5 Things I Wish I Knew When I Took up Ballet at Age 37 (so it's probably good that I didn't know.)

Beautiful, but biomechanically evil stretch canvas slippers.

Beautiful, but biomechanically evil stretch canvas slippers.

Compared to many other activities, starting ballet as an adult, especially past 35, is kind of a funny thing. It’s almost like breaking into holy territory - that is usually reserved for 9-year-old-on-pointe prodigies, flawless professionals, and the somewhat mature ex-dancers who still look like perfection (killing it in your casual drop-in class).

So first of all - I applaud you and all of us, for breaking into that territory! It takes guts, perseverance, and a certain amount of devoted self-tolerance.

I decided to create this blog because I feel that learning ballet as a more mature adult (or so I wish!) is different from learning it when you are a young kid. You learn differently, some thing are harder to acquire, but you also have many advantages when it comes to developing your skills. So to start off, I thought I’d look back on my ballet journey so far - and, with a nostalgic sigh, think of all the things I wish I had known when I started out. Actually I will limit myself to only five of them, because otherwise I wouldn’t be able to stop, haha. Let’s go:

1) Consider yourself lucky that you started ballet late in your life.

I don’t know about you, but I kept having regrets, once I got a bit of a hang of ballet. Like, that I would have been so good, if I had just started as a kid. Or even as a teenager, like Misty Copeland. Why oh why? Now getting my splits and extensions will take longer, and I won’t have very much life time left to enjoy being really good once I am actually really good, etc etc.

Wrong. It took me a while to realize - but I now understand that it’s great the way it is. And I am not saying this to make myself (and yourself) feel better. I think the late party arrival is an asset, and advantage you can build on. There is so much freedom to learn ballet as an adult. I can learn on my own pace. I don’t have the pressure from any ambitious parents, teachers, and competition judges. I went through normal puberty. I didn’t stress not fully grown bones. My feet had a chance to develop properly. I can buy as many cute skirts as I like and wear what I want in class. I am not saying that going through ballet training as a child is bad or damaging, not at all. I have deep respect and applaude any dancer who went through the rigorous training from a young age. I just think that the playfulness and curiosity with which I can approach learning ballet now is deeply satisfying and nourishing. And here is the thing: No one and nothing keeps you and me from training like a child. If you decide you want to become really good, then you are still free to put in the amount of work that a child would put in during the course of a professional training. With the advantage of doing it on your terms!

2) Don’t EVER wear black slippers, and other ballet slipper shenaningans.

I took my first ballet classes in socks - which is fine, works with most studio floors, and all teachers that I have had so far were ok with it when you are just starting out.

At some point I felt the urge to get a bit more sophisticated and get myself a pair of ballet slippers. I chose black ones. Why? In all honesty: I thought that black was nice and most of all, it felt a little bit cool, or let’s say not so ballet-girly-dreamy as pink ones. I guess the former hockey player in me still had kind of an issue with too much ballet style and colors.

Meep. So in short: A black shoe visually breaks the line of your leg and foot, and just looks clumsy. Choose a pink or nude one, possibly dye it to match your skin color, and that’s it. (Just don’t wear black tights in them, but I’ll leave that for another post.)

Other shenaningans:

  • My first pair was also too big. Yes, you want space for your toes, but they should still be in contact with the shoe in the front. Let an experienced dance store staff member fit you if unsure.

  • For quite a while, I was completely obsessed with stretch canvas slippers, because they made such a beautiful line and felt so nice and snug. Until one teacher finally got me away from them. And he was right. It’s simple physics. A stretch canvas slipper, even if it fits perfectly, will always restrict the mechanics of your toes ever so slightly, i.e. the fabric will tend to pull the toes together and inwards, while you are actually trying to learn to spread them out and elongate. And a well-fitting normal canvas shoe will still make a beautiful line.

3) Make standing on two legs flat your top progress priority.

Ballet is, I repeat myself, a bit funny. Because a) the whole posture and movements are so different from everyday patterns (due to the turn-out) and b) a lot has to come together to make it right. All that makes it a hard challenge to teach and learn ballet in a systematic and sequential way, because while you can analyze it and listen to your teacher’s cues for particular body areas, everything else that is not cued in that moment still has to work, too.

So essentially, one big way of learning ballet is that you are constantly trying to get it right, activating here and there, feeling it, adjusting, etc, and the body (actually nervous system) slowly, over time, figures out the configuration that works best (Moshe Feldenkrais did some amazing work in figuring out this motor learning process) for a particular pose. So you follow the cues, activate here, forget over there, remember elsewhere, and all that feeds your brain so it can eventually find out what’s most effective. And that fine- and finer-tuning never stops.

Well - and standing on two legs flat is the basis of it all.

But instead, as beginners, we are so eager to learn the steps, pirouettes, jumps. Which is relatable. But if I would start all over again, I would use every break, and every moment of clarity to remember standing on two legs. Before each exercise. Maybe in the middle of it. While cooking. On the subway. It’s doable, because you are on two legs, flat. But if you get this, then standing on one leg will be much more clearer to your body. And in releve. And on pointe.

4) Get a ton of bodywork, even without having any issues.

I have been getting regular body works sessions for many years now. But looking back, especially in the first two years of taking up ballet, it would have made sense to have more. That’s related to what I said under 3) - i.e. that ballet kind of shakes up your posture and movement patterns. Good and effective bodywork has the potential to help you ease into these new patterns, and helps preventing problems. Think of it this way: If you constantly have to work against habitual tension, it’s like wasting energy (the pressing-the-gas-and-brake-at-the-same-time thing).

But we know how it goes - we usually go and see a practitioner only when it’s too late, i.e. when in pain or injured.

What do I mean by bodywork? It’s not physiotherapy or massages. I am refering to any manual modality that can access deep layers and tissues and have an effect on the nervous system - in a long-lasting way. From everything that I have personally tried, Rolfing and Visceral Osteopathy stand out. These are the only two methods that have brought me sustainable changes, seperately and in combination. Google “Find a Rolfer” and you will get a link to the Rolfing association and their directory of practitioners in your area. Check here for a directory of Visceral Manipulation therapists.

5) You will progress faster if you don’t rush into the next class level.

I know, I could make a case for the opposite, too: Don’t hang out too long in your foundation/basics/total beginner level. But if you are like me, and have a certain ambition going on, this won’t be your problem.

So here is the deal: Of course it’s great to progress fast and be able to take classes that are on the next level up. Not only because it shows that you have improved, but also because it might give your more options to take classes during the week (that was a big argument for me). And chapeau for challenging yourself and tolerating that feeling of total overwhelm when you step into a harder class!

What I have come to realize is that while I might be able to do the steps - if my technique breaks down in executing the exercises, it’s probably not the best class for me. So I have actually backed down: While quickly climbing from a total Basics to a quite advanced level class within my first three years, and being quite proud of it, I realized that despite doing the steps in the correct sequence, during the advanced class I wasn’t able to hold my body in a way that would benefit my learning. The complexity of the exercises required so much focus on the steps, that I did not have enough mental resources for making sure that I was standing and moving technically as good as I could. So I regressed. I turned away from any advanced level classes and went back to beginner and indermediate levels. Well, one teacher actually helped me realize all this - I doubt that I would have had the mental clarity (and honesty) to figure this out on my own :-) (I did sprinkle in some advanced classes in this summer. Sometimes it’s good to give the nervous system a bit of an overload - but I’ll leave that for an other post as well.) Again: Learning ballet does not have much to do with mastering ever longer and more complex combination (at least in the first few years) - it’s more about how much longer and longer you can sustain a good posture while doing any kind of steps.

So here we go, now you have it! Can you relate? ALL THAT SAID, do I really want to turn back time? Of course not. But realizing all these things and applying them now is STILL RELEVANT. And will be for a long while, I guess. I am sharing this to give you some food for thought, while knowing that learning ballet is a physically demanding, often emotionally overwhelming, and mentally taxing process. It’s trial and error - which means that realizations, learning successes, and insights often come from doing things the non-ideal way first, and then somehow stumbling on a better way.

So keep breaking into that holy territory, even if you don’t have it all figured out. Just don’t wear black slippers and you’ll be good.

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I am curious: Can you relate to these points? Is there something you wish you had known at the beginning or figured out sooner? Feel free to leave a comment or email me! I’d love to hear from you :-)