More than once, when I'm sporting my faded, well-loved ballet hoodie, some slight variation of this conversation ensues:
"Is your daughter the dancer?"
"Actually," I say, "I am."
"Wow!" they enthuse. "Who do you dance with? Or have you retired...?"
"I don't dance with a company. I'm not a professional. I just take classes."
Insert mic drop/record scratch/quizzical looks.
Adult ballet dancers are a big question mark. Former professional? No. Dance teacher keeping up her technique? Hardly. Like a handful of adult dancers I know, I started ballet as a kid. I liked it okay but quit when I discovered singing and theater. My interest was resurrected in college, thanks to a professor who treated us like real dancers, not just kids looking to round out their academic load with electives. From that point on, I was hooked and took class on and off throughout my 20s and 30s.
About four years ago, when my daughter was a toddler, I had more time to devote to classes. After getting lots of "Sorry, we don't have classes for adults," I landed at The Brookline Ballet School near Boston, where I was challenged alongside students of all ages, from teens to 60-plus. I loved everything about class—from the first plié to my stilted saut de chat. My skills were woefully rusty, and it took a couple of years to make it from barre to grand allégro without feeling like my legs were going to fall off.
But even though I was progressing at a pretty good clip, I could never shake the feeling that I was kind of a joke, that adult students are an afterthought, in a placating, "Aw, that's cute" way. My teachers took us seriously, so why didn't others?
It didn't help that, a few days before my first pointe class for adults, I called a dancewear boutique about a shoe fitting and got the irksome question. Again.
"For your daughter?" the saleswoman asked.
"Nope. For me." I remembered how a former bunhead/acquaintance huffed when I told her I'd love to do pointe work one day. "Adults," she smirked, "have no business wearing pointe shoes." Her remark inferred that I was simply going to slip into a pair of Blochs and flail around like some wannabe ballerina. Of course, I knew that pursuing pointe meant ensuring I had the proper leg and ankle strength assessed by a teacher familiar with training adults. There would be hours and hours spent at the barre, doing more relevés than I could count. But I looked forward to savoring each wobbly échappé and piqué—even if the people in my life couldn't understand why a 45-year-old woman would devote so much time to something she would never, ever master.
Fortunately, there are teachers who relish older students. Kathy Mata, of Alonzo King LINES Ballet | Dance Center in San Francisco, is revered in the adult dance community. Wanting to give adults the chance to experience performing in front of an audience, she started Kathy Mata Ballet in 1988 and produces multiple shows a year.
Kat Wildish, a ballet teacher in New York City, gives her adult students opportunities to perform classical repertoire as part of a showcase held three weekends per year. They've grown from a 20-person studio audience in 2008 to frequently sold-out shows.
Mata feels that adults can bring a lot to ballet, and they shouldn't be overlooked as potentially powerful performers. "They have maturity and knowledge of life events—they really yearn to dance to fill their souls. Children sometimes follow the teacher, but the adult has the wisdom to digest the material given," says Mata.
The adults where I currently train, at Open Door Studios, in Charlotte, North Carolina, are all about soaking in corrections. We pepper our teachers with questions about arm placement or piqué turns, or laugh about striving to touch our legs to our ears with each grand battement. While I often default to what my body isn't able to do yet (multiple pirouettes, a penché to die for), I am hopeful, dedicated and determined.
The funny thing is, my now-6-year-old takes ballet. "Just like you," she says. That's right. Just like me.