Should You Skip Class? Four Best Practices of High-Level Ballet Obsession in Normal Adult Life [GUEST POST]
It’s a guest! I am so happy to introduce you to Olivia, a highly dedicated and smart adult ballerina who caught my attention on Instagram: Her thoughtful posts and comments. Her commitment to ballet excellence while refusing to accept that there are limits to what adults can achieve. All that and her interesting ways of integrating workout time into a full-time work and social life make her a great fit for this blog! So I reached out to her. When I asked if she would be up for sharing her ways of doing in a guest article, she was immediately game for it. I hope you enjoy her thoughts as much I did!
I was thrilled when Patricia asked me to contribute to her blog, which has become an invaluable resource for adult ballet dancers. In many ways, ballet is my life. I live and breathe dance, and my after-work ballet classes are often the highlight of my day. It didn’t always used to be this way—it took several years of trial and error to find the role ballet should play in my life, all the while balancing school, a fulltime job, and other “adult responsibilities.”
How does ballet become such an integral part of your life as an adult? And how do you deal with a world that thinks you’re crazy for taking class and working out every day? Patricia has asked me to reflect on these questions and share
ways in which I’ve built ballet into everyday life,
how I’ve taken responsibility for my own training, and
how I maintain a social life and deal with people who question my high commitment to training and the many classes per week.
While I’m certainly not the greatest dancer or the most prolific adult ballerina Instagrammer, I do hope that by sharing my best practices I am able to help some of you find that coveted ballet-life balance!
When you don’t love it anymore, quit. – My ballet story
Adult ballerinas often fall into one of two camps – those who started ballet for the first time as adults, and those who danced in childhood/adolescence but took significant time away from the art form. I am in that latter group. I danced ballet from the ages of 5 to 15, six of those years in relatively serious training (I was never full time). I danced en pointe and had the opportunity to join my school’s junior company, which allowed me to perform in show cases and take on small roles in The Nutcracker. Ballet took up 90% of my free time for many years. And then I quit. For a decade. A number of factors pushed me away from dance—my father was very sick; advanced classes in school kept me up at night with homework; other extra curriculars consumed me—but the biggest reason was that I simply burned out and fell out of love with dance. At the time, quitting was the right decision for me. Ballet can be an expensive and all-consuming activity, so if you aren’t really in love with it, it may be time to take a break. I don’t regret quitting, but I do regret taking so long to come back.
I took a couple of ballet classes in college, but it didn’t last. For one, I pulled a hamstring soon after restarting. The injury was serious and necessitated another break from dance, but if I’m being honest, I used the injury as an excuse to stave off my “real” return. My first classes back did not meet my expectations – everything was a struggle, and clearly my muscle memory had failed me. I knew at one point I had danced seriously and could, you know, do stuff, but I really didn’t want to start from the bottom up again. Generally speaking, adults are bad at being bad at things.
Well, almost exactly 10 years after quitting in high school, I decided to swallow my pride and take a beginner’s class. And as they say, the rest is history.
1. Finding the sweet spot: How many classes should I take and how?
When I came back to dance, I started off slow, only taking one or two classes per week. I remember overhearing some women in the locker room talking about how you really need to take 3-4 classes per week to see real progress. At the time I thought, “well, how the hell do you do that?” You also might be thinking the same thing.
They key for me has been to start slow, but be consistent. If you’re starting ballet from the beginning, there might not be too many classes available to you at your level. I am blessed to belong to a studio that has several classes each week for 4-5 levels, but I know that’s not everyone’s reality (more on this later).
There’s no magic number for how many classes or hours of ballet you should take per week, because at the end of the day, it’s a very individual thing. That being said, If you want to improve, you probably do need at least 2 classes per week each week. I have found that currently my “magic number” is 4-5 classes/week. Fewer than that and I feel unfulfilled. More than that and I have difficulty recovering sufficiently. This number may change over time –part of being an adult ballet dancer is to constantly evaluate your progress/health and figure out what works best for you at that moment in time.
As an adult, you probably don’t have student evaluations like teenagers do to get feedback on your dancing progress. If you want to improve, it’s up to you to talk to your teachers about your level of dance, what you should work on, etc. If you only have time to take one or two classes a week, it’s important to make those classes count!
Make sure your time in the studio is your time. Of course, socialization is a fun part of any ballet class, but remember that you’re ultimately there to work. Pay attention to the teacher. Try not to let any “outside thoughts” creep in while you’re dancing. Write down your corrections after class. Save the chit-chat for some post-class coffee. Regardless of how you ultimately do it, try to absorb as much during class as you can.
2. The key to progress: Your training outside the studio
What you do outside of class matters just as much as what you do during class. As I mentioned, some of you, for whatever reason, might not have the ability to take several ballet classes per week. For you, consistency is especially important (better to go each week than multiple times in sporadic bursts), and so is what you do outside of class.
Cross-training is essential. Mandatory, in my opinion. Old standbys like Pilates, yoga, and gyro are perfectly suited for dancers, but I’m of the belief that you can make any workout benefit your dancing. I personally love weightlifting. I also do Pilates twice a week, ride stationary bikes, and do some sort of turnout/floor barre/conditioning workout almost every single day. All in all, I’d say I fit in 8-10 hours of exercise each week in addition to the 6-8 hours of ballet.
Now, the caveats here are that I am a crazy person obsessed with working out, and I also don’t have kids or many responsibilities outside of working full time. Still, I am meticulous about my schedule. I plan out all my workouts/ballet classes a week in advance. I get in an extra conditioning workout during my lunch hour. I forego socializing during lunch and happy hours after work to get all my workouts/classes in. I recognize that not everyone wants to/can do this, but I still believe that regardless of how much you want to exercise, planning ahead and sticking to that plan is key.
My advice is to figure out ahead of time what muscles you need to work, what your weak areas are, etc., and dedicate time each week to work on them. Put it in your calendar. Set an alarm. Do what you need to do. And again, if you’re new to cross-training or working out, start slow. Better to do a little something each week than to do a lot and then burn out and stop.
What you eat also matters. Patricia has already written a great post here on the adult ballerina body, so I won’t attempt to further contribute to that discussion. I’m also not a dietician, so I won’t provide specific diet advice either. All I will say is that you should think of food as fuel for your body. If you eat garbage all the time, chances are you will feel like garbage all the time. No, you’re not a professional dancer and don’t need to worry about weighing a certain amount or eating a specific diet, but you do need to take care of yourself if you want to improve.
3. Turn competitors into friends: Making ballet your community
Once you’ve figured out your schedule both in and out of the studio, the next step in ensuring “ballet-life balance” is to make the ballet world your community. When I first returned to dance, I was pretty asocial and did not make much of an effort to get to know other dancers. Slowly but surely, I connected with dancers who felt the same way about ballet that I did, and this made a huge difference in my motivation.
Making friends with other dancers was intimidating at first, but I’m glad I pushed through my own discomfort because the results have been totally worth it! It might sound silly, but dancewear was the ultimate bonding tool for me. Believe me when I say that nothing brings people together more than a shared obsession with online shopping. My friends and I like to joke about how in the beginning we didn’t really like each other (because we are competitive people and were a little jealous of each other’s dance abilities). Now we consider each other not just our biggest competitors, but our biggest fans. Seeing my friend nail a triple pirouette fills me with simultaneous envy and pride. The lovely thing about dance friends is that you can use them as motivation to improve, but also rely on them for much-needed emotional support.
I look forward to my weekly post-class coffees with my besties, during which we discuss that week’s classes in what I swear is a minute-by-minute breakdown. Having dance friends helps validate my feelings towards dance. After all, who else can understand the desire to spend so much time, effort, and money on something that is decidedly not your job? (Plus, because I’ve got my girls, it saves my magnificent, awe-inspiring boyfriend* from having to listen to two hours of ballet chat each night.) [*Ed. note: Boyfriend’s edit :-)]
I didn’t have many ballet friends growing up, and I think that was a major factor contributing to the burnout I experienced as a teen. And while it’s great to have friends in real life, Instagram can also be a wonderful place to find other adult ballet dancers. The adult ballet community, be it IRL or online, is wonderfully supportive and diverse. Going through something that I know my friends are going through, too, helps keep me motivated, even during times of frustration. Approaching new people can be scary, especially in the seemingly tight-knit world of dance, but remember that you stand among people who love dance as much as you do. And though you might find the occasional dance snob here and there, most people are more than happy to welcome you to their circle.
4. “But can’t you just skip class tonight?” – Interacting with non-dancers
Now that we’ve discussed the importance of finding other like-minded dancers, it’s time to address your non-dancer loved ones, coworkers, peers, etc. This, I’ve found, is one of the most challenging aspects of being an adult dancer. Ballet is different from most adult hobbies in that in order to improve, you generally need to consistently attend class several times a week. Unlike Yoga or spin class, you can’t just sporadically drop in a few times a month. Ballet demands your time, and we’re all too happy to give in to its demands. So where does that leave everyone else?
While I’d say the vast majority of people I interact with are impressed with the dedication I give my “hobby” (for lack of a better term), it can still be a challenge to justify my love for ballet to non-dancers. I’ve heard everything from accusations of Stockholm Syndrome , to gasps of shock when I despair over the cost of pointe shoes, to “but can’t you just skip class tonight?”. I get it, I do. Most adults don’t spend 8+ hours a week on one specific hobby, especially one as physically demanding as ballet. But at the same time, it can be frustrating to repeatedly assure others that 1) no, I am not in a cult, and 2) I understand that I had class yesterday, but I also have it today!
The ballet-life balance differs from person to person. In most occasions, I will not skip class to go to happy hour, but you might – and that’s ok! The most important part here is that you set expectations with your non-dancer friends, coworkers, etc. ahead of time so that they know that you’re not just blowing them off in favor of your “hobby.” I let everyone know my dance schedule ahead of time, and at this point, most of my friends know that my refrain to their social invitation will be, “No, I have class.” I set the same expectations with my boyfriend (fortunately as a couple of introverts who have been together for 6 years, this is a non-issue).
I am very, very lucky to have supportive friends and colleagues. My boyfriend is always encouraging me to dance as much as I want to and is the first one to set up a foot bath for me or buy me a new leo when he stops by Yumiko in NYC. Many of my friends and coworkers have told me that they admire my devotion to ballet, some lamenting the fact that they wish they had continued an activity they once loved doing back before they became adults .
But what about those who aren’t so supportive? I’ve been asked, “But what are you hoping to get out of ballet if you’re not professional?” and “Why can’t ballet just be a hobby and not a passion?” I’m sure many of you have been on the receiving end of these and similar questions, and I admit, it can be hard not to get defensive. In times like these, I like to remember how lucky I am to have a passion outside of my work (even though I love my job too). I’d argue most adults don’t have that. Also, remember that ballet is a different beast because of the physical, mental, and emotional demands it exacts. You’ve got to really love the process, or you’ll burn out. At a certain point, you’ve just got to stop caring about what people think of you. While I don’t believe you need a specific body type to do ballet, you’ve definitely got to have the mental strength to do it.
To recap, here’s what I believe you need in order to make sure ballet stays a meaningful part of your life:
1. Figure out how much time you want to dedicate to class each week and stick with it (as best you can). Remember that consistency is key. The “a little a lot is better than a lot a little” sentiment applies. Be present during class; take notes after.
2. Use your time outside the studio in meaningful ways. Stay in shape and watch how you fuel your body.
3. Build a community around your dance life, in IRL or online. Having dancer friends will save you from burnout, keep you motivated, and make ballet all the more rewarding.
4. Set expectations with non-dancers ahead of time. Let them know when you’ve got dance and stick with the schedule you’ve set. Ultimately, you need to decide when you want to prioritize dance over having a social life (and when you don’t)! Stop caring about what others think of your passion and commitment.
I hope this was helpful to those of you struggling to find your own perfect ballet-life balance. All you adult ballet dancers are a constant source of inspiration for me and I look forward to seeing this community grow! If you have questions or need an ear, find me at @bunheadlivi on Instagram.