My Story as an Adult Ballet Dancer

Pointe Till You Drop, one of my favorite ballet blogs/FB pages, has recently invited its adult ballet student readers to contribute to its “Adult Ballet Dancers” album. This is not the first time the page owner, Johanna, an avid and long-time adult ballet dancer from Finland, extended such generosity to her fans. I have seen photos of other adult ballet students she posted earlier, and felt very inspired by all the stories behind them. So when she opened up a new album this time, I jumped on the opportunity to participate, in the hope that my photo and story would also be a source of inspiration for other adult ballet students, especially those who have not yet started and wondering if they should or can do ballet at all as an adult.

Here is the link to my photo and story, which I am reposting here on my own blog for my dear readers:

River Nymph

Photo by Westkenny

This photo was taken during a dance competition I participated in two years ago, when I was 41—the first and only time I ever performed on stage. It was a special moment as I was dancing with my best ballet buddy to original music composed by my husband and original choreography created for us by our teacher from a long distance (in Kazakhstan)!

Here is my story: I started learning ballet at 35 and eight years later am still loving it! I took two years of ballet when I was a kid but switched to modern for a couple of years and then stopped dancing altogether. When my health started to deteriorate in my 30s, I asked myself what would make me feel whole again. It didn’t take long to find the magical answer: “ballet”! Doing ballet at an age when most professional dancers would have retired presents a special kind of challenge–not to mention the large fibroid tumors inside me, which had given me serious impediments in the learning process since hip alignment is so crucial to ballet. Nonetheless, I kept calm and carried on. Now after my operation I am starting all over again as a beginner. I know that technically it will be an uphill battle. But I don’t let age get in the way of my enjoyment. Ballet is my biggest passion in life! I want to keep on dancing for as long as possible.”

And to throw in a little bonus, here is the video of the dance I did with my friend Carrie two years ago at the dance competition. It’s called “The River Nymphs.” Original music composed by Fredix. Original choreography by Nurlan Baibusinov. Enjoy!

Dancing Fixes It All

“Sometimes I hurt because I dance.

Other times I dance because I’m hurt.

Either way, dancing fixes it all.”

I have come across this quote in social media quite a few times. Perhaps only dancers would really understand the pain behind such a statement.

The first line is easy enough to understand. Dancing, especially professional dancing, brings with it certain perils. Bodily injury is a common occurrence. The second line gives a more complicated picture of the psychology of dancers. Dancing expresses our joy; it also expresses our sorrow. It helps us channelize feelings that are not easy to express through words or any other forms. On both the artistic and psychological levels, dancing provides such an outlet for expression. Dancing is emotional therapy. I wouldn’t say it “fixes all.” But it does fix quite a few things, especially when you are stuck in a funk.

My earliest memory of dance as a therapy was more physical than emotional. At the age of 14, I suffered from muscular pain similar to arthritis. It was so bad that I limped along as I walked. But somehow I got the idea of joining the aerobics class in a dance studio in my building. After taking the class for some months, my pain was completely gone. It was then that I realized the power of physical activity—and more specifically, dance—in healing.

The other time when dance came to my rescue was when I was living in New York in my late 20s. I became terribly depressed after a relationship breakup. I searched and searched for something that would lift my mood and take my mind off from the pain of separation. It so happened that the gym that I worked out at, right in the same building as my office, started to offer a ballet workout class by New York City Ballet. I remembered how dance made me happy in my youth, so I immediately enrolled.  Despite the physical strain I felt in my stiff body, the joy I obtained through the challenging moves and the beautiful music played in class helped me go through one of the toughest times of my life. The instructor talked in such an encouraging and uplifting way, that just being in her presence made me happy—if only for that one hour in class.

Another critical juncture in my life where I needed a fixing was when I suffered from a frozen back at the age of 35. I mentioned in my first post “Diary of an Adult Ballet Student” how going back to ballet class has helped me heal that back pain.

Then, one day when I was 39, my dad was diagnosed with acute leukemia. I flew to New York to visit and care for him. During this time, I became emotionally downtrodden and stressed, which later turned into depression. My only light of the day was those evenings and weekends when I sneaked an hour or two into ballet lessons at Alvin Ailey’s Annex, joining a big group of adult students just like me, in Finis Jhung’s adult beginners’ class and workshops. Being able to get “lost” in the moment and focus my attention on all the details of executing a movement while enjoying the pure pleasure of dancing had allowed me to forget about the grim reality outside the studio. It had meant the world to me.

And today, eight years after I restarted ballet, I’m still going to class and going through the process of healing—this time from a major abdominal surgery. The journey goes on. Ballet may not be able to fix it all, but it is my faithful friend through thick and thin.

Balletomanehk’s 2014 in Review

A big thanks to those of you who have been reading my blog. Due to a major surgery, 2014 was an inactive year in terms of my ballet dancing. It pretty much reset my technique back to square one. But during those inactive months, I devoured books, videos, articles and images of ballet the same way a starving person devours every piece of food in sight. I imagined myself dancing and tried to activate the brain cells related to dance and movement. I even managed to watch a few live performances. Well, it wasn’t nearly as bad being an armchair dancer after all. What will 2015 bring? I certainly hope to continue to bring you interesting content in the upcoming year! Dance on, my ballet friends!

The has prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog. Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 6,500 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Back to the Studio


After taking a six-months hiatus from ballet, I finally stepped into the studio again. Words cannot fully describe the excitement and joy bubbling from within me when I had donned myself in full ballet gear, placed my hand on the barre and started dancing with my ballet friends once again.

Six months ago I underwent a major abdominal surgery to remove a few large tumors that I had lived with for more than five years. I had put it off partly because of ballet. I didn’t want to and couldn’t stop going to class. I knew that a surgery like that would put me out of commission for what would seem like eternity. Those of you who do ballet would know exactly what I mean. Ballet is addictive, especially when you’re not forced into it for any reason. It can become an all-consuming passion, especially for those of us who do not find great fulfillment in our daily grind.

Well, I became obsessed with ballet about seven years ago when I was desperately searching for a way to get back into health after experiencing a frozen back. I asked myself, “What did I love when I was a kid, at an age when I had absolutely no health issues at all?” My answer was simple: to dance.

Even though most of my childhood was spent in learning modern dance, my first lesson was in ballet. I did it for two years, after which my parents probably couldn’t afford it so they sent me to free classes offered by my school. And those free classes were modern. But I didn’t care. It was fun. I enjoyed moving along with music, and sometimes without, as when I practiced gymnastics anywhere I could find enough space to do a somersault or a split.

Then I picked up ballet at the ripe age of 35. I fell in love with it and my passion only grew as time went by. Well, in those seven years I learned not just the technique but also artistry—neither of which I can claim to be good at, but at least I learned what they actually entail and have become much more appreciative when I watch ballet performances. Being a student of ballet has made me realize what kind of discipline and pain that professional dancers have to go through to present an effortless image of absolute beauty on stage.

Fast forward… after my surgery, I could not dance anymore for months. All I was able to do was to look at ballet photos and videos on the Internet, and read tons of articles and books about dancers. I also launched my FB page and wrote this blog more frequently. When I was able to, I went to a couple of local performances. Being an armchair dancer was not as fun as actually dancing, but it helped me deal with the itch.

Gradually, I lost that addiction for ballet. Maybe it’s a good thing. I found balance in my life once again. There was a period when I would practice for a competition seven days a week. I hardly had any time to talk with my husband, who had been super understanding and allowed me the luxury to pursue my dream. During my hiatus, I got to spend more time with my husband. Also, I lost the habit of being a perpetual pedantic critique of my “ballet self.” What I mean is that I stopped judging myself solely based on how well I dance and how good I look—according to the impossibly strict standard of the ballet world. The result of that judgment, of course, was always disappointing, as the ideal of ballet is sky high and my perfectionist self was never satisfied. A sort of self-loath developed subconsciously. A hobby that I was supposed to enjoy would sometimes turn into a nerve-wracking occasion. The more I wanted to achieve, the more strained my body was, and I got into injuries, which in turn put me out of commission from time to time. Any loss of time for catching up with my training was a source of stress. When I found myself going back to Square One and starting over again and again—while my peers moved on to more advanced classes, I became utterly frustrated, as it felt like I was never going to advance after a certain point.

The half year away from class helped me lose that “toxic love” for ballet. Today, I was back to the studio with an open heart. I didn’t realize the toxicity that plagued me before. But a pause put me into perspective. That’s why I said it was probably a good thing. Today, I felt relaxed in class. If I did something wrong or ugly, I caught myself laughing at me in the mirror right away! No big deal! And if my extension was super low, no sweat! What I tried to focus on, was the musicality aspect of dancing (artistry), and the use of the core (technique).

I learned something invaluable from my Pilates instructor during my rehabilitation period (which is ongoing). It is the use of the pelvic flour muscles. I didn’t realize it before, but if you hold your pelvic flour muscles and lift them up while exhaling—at the same time when the diaphragm is lifted up, the lower back naturally drops into a neutral position and the big gluteal muscles release their grip. Previously, I was in the habit of tensing those muscles up, causing the undesirable anterior pelvic tilt and super-tight psoas muscles in front of the hips. Even though I was well aware of my pelvic tilt, it was almost impossible for me to correct it due to the obstruction of my tumors. But now, I finally learned the way to correct the posture. Having a neutral pelvic tilt is so crucial for executing all ballet movements. When I tighten up the pelvic flour muscles, I find it much easier to activate my turn-out muscles and inner thigh muscles. It is not about contracting those muscles. The impetus has to come from deep within, and then those muscles would fire off much more easily. That’s the core at work!

So, instead of trying to force myself to get a fake turnout or high extensions at the expense of improper alignment, I decided to let them go. From now on I will focus on the ground work, the core, and let my movements come from the center first and then out. Most important of all, I will keep on reminding myself, joy will be my new “No. 1.”

Musings on RAD Exams

Recently I was chatting with a ballet friend about the Royal Academy of Dance examination. She is going to take part in one very soon. She told me she regretted signing up for it as it was putting major stress on her. I can totally understand how it feels. As an adult with a full schedule, preparing for an RAD major exam means extra work after work/in the weekends, and a lot of emotional pressure related to performance expectations.

Years ago when I first started learning ballet, I was constantly being talked into taking exams. But after seven years I still have not found the urge or the allure to participate. I doubt that I ever will. I did take classes that are designed to prepare students for such exams, but mainly because those classes were suitable for my technical level at the time. The old syllabus used to bore me to no end. However, since RAD has revised its syllabi and improved its musical choices, I find the content for the major exams—exams designed for those aspiring to become professionals—to be much more interesting. I actually took the Intermediate course for several months and really enjoyed the learning process. Here is me practicing in a rented studio (disclaimer: the movements are not entirely correct according to the syllabus!):

Generally speaking, I prefer to take “free classes,” a colloquial term here in Hong Kong meaning classes that don’t follow any exam syllabus. (In Hong Kong, many adult students take RAD classes—usually along with children—because there simply aren’t that many studios that offer “free classes” due to the small number of adult students. ) As I feel that my day-time job alone demands enough from me in terms of submitting a “report card,” I would prefer to keep my ballet hobby free from any judgment. I want to keep it sort of demand-free. The only true demand would be my own quest to improve. Of course, I love corrections and feedback from the teachers. I don’t regard those as “demands.” They are part of the learning process.

Some of my friends feel that they need the goal of taking an exam to motivate them, to keep them going to class and to do better. Others do have a practical reason for taking RAD exams—they aim at reaching a level that would allow them to become a ballet teacher. I have so much respect for those adult students who eventually got certified as teachers.

To my friend, who expressed regret in her decision—which somehow drove the joy out of her ballet experience—my advice is, just go for it as if performing for an audience, and don’t think about the end results, the “marks” and the “grade.” Enjoy the dancing itself!

As for myself, I don’t really need any extrinsic motivation to keep going (can’t wait for my body to completely heal from my surgery and get back to the classroom). The only thing that drives me is my insatiable passion for ballet—for the extreme beauty of its form, for the potential to express emotions through incredibly challenging movements, and for the never-ending desire for perfection.

Conversations with Adult Ballet Students #6: Chacha Chan

This is the sixth in the series of Conversations with Adult Ballet Students. Leave me a message if you would like to be profiled in a future edition.


Introducing Chacha Chan, a part-time teacher, a glamorous housewife and a business owner. Chacha calls herself someone who never sticks to one hobby but has, somehow, stuck with ballet for seven years. Find out what turned her attraction to ballet into a long-term relationship.



Q: Did you ever take ballet lessons as a kid? When was that?

A: When I was 14, I had a few lessons when my school opened a ballet class for beginners.



Q: When did you start taking ballet class as an adult?

A: In 2007, when I was 32.



Q: What motivated you to do so as an adult?

A: My daughter started to take ballet lessons at that time. I wanted to learn with her so that I could understand her passion better and to see if I myself was really “a good piece of material” for ballet, as I was told so many times by my ballet-dancing friends and even my teacher.



Q: What do you find to be the biggest challenge or difficulty?

A: Knowing fully that there are technical limits that I can never surpass, but still trying not to give up.



Q: What does ballet bring to your life?

A: It brings me new perspectives of looking at life and helps me understand that I can still enjoy something that I am not terribly good at.



Q: What is the greatest achievement in your ballet life so far?

A: Passing the RAD intermediate exam and starting a brand new career of teaching ballet at the age of 39!



Q: What have you gained that was out of your expectation?

A: The friendship I have with very young ballet dancers who have learnt ballet for over 15 years. The way they try to help me understand how to execute certain difficult movements and their encouragement are priceless. The trip to visit China National Ballet at its 50th  anniversary was beyond any expectations I ever had.  An exchange program in Inner Mongolia with a dance buddy I met on the Internet was also something I would never have imagined. Above all, the friendship I have with my ballet teacher and fellow dance lovers is invaluable. All these have helped me become a better person.



Q: What have you lost?

A: I haven’t really lost anything.



Q: What is the craziest thing you’ve ever done for ballet?

A: The craziest thing was to dance three times a week, two hours each time, for two months in a row, and forced myself to do double pirouette before the RAD Intermediate exam.



Q: Is it all worth it?

A: Yes, of course.



Q: Have you ever dreamt of becoming a professional ballet dancer?

A: I never dreamed to be a professional dancer because it was just such a distant dream when I was a kid.



Q: As an adult dancer, what is your goal in ballet?

A: All I want is to keep improving in all areas even though there are limitations. My goal is, from time to time, that I can look back at the techniques I couldn’t master before and realize that I can now handle them like second nature.




Chacha Chan (right) posing with her elder daughter, Gretchen Lee. Mother and daughter often goes to ballet performances together.

Conversations with Adult Ballet Students #5: Angel Chau

This is the fifth in the series of Conversations with Adult Ballet Students. Leave me a message if you would like to be profiled in a future edition.


Meet Angel Chau, who works with equity sales in a brokerage house in Hong Kong and finds her dream in the ballet studio, which she dubs her “wonderland.”



Q: Did you ever take ballet lessons as a kid? When was that?

A: I took my first ballet class when I was around 4 or 5. I was so young that I don’t remember the details. All I can remember is that the music my teacher used for our dance came from the movie “An American Tail”—the title song of which is “Somewhere Out There.” When I was in junior high school, I joined a dance troupe called Crystal Western Folk Dance. Before we rehearsed our dances, we were given some basic ballet training. It was informal though. At that time, Winghong Wa became my first ballet teacher. He was in the first graduating class of the first ballet school in China. When I started my lessons with him, he was already over 50. In him, I see someone who is truly passionate about ballet, and this passion is not limited by age.


答:四、五歲時學過。年紀太小甚麼也不記得,只記得當年課堂上老師排舞音樂是老鼠也移民的主題曲–Somewhere out there。後來是初中時加入旭穎西方舞團,排舞前會上一些芭蕾舞基訓,不過也不是正式的芭蕾舞課。當年的芭蕾舞啟蒙老師-華永康老師是中國第一間芭蕾舞蹈學校的第一批學生,他教我跳舞時也年過半百了。從他身上我看到一個真正熱愛芭蕾的人,絕對不受年紀性別限制。

Q: When did you start taking ballet class as an adult?

A: After university and having worked for two years, I suddenly realized that life was dry and boring—going to work day in and day out with the sole purpose of making money. So I decided to give myself the gift of dance as the birthday present for that year.



Q: What motivated you to study ballet?

A: I have always loved to dance since I was a little child. But I always have felt that ballet is the foundation of all dance styles. That’s why I chose the ballet studio to be my escape from the world of money—it’s my “wonderland.”



Q: What do you find to be the biggest challenge or difficulty?

A: Time.  When it comes to good ballet technique and stamina, there is no shortcut. The muscle tone, each tiny movement of the hands and the feet, the grace—all of these must be built through continuous training, hour after hour, day after day.

Adults are often constrained by their work schedule. Sometimes they have to socialize for work purposes during afterhours or travel on business, so they can’t make it to class. Besides work, some of us need to spend time with our significant others or our family. Some classmates may have been going very strong in class until they get pregnant and need to spend a tremendous amount of time to take care of their children. They can’t afford the time to take class anymore.




Q: What does ballet bring to your life?

A: I have learned the importance of perseverance. I’m a typical Hong Konger, which means I want efficiency and cost effectiveness in everything. But when it comes to ballet, there are no short courses. To be able to dance well, you’ve got to put in a long period of training time. If you persevere, you will find yourself having improved after a few years.

Another thing I got from ballet is friendship. I have made friends who are younger than me, who share the same interest as me. We have gone through exams and stage performances together. All these years, my classmates are not only friends but my teachers as well.




Q: What is the greatest achievement in your ballet life so far?

A: Although I have performed countless times, I know that I still don’t dance very well, so I can’t really say I have any achievements. But, I’d get very emotional every time I have finished a performance after having worked hard with my teacher and classmates.

Last year, I took two coworkers who were absolute beginners to take class with me. Gradually, they started to fall under the spell of ballet’s magic. Having successfully promoted ballet is an achievement that I am very happy about.





Q: What have you gained that was out of your expectation?

A: Ha ha ha, well, I don’t have to spend money on pedicure. In the summer, I would still wear sandals. If someone criticize on the look of my toe nails, I’d explain that this is what lies behind the beauty of ballet.



Q: What have you lost?

A: What I have gained is far greater than what I have lost.



Q: Is it all worth it?

A: Sure is!



Q: What is your goal in ballet?

A: To stay healthy and dance until I die.



Q: You also have continued to perform folk dance as an adult. Having studied both folk dance and ballet, what similarities do you find between the two dance forms?

A: There are quite a lot of similarities. Take Italian folk dance as an example. A lot of its allegro steps are based on ballet.



Q: How has folk dance enriched your life?

A: I have traveled with my dance troupe to Inner Mongolia for an international folk dance festival, where I met many different dance groups from different countries. Later on when dance festivals are hosted in those different countries, our troupe will be invited to attend too. Two years ago, I also participated in a folk dance festival in Slovakia and made many friends.