Raising the Barre

Raising the Barre

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Say Hello to a Better Body!

Raising the Barre

I knew this would not be a typical ballet class when I looked down the row of ballerinas in pink tights and black leotards and saw several with gray hair. One or two had the posture, taut muscles, and lifted chins of the younger students. Others, like me, bulged in places.

Could a fifty-eight-year-old woman — devastated by mononucleosis for the past year, out-of-shape, and overweight — do ballet? Did I want to?

Yes. After weeks of lying in bed, I decided to take up ballet. I bought an exercise video put out by the New York City Ballet in which a soothing man’s voice led me gently through stretches, pliés (slight knee bends), relevés (raising up on the toes), and tendus (pointing the toe out to the side) with lots of additional floor exercises before some final leaps and then relaxing steps. All this movement was done with classical music in the background. Starting out slowly, doing only the first few stretching sections on the tape, I built up to following the dancers through the whole hour.

I soon saw the unique advantages of ballet for the aging body. The slow stretches elongated my limbs and joints and kept me flexible. Most of the steps were traditional positions that emphasized the correct form rather than speed and power. This helped me focus on controlling my muscles, not just using them. Standing on one foot, while lifting the other, helped with balance. And a surprising bonus was that learning the steps helped my memory.

When I wanted to move beyond the basic steps on the tape, I found a low-impact ballet class for adults in my town. Would they let me in? Yes, if I bought the uniform and paid my money.

Unlike the tape, this class offered the advantage of a long bar, known as a barre. It ran the length of the room, about waist-high. The “disadvantage” was that it faced a wall of mirrors.

We lined up sideways against the barre with one hand on it, all facing the same direction. I shyly stepped to the back of the line. The teacher, Ms. Jones, turned on the traditional ballet music with beats we should follow to be in sync, and led us through the basic foot positions and arm placement, sometimes linking the two into actual dance sequences. However, to my aging ears her voice blended in with the loud music and echoes of moving feet on a solid floor. I found myself mostly following the woman in front of me. Then we turned. Instead of hiding at the back of the line, I was now at the front! I really was lost. I’m sure the woman behind me did not try to follow my steps. Ms. Jones soon moved me to the middle of the line.

This experience made me realize that the live class had a big advantage over the tape. I had to think because I didn’t know what was coming. I also had to concentrate on the beats of the music. I had memorized the dancers’ movements on the tape and became adept at them. Now, I had to learn, move, and listen all at once because the routine changed every class. It was a welcome challenge.

Fortunately, after a few classes, the positions and steps became a little easier. But Ms. Jones did not cut us any slack. Despite the fact that we were never going to become professional ballerinas she insisted we do the steps correctly, just as she did her younger students. I appreciated her attitude. She did not lower her standards because of our age. Nor did she give us a pass for making the effort to simply show up. Of course, she did not expect the impossible. She did not expect us to do splits or dance on pointe. However, she would physically take my foot and say, “You can do better than that! You have very good feet for ballet. POINT your toes,” as she pushed them farther than they had planned to go. Other students, too, found their knees pushed higher than they had meant to lift, or arms guided to the proper angle.

As the semester progressed, I began to know the other students. One lady in her seventies said, “I started taking ballet for my arthritis and neck problems several years ago. It helps so much.” Her years of practice showed in her posture and lifted chin. Another woman in her thirties or forties said, “I take classes while my children are in theirs. It really helps with the stress and gives me some time for myself.” The most surprising comment came from a strikingly beautiful young woman in her twenties with a perfect body and face. At her age, I was exhausting myself doing two aerobic classes or competing on the tennis court. She said, “I love this class. It’s the perfect workout. I leave feeling I’ve had just the right amount of exercise.”

By the end of the year, I felt fitter, more flexible, and healthier from the physical exercise. And I was uplifted by expressing myself in an art form while striving for a goal set at a high “barre.”

~ Joan Hetzler ~

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