved, adult beginners are flocking to ballet class not just for their bodies, but for their heads. And, overwhelmingly, the ballet-fitness world is embracing adults of all ages and abilities.
The increasing number of ballet and ballet-based fitness classes represents one of the biggest shifts on the workout scene in years. Five years ago, ballet was a word you probably didn't hear often--except perhaps in elite circles. Now it seems that half the world has given up aerobics for some form of ballet-based dance.
We're not surprised by this melding of ballet and exercise, as a longer, more lithe, more fluid and feminine look--a dancer's look--has edged aside the bulkier, more muscle-bound body ideals of the last decade (fitness trends do run in cycles). It's a look that's not achievedby heavy-duty weight training (which tends to build bulky muscles) or high-impact aerobics (all those injuries) but by ballet and the body-toning movements adapted from dance.
As statistics reveal decreasing satisfaction and attendance--and a high injury rate--at overrigorous aerobic workouts (down more than 11 percent in 1995 alone according to Health magazine) ballet and dance have moved to the forefront. "Ballet is the perfect balance between aerobics (exercise) and yoga (soothing/focusbuilding) for me," writes Sarah, a 27-year-old, Boston-based graphics designer who has been attending adult ballet classes one or two times a week for about a year. "I get a bit of both in one--which is great given my tight schedule." Anna, an architect in her forties whose daughters take classes in the Joffrey Ballet School's children's division, had tried aerobics, Tai Chi, and other dance classes, but quickly gave them up. "Besides walking, it's the only exercise I get and the only thing I do just for myself. Plus, it's never too late to learn something new," she adds. For Mark, a 25-year-old performer active in regional theater, ballet is not only part of his professional training, it's fun. "I just enjoy the art--or trying to make it art," he says. "A good class makes me feel good--as if I had passed a difficult exam or taken a great vacation."
Health magazine, characterizing aerobics as "robotic and repetitive," cites boredom with the current exercise scene as a key contributing factor to the dance boom (despite the introduction of activities like slide and step). "Bored with exercise machines and tired of mechanically stepping up and down, an increasing number of women are trading in their aerobics shoes for ballet slippers, leaving the gym for traditional dance studios,"Health magazine reports. Kathleen, 43, a New York securities analyst who studied ballet as a child and modern dance as a young adult, is one of those women turned off by gyms and what she describes as "mindless step/aerobics classes." Her initial fear of reentering a studio was quickly replaced with a sense of calm, she told us. "Ballet," she explained, "is simply a more interesting and challenging form of exercise."
The feelings expressed by Sarah, Anna, Mark, and Kathleen are representative of thousands of men and women across the country, as seen by the increasing number of fitness classes cropping up at health clubs, spas, and fitness centers that borrow the movements of classical ballet training. In fact, many experts believe that soon virtually all gyms will be offering dance or movement-based classes for its members.
At the ballet schools themselves, nonprofessional enrollment, particularly for adults over 35, is on the upswing (it's the fastest growing segment of the dance world). Dance magazine cites a recent Mellon Foundation survey of ballet schools nationwide, which finds that more than 75 percent of ballet schools now offer nonprofessional adult classes. On the average, adult students (again, on the nonprofessional level) constitute nearly half of these schools' enrollment.
And it's small wonder. As ballet star Allegra Kent points out in The Dancer's Body Book, ballet dancers have the strongest, most beautiful, and very probably the most envied bodies in the world. When properly executed, ballet movements sculpt muscles so that they become taut, lean, and beautiful. "During the last year, coming to class two to three times a week, I've noticed a lengthening of muscles, particularly the legs, and a reshaping of [my] hips and buttocks," reports one Joffrey Ballet School adult beginner. Other students from all over the country collectively report firmer abdominal muscles, stronger legs, and more shapely thighs. "I now have dancer's calves," marvels Leslie, a 41-year-old attorney, who seldom misses her twice-weekly classes. "And my whole body is much stronger."
Many of the Joffrey Ballet School adult ballet beginners surveyed attend ballet classes two and three times a week. But even those who barely manage a single class see a difference in their bodies in a relatively short time. (Getting to class doesn't take extra time, just the wise use of the time you have!) As one student put it: "Throughout the day, I find myself practicing steps while waiting in the elevator, standing on line, or in my office. I have wanted to take formal lessons for a while; I'm so glad I made the time."
MORE THAN A WORKOUT
Before we get into any of the ballet class specifics, there is an important point that we want to make: Many different forms of exercise work. The trick is finding the one that's right for you, meaning not just one you're likely to stick with but one that you'll enjoy.
And that's where you'll find that adult ballet more than holds its own. Ballet appeals to jaded exercisers because it's much more than a workout; it's pleasurable in a way that using a StairMaster or treadmill three times a week simply isn't. "I am much more motivated to take a ballet class than I am to go to the gym for a more conventional workout," concurs Jennifer, 29, a graduate student in literature who alternates twice-weekly ballet classes with flamenco lessons. "In fact, dance classes are now my primary means of exercise."
Adults tend to take to ballet class because even the simplest movements at the barre can be expressive and because ballet class provides an intellectual element along with the physical. "Ballet is beautiful because it works. I love how all the moves are integral and flow together to form a dance," explains Kasey, a 21-year-old beginner from Philadelphia who began classes as a college senior. "We respond in a visceral and emotional sense, as much as a physical one," points out Lianna, a 35-year-old Chicago mother of two who fondly remembers her childhood classes and early exploits enpointe. (For parents who have children currently in ballet classes, adult ballet offers a special method of communication and bonding. "It's something my daughter and I share," explains another ballet mom, also from Chicago, who fills the time her 10-year-old is in ballet class by taking her own ballet stretch class. "Plus now I know a lot more about what she's doing.")
Consistently, the adult students surveyed cite the emotional satisfactions of ballet class, as much as they do the physical ones. "I'm completely relaxed by the end of class--all the cobwebs are cleared out of my brain," confesses Claire, a New York advertising executive in her forties who had taken ballet class as a child and in her early thirties. "The concentration needed for ballet means that any worries and problems are forced out of the brain for the duration of class," points out Amanda, a 56-year-old homemaker from Maryland who has been taking twice-weekly classes for 17 years. "And the good feeling usually lingers," she adds. Tony, a 30-year-oldfinancial analyst who takes class at the Joffrey Ballet School, also finds that the intense focus and concentrated effort of his class serve as both an emotional and psychological release. As for Britt, a 37-year-old actress and mother, also a Joffrey adult beginner, she finds that not only has ballet class made her more confident, but emotionally stronger to negotiate with her children and their lives.
"Benefits" like these might not be expected, but they are a welcome bonus--and a significant part of the total package that your ballet class may deliver (for some people, when all is said and done, it might just be its biggest justification). Many adult students find ballet class in the words of one survey participant, "a welcome antidote to work." "Dancing provides a complete change of focus for me," says Carol, a 49-year-old book editor. "Spatially, from close concentration to an emphasis on using space; psychologically, by going from being the boss to being a student; emotionally, by 'exposing' myself and being with others; physically, by having towork hard and get stronger." Concludes another student:"It's the ultimate in stress relief. It's almost as good as a massage--and it's much cheaper than a therapist!"
Finally, taking it all one step further, ballet, unlike more mundane forms of exercise, has the uncanny power to inspire deep passion and fealty among its devotees. "I am happier and calmer because I am doing what I love the most," writes a 51-year-old New York artist (who also notes that you don't get good posture from a StairMaster!). "In the words of Joseph Campbell, I am following my bliss. It is my soul." Admits 26-year-old Sabrina, a computer specialist who does a full half-hour barre every day: "I love it! I love it! I love it! When I have a good class, I feel like I can fly. Nothing makes me happier." Lynn, also in her twenties, says that studying ballet today is more rewarding than it was when she was 12, when she seriously longed for a dance career. "Now it's about learning for the sake of learning, not because I may someday be a famous ballerina. Although," she adds with a wink, "you never know ..."
It's in response to all the adults all over the country who are taking up the challenge of ballet--and especially to all the beautiful and inspiring Joffrey Ballet School adult beginners--that we've put together this book: a realistic guide to learning ballet, with lifelong fitness in mind, even though you're all grown up.
THE JOFFREY BALLET SCHOOL'S BALLET-FIT. Copyright © 1999 by Dena Simone Moss and Allison Kyle Leopold. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.