How long do you think does it take to get really good at ballet? (Let’s say “good” means approximately the level of a trained dancer.)
And is it possible to get good at all, for someone who started late, as an adult?
I remember a phase in my own ballet learning where I was completely obsessed with these questions. I would google them indefinitely. I wanted answers. I wanted proof and evidence that what I was attempting made sense and had a reasonable chance of success.
But there were no answers.
It actually seemed that in the vast World-Wide Web (yes, that’s an old term for Internet), these questions were not being covered. Which was weird, because I was so used to finding answers and examples and outliers to EVERYTHING on the Internet.
The curious thing was also that in other sports and physical activities, you would always find these outliers. People who achieved something unimaginable despite starting late (I am thinking Josh Waitzkin and his Tai Chi Chuan (Push Hands) success. Extreme example and incredible. Read his book The Art of Learning!)
So what was so different about ballet?
The answer to this question came to me slowly, only years after the frenetic Googling phase.
After diving way deeper into the art, after working with many different teachers, after seeing differences between ballet on two different continents, and after understanding more about the brain, aging (or the lack of it), and learning.
In a nutshell (drumroll): The problem is HOW ballet is taught to someone starting out as an adult.
Or, to say it differently: If you are relying on adult drop-in classes to learn ballet, they will most certainly fail you.
Why? What’s wrong with classes?
There is exactly nothing wrong with classes. We all know they are amazing, and there are amazing teachers out there.
But classes are simply not designed to teach you ballet to a high-level extent comparable to that of a trained dancer. 1) Mainly, because they simply do not provide enough repetitions of everything you need to learn. And 2) also, because they do not offer the time to really address the inside of your body (your anatomy and the biomechanics of positions). And 3) Because your muscles’ Time Under Tension (= the duration of your muscles tensing. Hitting a certain threshold is a requirement for strength gains and muscle growth) is not long enough to build significant strength (which is related to 1) and not enough repetitions).
No other sports activity teaches novice adults like that. Think about learning tennis, or martial arts, or golf. You can easily get tens and even hundreds of repetitions of a given and related movements within one practice session. Your repetitions quickly accumulate.
Not so in a ballet class. The choreographed and ritualistic sequence of a class is what we love about it, what makes it so meditative and lets us forget everything else - but it’s not exactly conducive to building skill quickly. It’s common to hit under ten repetitions of a given movement (for expample a pirouette, a jump, an arabesque) per class. You can see how much slower repetitions accumulate. And it gets worse. Because it doesn’t even necessarily accumulate when you don’t hit a certain threshold of repetitions within a certain time frame - so the training stimulus of a class might be too low to have any meaningful impact. Plus, if you don’t understand in full detail how to really execute a certain movement from the inside (which muscle sequence to fire) - your existing repetitions might prove even less effective.
Sooo….I think that’s why we don’t know how long it takes for an adult to reach the level and confidence of a trained dancer. Or that’s why we think it takes very long, if at all achievable in a late starter’s lifetime. Because we are growing up in a ballet learning paradigm that does not provide enough repetitions.
The message of all this is NOT, however, that your ballerina attempts are futile. Or that you should skip class.
Regular classes are still irreplacable because they provide the vocabulary you need to build the skill of a dancer. The crucial point is that you need to take care of your learning in a way that complements your regular classes intelligently and consistently. That is, if you want to become good at it. But if you are still reading this, that should be a pretty safe assumption, hehe.
So what is an adult ballet dancer with aspirations to do? Here are some practical implications:
Try to increase the number of repetitions during class, whenever you can. Instead of waiting during downtimes or when it’s time for your group - can you find space to go along with the other groups, or at least mark? Are there moments when the teacher is giving individualcorrections and you could sneak in a few more tendus or pirouettes? Don’t be shy. Don’t hold yourself back just because you don’t want to appear nerdy or obsessed. We ALL are obsessed.
Create a game plan for work outside of class. That doesn’t even have to be so much. If you can make time 2 to 3 times per week, for 15-30 Minutes, it will give your learning quite the boost. Set your focus on 2-3 things for several weeks, and then focus on something else. The important thing is to have a written plan, instead of just having it in your mind. Your mind will fail you in life’s busy pace.
Take privates if you have the means for it, simply because there is less of a formal structure to them. During privates you will typically dedicate chunks of time to working on a particular skill. Your teacher can break it down for you. You can go at your own pace.
Learn about the insides of your body. This is something that has become even more clear to me after the 2-week online course that I recently taught. I always thought that I was the only one craving more knowledge about how the inside of the body is actually working in the intricacy of ballet technique. But from the feedback and survey responses of my students I saw that it made a huge difference to most of them to actually see visuals of the bones and muscles involved. You don’t have to go too deep into it, you can get a simple (dance) anatomy atlas - but having an idea of the basic anatomy and biomechanics that is at play in your own body will 1) connect you more intimately with it and 2) make it easier for you to activate the correct and most efficient muscle sequences in every postion, step, and move.
Surround yourself with people of similar ambition. This can be a game changer. It can be hard to believe you can get really good if everyone else is maybe saying, but not actually living it. Immersion in an environment that applaudes and supports your aspirations and gives you the toolbox for it can make just the difference. Some of us are lucky and find it right away. Sometimes, this takes a bit of searching. In other cases, you may need to actively build it at different corners of the world and online. We thrive in like-minded communities, no matter what niche. So don’t be afraid to go out and look for those ballet-obsessed game rule changers like you!
My vision is that we will slowly create evidence. That’s one of the main reasons why I have decided to start teaching my courses and supporting other adult dancers no matter where you are (so you have 2)-5) from above list covered). I want to contribute to answers and confirmations: For how long it takes to get good, and that it’s shorter than we think. That it’s for sure possible within an adult’s lifetime. I want to support new vocational avenues and opportunities created by adult ballet dancers worldwide. Because why limit yourself to what you can do, when you can just as well take a shot at more?
Curious about your thoughts! Do you have a ballet “practice” outside of your regular classes? Do you do any specific strength work? What are your goals and aspirations as an adult dancer?