Help for the beginner ballerina.
September 13, 2014 1:30 PM   Subscribe

How can I best prepare for (and get the most out of) ballet as an adult beginner?

I took jazz and tap in junior high and high school and loved it. I always wanted to take ballet, but I was already years behind my dance school peers, so I never did. I loved dancing and performing, but I quit when I graduated high school and moved to another province. I gained a lot of weight in the years following and became really sedentary for way too long. In the last few years, I have increased my level of physical activity dramatically. My usual stuff is hooping, hiking, kettlebell classes, ultimate frisbee, and the occasional yoga class. I lost about 50lbs and could stand to lose 20 more, but I'm feeling pretty strong and fit these days.

Anyway, I just registered for adult beginner ballet classes. I'm familiar with some of the terminology and the basic structure of the classes from previous dance training but I have never done ballet before. And I'm really excited about it. So how should I best prepare? And how can I improve my strength and flexibility further for ballet specifically?

Also looking for your favourite blogs, podcasts, videos, and any other resources that could be helpful to an adult beginner returning to structured dance for the first time in 17 years. Thanks!
posted by futureisunwritten to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Awesome! I took ballet for the first time in my 30s, and I loved it. I do recall that some beginners experienced knee pain from the jumps. So if you are prone to knee pain, I would suggest doing exercises that strengthen the muscles (such as quads) that support the knees. I have no links to suggest specific exercises, but squats and lunges would likely be on that list!
posted by quixotictic at 1:43 PM on September 13, 2014 [3 favorites]

Good shoes.
posted by oceanjesse at 1:52 PM on September 13, 2014

I think the most important thing an adult ballet beginner can do is be very, very careful about form. Make sure to turn out from the hips and not the knees; it's better to have a correctly placed lower extension than a slightly off higher extension. If you are very careful with your form, it will really help you avoid injury.

I'd also recommend pilates - it will help you gain the strength needed for ballet a bit quicker than ballet alone.

Have fun!
posted by insectosaurus at 2:23 PM on September 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Hopefully your beginner ballet class will itself involve lots of exercises to improve strength and flexibility during class, which you could practice outside of class or ask your teacher for additional suggestions. That's what ballet class is all about: conditioning. You could keep an eye out for MORE in-person classes (seems like barre or floor barre classes focused on conditioning are getting popular for general fitness audiences these days, at gyms, yoga studios, or maybe the same place you're already taking ballet) or virtual options (unfortunately I don't know any to suggest, again maybe your teacher would.) Yoga seems like a good complement, so keep that up. I love for at home sessions. Stretches that increase your hip and psoas flexibility will probably be useful. In a dance class I used to take we would spend the last few minutes of class laying on our backs with one leg extended up into the air, using strips of cloth (like a yoga belt) around the foot to slowly open the leg/hip outwards and then back across the body. (Google psoas or hip or hip flexor stretches.) You probably know this but stretch when you're warm and don't be bashful at doing a little extra stretching after class if there's not another class in the studio immediately following.

Don't be afraid to ask for clarification if your teacher uses lots of a French terms without clarifying what the movement actually is. Also, hopefully your teacher will focus on the mechanics of the movements, what muscles you are using but not pushing you into unnatural alignment for the sake of "getting it right." Everyone's amount of turn out or plie is different and will change with practice.
posted by dahliachewswell at 2:30 PM on September 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

I briefly took ballet as an adult. I had taken it for a year as a kid, plus a lot of years of many other types of dances.

The teacher was very patient and it was really fun! Just do NOT plan to wear heels the day after your first class. My calves were killing me!
posted by radioamy at 4:04 PM on September 13, 2014

Hi, I went back to ballet in my 30s having not done it since I was 5. I really love it, here are my tips:

Most beginner classes will have a lot of barre work, and that is easy to practice at home holding onto a chair or countertop.

Use youtube after class to help you to learn the different positions (at least learn 1st, 2nd and 5th, it will help you in class). Your form is the most important thing - use a mirror to make sure you are keeping your hips tucked in and your arms are in the right place.

In class, lots of people go barefoot until they're sure they enjoy it so don't worry about shoes just yet. You can watch the person in front of you, and don't worry if you get lost or mess up, everyone does all the time in every class I've been to, and I've been going weekly for a couple of years now.

I only mention this because you mention your weight: you know how some yoga classes are full of crazy hippies and some are full of snobby trophy wives and some are normal people? And it just depends on the class? Ballet is kind of similar. One class I went to was full of anorexic 18yr olds (literally anorexic, I could actually count their ribs through their clothes from across the classroom and some had lanugo). There was a lot of loud comparing of bodies before and after class. I felt fat and old, and I'm neither. But I thought, oh well, that's ballet, and kept going. Later I changed to a class on a different day with the same teacher (for unrelated reasons), and it was just normal people. I really wish I'd changed sooner!
posted by tinkletown at 5:42 PM on September 13, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Woo! As a former pro, it's inspiring to see the growth in adult recreational ballet programs. Y'all are brave and crazy in the best way.

First: you're there to move! It's easy to get locked up, thinking about placement, muscle activation, all the tiny details. Make sure you spend time enjoying the music, feeling the physical flow, playing with musical accents, sweating with a group of happy people, and generally feeling like you're moving rather than making shapes.

Don't be afraid to make little adaptations. You can work in first position for a while to build up strength before you move to fifth, or use a less-crossed fifth (aka third) for the same reason. You can do things flat that are shown on rélevé. You can keep your legs low in extensions and work on placement. You can make grande pliés into demi-pliés.

The biggest source of knee and back problems is improper turnout. Be honest with yourself; don't over-turnout your feet. You might make a pretty position but as soon as you start to move, you'll be in trouble. Your knees should always line up with your feet when you plié.

Pilates will be helpful, but I wouldn't worry too much until you get into class. Part of the fun is setting goals for yourself and until you've been to a few classes you won't know where you want to get better.

Finally: your body is awesome, because it's yours. Enjoy this adventure and don't let anyone (or the studio culture) make you feel bad about your body. You're going to do such cool stuff with it!
posted by sixswitch at 9:27 PM on September 13, 2014

I've done adult ballet classes for years, and I agree with all the advice upthread. I'm just here to recommend The Joffrey Ballet School's Ballet-Fit book which is specifically geared towards adult beginner ballet students. It tells you what to expect from class, what to wear, gives you stretches and exercises to do at home, reviews all the technical terminology, etc. Very handy!
posted by deeparch at 6:48 AM on September 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

The one thing I wish someone had told me when I took ballet as an adult was this:

Body shaming of any sort from the instructor is not ok and if you're uncomfortable you can leave.

So I say it to you now.

Body shaming of any sort from the instructor is not ok and if you're uncomfortable you can leave.

I wish I had not stayed in that class for the three months I did.

Also, in between classes, practice tucking your butt and engaging your core (which is code for the much less graceful sounding 'suck in your gut,' but it is a good habit for improved posture.)
posted by tulip-socks at 9:07 AM on September 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Not too worried about body shaming in this class. This is the description of the class from their website. This particular school has primarily adult students (including many who have never danced before) and lots of my friends have done classes there. It's a very body positive place.

Great comments and insights all, thank you!
posted by futureisunwritten at 3:32 PM on September 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

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