When I was 28 or 29, I started a dance blog with a friend that we called “Ballet After 30.” My friend was just over 30 and shared a similar background to mine; we had both trained at pre-professional ballet schools until young adulthood but ultimately left ballet behind to pursue other careers. When we met in our twenties, we bonded over our shared history and our enduring, somewhat complicated identities as former ballet dancers. At the time that we started the blog (a thankfully short-lived tumblr that morphed into a successful podcast project), I didn’t yet completely identify with the sentiment implied in the title; I didn’t fully understand the striking difference between squeezing a ballet class into your hectic life as a busy twenty-something, and attempting to do the same as a thirty-something. Certainly, I could feel myself drifting farther and farther from the ballet shape I’d been in at my eighteen year-old prime, but my interest in the topic of “ballet after 30” had more to do with celebrating the often under-appreciated ways in which one could contribute to the world of ballet even after, or having never pursued, a professional career. My interest was in the way ballet seemed to permanently transform your soul, flowing through you year after year even while coming unmoored from the rest of your adult identity, fading into the background, until one day you heard a snippet of Chopin or walked into a theater, and it all came flooding back bearing a sense of loss.
I am now 35. Before last week, I had not been to ballet class in two years (with the semi-exception of a few wan attempts at virtual barre during COVID quarantine). Despite countless renewals, over the past decade, of a firm promise to myself that I would start attending class regularly, the only consistency in my practice as an adult has been inconsistency. I’m perpetually on hiatus, perpetually breaking my hiatus with one or two classes before my schedule runs away with me again. Ballet is a difficult activity to fit into a busy life, and it requires a not-insignificant burst of motivation to get yourself back in front of a mirror in a leotard and tights knowing that, no matter what spiritual renewal you may ultimately come away with, you will spend that time in class feeling acutely aware of your limitations. So it was not without some routine trepidation that I dragged myself to the studio last week. And while I didn’t need another class to confirm just how far I’d fallen, the experience definitely solidified some of my observations from over the years of what it is to try to keep up with ballet as a non-professional adult who doesn’t really have time – but can never feel quite right without it.
There are, as I’ve come to see it, four core pillars that uphold the practice of ballet: strength, stamina, flexibility, and technique. Technique stands apart from the other three because it is deeply embedded in the body’s muscle memory and therefore harder to lose than the others. It was early in my attempted adult practice that I came to really understand this distinction. You can think of technique as ballet’s collection of “rules” governing the way you move your body in order to achieve extremely specific results. You hold your fingers just so, the thumb and middle finger tucked in as though to touch – but not actually touching. You rely on your hamstrings to originate the motion of your legs, not your quads. You relax your hip flexors and use the surrounding muscles instead. And no matter what unnatural feats your legs are pulling off at any given moment, you do not move your hips. Etc. Etc. It takes years of practice and a rigorous training schedule to develop the technique, not to mention the strength to support it and the stamina to keep it up through an entire ballet (or even a single class). And while it’s one thing to understand all of this intellectually, it’s quite another to experience the simultaneous miracle and frustration of a technique that remains intact while the elements that support it fade away. My body knows how to place itself and how to move, but without the other three pillars, it doesn’t have the same ability to execute on that knowledge, to carry out the movement correctly and keep it up over the course of a class.
Interestingly, my strength, stamina and flexibility have disintegrated at totally different rates and on a completely non-linear trajectory. Stamina was the first to go, dropping markedly early on and never really seeming to gain ground again. The rest of my physical decline from “ballet shape” was relatively gradual until, starting around – you guessed it – age 30, I encountered a more noticeable series of sharp drop-offs.
My flexibility has taken the biggest hit most recently. This “pillar” has actually always been a problem for me; it’s one of the key reasons I didn’t pursue a professional dance career. So it came as no surprise that the flexibility I spent hours every day working to maintain as a teenager dropped off immediately when I left that training schedule behind. Still, I maintained a baseline level of flexibility throughout my 20s that, while nothing impressive, gave me more range than the average person and doubtless helped safeguard me from injury. I never thought to question that baseline until, a year or so ago, I realized my muscles were feeling much tighter than usual on a day-to-day basis. When I spent time stretching, it didn’t last; my muscles tightened up again almost immediately. To draw upon the infinite wisdom of a cocktail napkin I saw a few weeks ago, it turns out “rock bottom has a basement.” (And I’m probably not even there yet!) I stretched for an hour before last week’s class, and my battement still felt stiff and constrained.
Of course, lifting your leg to a minimum of 90 degrees (the height at which it forms a 90-degree angle with your “standing leg”) in a controlled and graceful manner requires a unique combination of flexibility and strength. And what I once possessed of that crucial combination seems to be, well, pretty much just completely gone! It was several years ago, in my first class back after a typical hiatus, that I was startled to notice the adagio combination had gone from difficult and unpleasant to something much closer to outright impossible. By now, if feels like I simply cannot lift my leg above 45 degrees, and even then I have to sacrifice my technique by squeezing my hip flexor and my quad to force the action. Blatantly relying on those muscles feels so wrong that I can hardly bring myself to do it, which is probably for the best but also means I’ve been reduced to basically faking my way through adagio and grand battement.
I find myself feeling thankful for porte de bras (the carriage/movement of the arms, head and shoulders), which, requiring minimal muscular force and being rooted mostly in technique, is the one element it’s easy to maintain with near perfection – and that you can therefore rely on to provide the impression of real dance happening while the rest of the body muddles through! Luckily, focusing on your porte de bras is also the key to experiencing the pure joy of expression that ballet has a way of unearthing, surprisingly universally across levels of skill, training and practice.
And that’s the funny thing about ballet. In the end, that joy wins out. Your strength depleted, your flexibility shot, your stamina long since flown the coop, your self-image humbled by the state of your erstwhile capabilities, and your reserves of technique exhausted from holding it all together — somehow, still, nine times out of ten, you emerge from the ordeal of a 90-minute class feeling … at peace. You become aware of the quiet hum that started building deep inside you as soon as you walked into class and blocked out the world to focus on your first plié. And you realize that that hum is the sense of being complete at last, at having broken through the tangles of everyday angst and uncertainty to a clarity beyond.
“You wander from room to room / hunting for the diamond necklace that is already around your neck.” (Rumi) I repeat this to myself like a mantra whenever I’m feeling out of sorts. I try to translate my brain’s intellectual understanding of the idea into an emotional resonance. I never quite get there, never quite manage to push myself over the crest of my worries to that sweet acceptance on the other side. Never, that is, until I hobble out of the ballet studio on shaking legs, spent and sweaty, old and out-of-shape and imperfect. And yet, as at every stage of ballet in my life thus far, firmly grounded in myself. Whole. Renewed. Joyful.