Adults Are Rediscovering the Joy of Ballet

As a baby studying on the School of American Ballet, I supplemented my formal training with open ballet classes throughout Manhattan. These studios were populated by a combination of aspiring skilled dancers like me in addition to grown-ups of their thirties, forties and beyond, who clearly had no hope of going pro. They baffled me.

So far as I used to be concerned, ballet was a calling—a sometimes-painful obsession that governed my after-school hours, my summers, my relationship with food and free time. One thing it wasn’t was fun. I couldn’t fathom why these adults—who I imagined could pick from every kind of exciting activities, like watching R-rated movies or going to bars—would opt to spend a weekday evening practicing tendus and plies as an alternative.

That was almost 20 years ago. Since then, adult ballet has exploded. Through the Covid lockdown, star dancers like Tiler Peck began live-streaming free classes to 1000’s of scholars, including amateurs who is perhaps intimidated by a conventional ballet environment. Miami City Ballet veteran Kathryn Morgan racked up almost 300,000 subscribers on her YouTube channel, where she posts themed ballet classes (her Harry Potter-inspired pointe class has been viewed over 100,000 times) and breaks down tricky steps like partnered pirouettes and promenade. Peck and Morgan are a part of a cohort of dancers who, over the past several years, have helped demystify ballet—posting backstage selfies without perfect buns or pancake makeup and sharing rehearsal footage that may once have been closely guarded. Due to social media, even rarefied institutions have loosened their grip; even the Latest York City Ballet now posts tutorials inviting viewers to riff on Balanchine’s revered choreography.

 

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Just as these resources were becoming available, hundreds of thousands of individuals, confined to their apartments, were reevaluating their priorities and embracing recent risks: in a trend that continued into these semi-post pandemic YOLO days, we’re quitting stable jobs, rewriting dating checklists, and pursuing recent hobbies, embarrassment be damned. Ballet classes, many discovered, offer each a strenuous workout and a salve for anxiety. The subtle yet difficult movements require each mental and physical focus, and there’s comfort within the rituals of the barre—tendus after pliés, frappés after fondus. Distinguished studios across the country have risen to fulfill the demand, offering week-long adult intensives and even performance opportunities.

adult ballet

Allie Bishop rediscovered her childhood passion for dance after stumbling on ballet accounts on Instagram.

Courtesy Allie Bishop

One dancer who has availed herself of those recent resources is Allie Bishop, 34, who rediscovered her childhood passion for dance after stumbling on ballet accounts on Instagram seven years ago. She had just moved to “the center of nowhere” for her job, and—on the lookout for a approach to fill the lonely hours after work—signed up for a ballet class at an area studio. Soon, she was an everyday. “It’s stress relief,” Bishop says. With ballet, “I don’t feel like I’m figuring out, because I’m having fun with it a lot.” She invested in private lessons, installed a barre at home, and built up enough strength to go on pointe and even perform in an area Nutcracker. Certainly one of the highlights of her ballet journey to this point has been the week she spent in Salt Lake City on the artÉmotion adult intensive, where she got to learn solos from the classical repertoire, dance in a recital, and connect with other adult ballet students.

ArtÉmotion is the eagerness project of veteran Ballet West dancers (and stars of the short-lived, much-loved CW docu-series Breaking Pointe) Allison DeBona and Rex Tilton. The couple didn’t know what to anticipate once they launched this system in 2016, but “we had forty people, right off the bat,” DeBona says. “It was incredible.” Since then, it’s grown to serve 120 students across 4 levels, and offers jazz, contemporary, and acting classes in addition to ballet. DeBona and Tilton also teach at Ballet West’s preprofessional academy, but say there’s something uniquely rewarding about working with adults. “We’re not them as students, but as peers,” Tilton says. Without the pressure of trying to arrange them for a demanding skilled profession in an organization, they’ll give attention to growing their creative expression as an alternative of perfecting their technique. “We were each skilled for 15 years, and we run the room prefer it’s an expert class in an organization,” DeBona says. But “we actually need to remove that competitive environment. We wish to bring it back to art.”

Cecelia Beam, who has been specializing in adult ballet education for the reason that Eighties and now teaches adults through San Francisco Ballet’s school, also appreciates the mentality and life experience her students bring to the studio. “I even have writers and physicians and photographers,” she says. “A few of my students are 80 years old.” Whereas pre-professional teenagers are inclined to be intensely self-critical, adults “generally find great beauty in what they’re doing.” They aren’t trying to realize acceptance right into a certain summer program or placate an overzealous stage parent; they’re dancing purely for themselves, and difficult the notion that ballet is an all-or-nothing pursuit.

Like most one-time preprofessional students, my relationship with ballet, as an adult, is complicated. (So complicated that I just spent three years writing a book about it.) The movements feel like home, but—15 years after I officially quit—entering a ballet studio can still fire up old, painful feelings of failure and self-doubt.

So I used to be struck by the pure joy with which the adult beginners I interviewed spoke about ballet. “It takes you away from all of your problems and puts you in an incredibly mindful state along with your body,” says Julie Gill, who attended her first ballet class at 17—the age at which skilled ballet dancers are signing their first contracts. After college, Gill got a full-time job as a software developer, but she lived for the evenings, when she would take ballet classes or rent empty studios to practice on her own. “It gives you an entire recent world,” she says. Eventually, Gill quit her corporate job to show other adult students, and now runs the four-day International Adult Ballet Festival in Miami.

adult ballet

Patricia Pyrka found ballet at age 37 and now runs the blog, Ballet Misfits.

Courtesy Patricia Pyrka

“There’s something about ballet that’s just very calming to my nervous system,” says Patricia Pyrka, who discovered ballet at 37 and now runs the blog, Ballet Misfits. “Once I take a category within the morning, I keep that for the remaining of the day.” Pyrka had all the time been athletic, but ballet offered “a totally recent movement repertoire,” she says. “It was so fun to see what my body could do.”

Adult beginners sometimes face confusion and even stigma from the normal ballet community. When Bishop began posting videos of herself dancing on Instagram, she sometimes received bullying DMs from pre-professional students. “I had a few dance pages re-posting videos making fun of me,” she says. “There have been a few times I took my account back to personal.”

However the two groups have lots to learn from one another. With lower stakes and a stronger sense of self, the adults I spoke to had healthier boundaries around a few of the toxic features of traditional ballet culture. Once I asked Pyrka how she handled the pain of dancing on pointe, her answer surprised me: “If I had pain, then that meant something was off.” If a recent step or pointe shoe hurt, she didn’t blame herself or try to disregard it; she took it as an indication to decelerate or try a special approach. “I didn’t make any compromises there,” she adds firmly. As aspiring professionals, my classmates and I had assumed that pain was just a part of the deal. We admired dancers who pushed through injuries, and even took a masochistic pride in blisters and bloody toes; our suffering was proof of our commitment.

Don’t Think, Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet

Don't Think, Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet

Don’t Think, Dear: On Loving and Leaving Ballet

“Pain wasn’t a part of it,” agreed Gill, who began pointe work at age 19. They won’t realize how radical these statements sound to someone who grew up on the earth of competitive ballet.

Meanwhile, adult beginners are buying tickets to the ballet, donating to ballet firms, and enrolling their children in classes. “These individuals are so invested in dance,” says Tilton. “Instilling a passion in them really just keeps our art form moving.”

Headshot of Alice Robb

contributor

Alice Robb is the writer of Why We Dream (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018) and Don’t Think, Dear (HarperCollins, Feb 2023), which has been called “a fantastic, difficult, and compelling memoir” by Vanity Fair and “an elegantly incisive, meditative work” by Kirkus.

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