Hobby or Calling? The Case For Becoming an Adult Ballerina

Hello? Hearing something? [Photo by Alana Galligan] 

Hello? Hearing something? [Photo by Alana Galligan] 

Could there be something like a late calling to ballet? And if so, how do you respond to it?

By calling I mean the quiet nudge to take your adult ballet beyond a hobby, beyond studio showcases - to becoming a dancer. Is it possible to become a ballerina despite starting at an age when professional ballerinas usually start wrapping it up?

I am aware that the conventional wisdom to this would be no. Even the latest-starting ballerinas took their first classes as teenagers. I was 37.

That’s why I almost feel a bit delusionally-ashamed to admit that, ever since I started ballet, I felt that it was more to me than just something fun to do. I know many late-starters enjoy ballet as a hobby, a passion that they have on the side. Which is great! And I wish I could say the same! But unfortunately, it’s not like that for me.

Feeling ballet in my body gives me a sense of home. It’s tugging at me every day, nudging and quietly getting in my face if I don’t respond. And I just can’t help it. Although I started late, I always felt my body was meant to do this, even though it's not even the typical ballet body.

I know this may sound weird. And the ballet world couldn’t care less, right? It expects ballerinas to hear the calling in early childhood and follow it right away. That’s the proven path to perfection. And it works! The skills of great ballet dancers are simply breathtaking.

So while feeling something tugging at me, but knowing the reality of ballet, for a long time I didn’t know how to deal with it.

But the nature of a calling is that it doesn’t let you off the hook.

It keeps whispering and tugging, it gets into your body so much that, despite having nothing to strive towards, you can’t stop, and you can’t just do it for fun.

So I while I felt confused about the space that ballet wanted to take up in my life, I didn’t resist. I decided that it didn’t matter if I could become a ballerina or not - all I could do was keep doing the work as if. Going to classes. Stretching. Moving. Eating well. Recovering. Rehearsing. Performing. Taking time off. Living a good life. Taking care of my son, work, and all other everyday responsibilities. All with a quality and in a quantity that were possible for me. Even on days when I felt zero like it. It was all very unspectacular. A bit lonely. I felt like nobody would have understood my more-than-a-hobby aspirations, and I didn’t bother explaining. And despite progress, I didn’t look anywhere near ballet standards.

But there was this curious thing. I started feeling at peace. The kind of peace you feel when you stop questioning if you should really do this. You might be the farthest away from looking good or having some other measure of success; but in a way, you’re doing what you’re meant to do.

Time passed, and I unexpectedly and suddenly moved from Germany to Canada.

This move, among other things, threw me out of the comfort of the (wonderful!) studio that had taught me everything about ballet so far - into the unknown of new studios and teachers.

While I continued going to adult drop-in classes as before, there was one studio where things were a bit different. The classes, especially the privates, were nothing like any other classes. Not much dancing. The only goal was to build my body for ballet, from the ground up. Very slow and basic barre work. Brutal attention to detail. A thought-out progression from toes to the top of the head. Cues and images that I had never heard before, and that often didn’t make sense to me.

My ambition to look and move like a dancer - was suddenly normal here. Not weird at all. Actually, it was expected. Age didn’t matter. That I started as an adult was not even worth mentioning. Here, I didn’t have to feel delusional and ashamed for taking ballet beyond a hobby, for feeling that it was more to me.

It was deeply liberating. For the first time in a long time, I felt ok with the direction my life was taking, and how much ballet could contribute to it.

Something inside of me started tugging even more. I almost couldn’t hear it, but it was there, like a super quiet whisper: If I wanted to be a dancer, I had to show up, perform, put myself in front of an audience and face their expectations, judgements, and delight (maybe).

I had never seen myself as a performer before. The thought of performing was too scary, and I didn’t think I was anywhere near good enough for going on stage. But it happened that we were preparing for a summer showcase of the studio, and I was deeply entrenchend in the rehearsals for my first ever solo and pas de deux. What if I went beyond the two show nights and took my two pieces - out on the streets?

Right. I decided that now I was completely delusional. My brain must have had too much ballet and now it started acting weird. Ballet performed on the street was definitely too crazy of an idea.

IMG_20180617_231522_941.jpg

In the end, it was a next-day-decision. A week before the actual showcase, I jumped on the opportunity of a street festival. I rented an amplifier, showed up with my music, my son and a good friend. Just when we all left the house to head to my spot, I actually turned around and grabbed a hat for coins from the audience. Like they would pay, haha. It was more about making the busking experience complete.

It was probably one of the most intense moments of my life. I thought I would do this street thing mainly for the challenge of it. But the experience of performing in front of a random audience, on the street, went so deep into my flesh, that I barely recognized myself. I had no idea how much I would enjoy it, how real it would feel, how raw and honest. (I actually didn’t know if it would work at all, in pointe shoes on concrete!) It felt like something I had been looking for had just revealed itself. Without even knowing what it was.

Maybe that’s how it felt to respond to a calling. Maybe that was getting close to becoming a ballerina. Maybe it wasn’t the age when you started, the formal completion of a professional training, or a paid contract, or company position that made you one - maybe it was the will to work from whenever you started, and create something that only you can do.

Still out of breath from the street gig, flooded by excitatory hormones, I gathered my kid, friend, and stuff, and collected my hat.

Then the shock. There were not only coins - there were several bills. It was unreal. I hadn’t done it for the money at all. After a quick count I realized that I had never in my life made so much money with anything, if you calculated the per hour rate (I performed for 10 minutes, thereof about 5.5 minutes of actual dancing).

IMG_20180617_203932.jpg

I let five more street performances follow over the summer, both in Munich and Toronto. I loved it just as much. I actually choreographed a new solo myself for the first time ever and added it to the other two pieces, to have a slightly longer performance. Me, choreographing? I felt like a fraud. I did it anyway. I never reached the same pay level as in the first street performance, but it was still good. (It basically taught me that street performing does not only depend on your performance, but also highly on the amount of traffic around your performance spot.)

Street performance in Munich/Germany, Marienplatz, in late August 2018.

I am now enjoying my “off season” from street performing, but plan to continue next spring/summer, meanwhile creating new pieces.

Now you could certainly argue whether that little bit of street performing really makes me a “professional” ballerina. Probably not in a strict, conventional sense. But what I have discovered and what drove me to share this with you: Maybe there are different versions of responding to your calling and becoming a ballerina. Or if there aren’t, maybe we can start creating them.

Like for me, even if it would be feasible, I am not striving to get to a major theatre stage. That would mean doing ballet all day, every day - and I know that would not be my life. My interests and skills are too diverse for that. But I am able and willing to put in at least a couple of hours of ballet work on five days a week. Even more than that when I am preparing for another show or street performances. My performances will never be about doing multiple fouettés or pirouettes on pointe (at least not for a while, haha). What really makes me feel alive in ballet is to make it accessible to audiences that may have not seen much ballet before, in a raw and approachable way. For that, the street is perfect for now, and my choreographies can be very simple, slow, showing my long lines, emotions. I will still always strive for high technical quality. I now know I can even make some money with dancing. So my goal is to create and maintain a life that allows me to live out my late ballet calling in a way that is nourishing to and working for me. And that can change over time, too!

And if you, dear reader, hear the calling, too - you may find a completely different way of bringing your ballerina to stage. Maybe you do decide to aim for an international stage! Or you create little solos and perform them at friends’ birthday parties, or corporate events. Maybe you team up with other fellow late ballet “callees” and you stage your own show.

So in a nutshell: Yes, there could be a late calling to ballet. How you respond to it is a very personal journey. But respond, you must. It won’t let you off the hook anyway.

Do you think all these professional ballerina thoughts are a bit presumptous? Weird? Or relatable? Join your thoughts with mine in the comments if you like - I am curious if it’s just me having the late calling feeling!