Apparently, ballet isn't just for kids.
This year, having recently retired from an academic career, I found that I had lots of free time. I had long intended to return to ballet after picking it up at aged 57 when my two daughters were students and I was attracted by the gentle, gracious movement to the accompaniment of mainly classical music, which I love. Given my very warm memories, I wanted to, but wondered whether this was feasible at the age of 70 – and after a 10-year lay-off?
Southern Ballet in Christchurch offers a class for adults who have previously reached an intermediate/advanced level of dance, and fortunately, also an absolute beginner class. I felt that, after attending four classes of the first class, a refresher course in basic hand and foot positions might not go amiss!
Ballet is widely regarded as producing numerous health benefits. Physically, it's meant to activate many smaller muscles and drastically improve posture. This class promised "fun, flexibility and fitness with the love of dance and ballet thrown in".
"Ballet originated in Renaissance Italian courts in the 15th century" explains the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre website. It thereafter spread to France, where it developed significantly, leading to the predominance of French in the vocabulary of ballet. It then reached Russia, where it flourished in the 19th and 20th centuries and continues to do so. Journalist Erin Blakemore wrote for history.com in an article, "Sexual Exploitation Was the Norm for 19th Century Ballerinas" that women entered the ballet as young children, training at the opera's dance school until they could snag a coveted position in the corps de ballet. Adult ballet classes are a more recent, late-20th century development, with recent years seeing significant growth of this phenomenon. Films such as The Black Swan and TV series featuring adults and ballet has encouraged this growth.
A 2015 study by Dance Aotearoa New Zealand (DANZ) says: "Dance continues to grow internationally as art and recreational form and one of the more recent growth areas is reported to be adult's ballet". This growth exists in New Zealand, where older people are being attracted to this form of exercise in increasing numbers. DANZ conducted a survey which determine the worldwide increase in adult ballet classes was evident in New Zealand and to the benefits sought by participants were "physical ones such as strengthening, posture, flexibility and stretching, or mental ones such as stimulation and challenge through to relaxation and escape".
Ballet isn't just cardio. Regular practice of ballet can give you just as much strength as training with small weights, says Judy Fisk a certified fitness instructor with decades of dance training writes for livestrong.com in an investigation into "How Does Ballet Help Your Fitness Level?".
Even professional ballerinas use the kind of ballet exercises used in beginning adult ballet classes to maintain their perfect posture. All newcomers to the English National Ballet are taught this basic, postural alignment says the English National Ballet's chartered physiotherapist, Jackie Pelly.
Learning ballet routines can keep your mind sharp – stretching not only your muscles, but also your memory. In a July 2013 article titled, "The Cognitive Benefits of Movement Reduction: Evidence From Dance Marking", researcher Edward Warburton, a former professional ballet dancer, found dancers can improve the ability to do complex moves by walking through them slowly and encoding the movement with a cue through "marking".
And recent studies show dance can increase your overall life satisfaction says Ruth Barnes, associate professor of dance and dance programme co-ordinator at Missouri State University.
My motives never included any health considerations, however I've discovered that poise, grace, and discipline are central to the class, making it an intensely physical and mentally demanding form of exercise.
This class starts with sitting and lying on the floor, doing stretching and relaxation exercises. Then follow exercises at the barre, comprising many half and full plies. Finally, the class moves to the middle of the studio, for more steps involving more movement.
Doing ballet is not easy. Thankfully I didn't find it difficult understanding the French terminology as I have had a working knowledge of French since my mid-20s. However, it requires very slow, carefully considered movements. Balance is crucial – and elusive – and stretching is endless. Though the stretching exercises are strenuous, they are necessary and I believe that they are good for my body and overall level of fitness.
Doing ballet is a great source of relaxation for me. I feel exhilarated and sometimes, as if I am flying.
I am very pleased I moved back to a beginner's-level class, as I am relishing the opportunity to relearn the technical basics of ballet at a slower pace.
I love every moment of my ballet classes. When I put my ballet shoes on, I am transformed into a different world – one of exquisite, gentle, graceful, beautiful movement. Usually accompanied by classical music, it can be achingly beautiful…moving the body in time to the music to reflect myriad feelings, ranging from sad to ecstatic.
Although I am dancing at a very basic level, I do not in any way feel deprived or frustrated. The joy of gentle, gracious movement is what has, still does and will continue to inspire me!