Last autumn I was casually scrolling through my Facebook feed when a BBC video of a 71 year old woman passing grade 6 ballet caught my eye. Over the following weeks I found myself researching adult ballet classes in my area. A seed had been sown and I decided to give it a go.
Like many little girls I’d attended dance classes from the age of five. I’d hated the tap part – all the big smiles and jazz hands that went with it. Ballet, on the other hand, was right up my street. I was a serious, studious and even snobbish girl. I loved the grace and poise of ballet. I posed in family pictures with a straight back and my head held high (I am second from the right in the picture below). If I could tell my 10-year-old self one thing it would be: ‘don’t give up on ballet, you will regret it forever’. I gave up dancing after a fall in the playground resulted in a black eye. My tantrum was epic and even when the bruise faded I refused to go back.
Adult ballet taster class
I’d been hoping to find one of the Silver Swans classes run by the Royal Academy of Dance but these are in West and South London venues. It would be easier to learn with people of a similar age but the timetable needed to fit around work, the dog, the garden and my husband’s gym nights. In the end I chose City Academy’s adult ballet taster class held just down the road at Sadlers Wells (if nothing else it sounded good).
The ballet taster was a mix of ages, but I was at least 10 years older than anyone else. The session is designed to run through the basics and help you decide if you want to continue to a beginners course. Many years of weekly pilates stood me in good stead and I had the core strength and flexibility that I needed. The big issue for me was (and still is) balance. As soon as I ‘elevate’ onto ‘demi pointe’ I wobble. When I look around at the twenty and thirty somethings they are still, solid, strong.
Balance would be my goal. It’s not ‘en pointe’ I yearn for – just strength, poise and the ability to avoid falls as I age. I signed up straight away for the 8 week beginners course.
The Russian Method
My first teacher was a Ukrainian dancer who happily announced that he would be teaching us Russian school – not soppy Royal Ballet stuff. Cramp, he maintained, was good – it showed we were working hard. I liked him and the way his thick accent made the French names of the steps even more indecipherable. I loved the way my legs grew stronger and I improved each week, little by little.
The classes are divided into barre and floor work. The barre gives you something to hold onto while your legs negotiate the core exercises that are repeated every session. At first I had to pull myself up from grande plié using the barre. It was exactly what he told us not to do – but I had no alternative. I felt my shame turn into a hot flush as I rose. If he saw my error he kindly overlooked it, he was strict but tolerant. By week 8 my barre work had massively improved but the floor work was a different matter.
The floor work started with jumps. Knackering jumps in first, second and third positions, left and right. Each week there were more jumps and progressively more difficult jumps. Higher, faster, softer. In the last two weeks he introduced a jump where one leg goes out in front or behind and you bring the other one up to meet it. It’s like a scissor movement and you’ve seen it a million times in choreography. It’s called a cabriole and it’s quite beautiful when performed properly (you can see it here). My attempt was so bad that I actually started laughing. I know that however long my ballet journey lasts I may never be able to master this move.
At the end of my 8 week beginner’s class I was hooked. I had improved but there was a lot that I couldn’t do well enough (the pirouette for instance). When I watched those in the class who’s previous ballet experiences were not so distant they were simply miles ahead. I decided to repeat the beginners course before even considering ‘improvers’.
The ballet mistress
I am now half way through a second beginners course – this one is just 6 weeks. This teacher has an entirely different approach. She teaches children and has the delivery and manner of a patient but firm school mistress. She assumes a lot of her adult ballet students. Her classes are fluid and full of sequences that my ageing brain struggles to remember. This is good. Another challenge to add to the physical – exercises for short term memory.
So far there have been no jumps but, instead, much more complicated port de bras (that’s arm movements to the uninitiated). This is a big class and we all follow her beautiful lead but when she leaves the front to inspect us the sequence goes to pot and left becomes right. Part of me yearns for the rigours of the Russian method but this feels more like dance. It looks almost real.
I cannot stress how hopelessly inadequate I feel but somehow it just doesn’t matter. I love it. So what if I’m the oldest, the wobbliest and the most out-of-step. I just hope my effort makes all the others feel better about their performance. I have the grace to admire those who already have skills I can only dream of.
I realise that I cannot keep repeating the beginners class. I am never really going to be happy until I can learn at a slower, more gentle pace that my body can cope with. One of the reasons I wanted to write this post is to try to find a class that is more suited to midlife. Adult ballet is for 18+ and that is a terrifying 36 years ago for me.
I would love to find a teacher with a group of North or East London silver swans to practise with. If you can point me in the right direction please drop me a line below. Meanwhile you will find me at a barre, once a week, trying very hard not to topple over.
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