A couple of years ago, I signed up for an adult ballet class. It was out of an urge to improve my health that I made that move. Prior to this, I had major problems with my lower back. Sometimes it would go into spasms when I did little things like bending down to brush my teeth. Once or twice I couldn’t even stand up straight after the brushing. I felt that something serious was happening to my body and so I started a frantic search for solutions.
First I went to stretch therapy and yoga. But it didn’t help that much. In fact, the difficult yoga posts added stress to my already frozen back. So I kept on searching, until one day it dawned on me that I had to first experience the “feeling” of health before I could achieve health. I searched in my own experience to see if there was an age when I was feeling absolutely healthy, with no ailments whatsoever. Voilà! I arrived at age 7. That was the time before I wore glasses. I remember being in total health. And that was the time I started taking ballet lessons. How did I feel back then? All I could remember from my faint memories was that I was happy. I was feeling “whole.” I loved to move my body. I loved to jump and turn and point my feet. So that’s the feeling that I decided to relive, at the beautiful age of 35.
When I told others about going back to ballet, many scoffed at the idea in disbelief: “What? Do you want to become a child again?”
Well, that’s the attitude most people have when you mention ballet. They think of little girls in pink tutus jumping around with their chubby little legs. But ballet lessons are not reserved for little girls. Increasingly, adults are getting interested in taking ballet lessons for various reasons. In the U.S. alone, there are more than 1 million ballet students over the age of 30. In other countries, too, adult ballet has become a very popular leisure activity – from China to Japan to UK. Where I live, Hong Kong, the trend started a few years ago and the number of adults joining the dance studios is increasing. I constantly come into contact with adults who take or have taken lessons – male and female across a wide age spectrum and some whose children also take lessons.
In the beginning my back pain did bother me a bit during class, as there were some movements that I simply could not do, like the back bend. Luckily I started off with a studio that combined some sort of Pilates stretching with simple barre and allegro exercises in the center. So I was given a good, slow warm-up and opportunity to improve my flexibility. Flexibility is a thing that comes extremely slowly. Even some dancers who have studied for years struggle with it constantly. So I had no illustion at all what I would be able to achieve.
Over time, my back pain started to get better. Of course, ballet itself is not the main antedote to the problem. But it did help by getting my butt off the chair and into the “swing of things”. My main cure was the Egoscue Method by Pete Egoscue. With the help of his functional exercises (introduced in his book “Pain Free“), I was able to get rid of my lower back pain from the root level. This really freed up my ability to pursue ballet on a more serious level.
I mentioned “serious” because, funny enough, there is a spectrum of seriousness when it comes to adult ballet students. There are those who consider it a hobby to keep fit or to lose weight, with the added benefit of a socializing opportunity with those who share the same interest. There are those who want to fulfill their childhood dream to do ballet because financial limitations or other reasons prevented them from doing so as a kid. Then there are those who are balletomanes and want to gain firsthand experience of their beloved art form. And then there are “ballet moms” and “ballet dads” who study it in order to understand their dancing kids better. Finally, there are those who take lessons with the goal of becoming a ballet teacher or even to perform.
For me, it is really a combination of all of these, except for the fourth category. You’ll find many adult ballet students get hooked to ballet lessons once they have started. It is not difficult to understand why.
Entering a ballet studio is akin to entering a sanctuary, where worries of daily life and work go out the window. Instead, you allow the beautiful music – often classical – to flow through your body and then move along with it. This moment is transcending. No words. Just music and movement. Everything is contained in that sacred body of yours. Whether you lift your arm or point your toes, it is your pure being experiencing the moment in its full presence. Your mind cannot wonder, as ballet requires full concentration, or else your movements won’t coordinate and flow with the music. This total presence in the moment is what makes it a transcending experience. At least for me it is. Dance, in this sense, surpasses words as a way to express our soul. You cannot hide what your body sends out to the world, whether it’s a feeling, mood, or just, you.
Beyond this spiritual experience, I would say that many of us enjoy ballet as a “me time” – a time to spend on a passionate hobby that belongs to you alone, 100 percent of the time. No bosses, children or relatives to nag you during the hour or hour-and-a-half lesson.
And what gets adults to go back again and again to the dance studio is the exhilarating feeling of seeing ones’ own skills improve. This may happen quickly, but most of the time it occurs extremely slowly. Sometimes we dance students have those blocks that are similar to a writer’s block. We get stuck with a particular step, position or movement. We do it over and over again but we still fail – sometimes to such a degree that we feel jinxed. But then one day, it suddenly clicked! Eureka! That’s how I feel when I manage to do a nice and clean single pirouette. I think I can count the number of times with my fingers on one hand. Still, it feels almost like a miracle when I managed, and to come to that illusive perfect turn, you spend countless lessons trying to achieve it. When you manage, it’s only a split of second, and then it’s gone. But the joy lasts for weeks and months to come.
I don’t know if there is a particular type of adults who are drawn to ballet. But I would say those who have continued to take lessons year after year are those who really like challenges. Every lesson is filled with challenges. An outsider may not notice that at all, as the challenges are very subtle. But because ballet is an art form that requires precision and aims at perfection, the challenges are wonderfully numerous. Onwards and upwards to my next challenge!