Learning ballet as an adult is a chance to return to our bodies, to be true beginners again. It's an escape from work stress, a departure from overscheduled lives and a way to build confidence that you, too, can learn a new skill.
“Don’t apologize,” said my ballet teacher. “We do enough of that outside of class.”
It was a week into adult beginning ballet at Greenwood’s American Dance Institute (ADI), and a student had let out a knee-jerk apology for a small error during warmup. I would remember our teacher’s almost casually empathetic response for the rest of the course, and its underlying message: Anyone who wants to dance can, and anyone who practices can get better.
That ethos isn’t just an empty reassurance for beginners. It’s what lies at the heart of beginning ballet classes for adults. It also happens to be true.
“Interestingly enough, I have had many women start ballet classes at the beginning level and are now dancing en pointe,” says Elizabeth Chayer, who opened ADI 30 years ago. “Not that that is the goal for most folks starting adult ballet classes, but the point is, it is never too late to start, and they can progress as far they want to progress.”
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Chayer came to ballet late herself — she took her first ballet class in college to fulfill a PE requirement. “I had no delusions of becoming a prima ballerina starting as an adult, but I found it such a beautiful, invigorating and fun way to stay in shape,” she says. “So much more rewarding than going to the gym, dancing actually brought me joy! Adults just need to find a school that offers a truly beginner class that will assume they know nothing, takes them from ground zero and goes slow enough to build a solid foundation.”
Absolute beginning ballet classes like the one Chayer describes can be found almost everywhere, often with that exact wording. They’re specifically for adults who have never taken ballet before, or who once danced and are returning. In the first absolute beginning ballet class I ever took, the instructor reminded us at the beginning of every class that our level was for people who had never taken ballet before, as if to quietly encourage those with more experience to leave. From ADI to Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB) to The Ballet Studio in the University District (which only teaches adults), these spaces tend to be welcoming and warm and to attract students of all fitness levels and body types — exactly the opposite of what many might expect from ballet.
“I think that ballet has a stigma of being very elitist and not very accepting, and I think that at this point, especially with the conversations that are happening in the dance world right now, I think that we are recognizing the challenges around access to dance and ballet specifically,” says Kiyon Ross, who retired as a soloist with PNB in 2015 and has been on faculty at the company’s school for the past three years.
“I think that what we’re trying to do … is to open our doors and make sure that people know that we’re interested in anyone who is interested in learning to dance, be that our 9-year-old student who’s never taken ballet, or our 45-year-old student who’s never taken ballet.”
Ross shares Chayer’s enthusiasm, and talks about ballet in a way that I’m pretty sure would convert me to dancing if I hadn’t already begun, saying things like, “Anyone can learn to dance. Anyone can learn to do ballet,” with such cheerful conviction that it makes you feel almost like you’ll disappoint him if you doubt yourself. Ross teaches both students in PNB’s school and adults in its open program. That means dancers in his classes are “anywhere from ages 9 to, like, 65,” he says, with a laugh. “So it’s a huge range.”
Like Chayer, Ross says that progress isn’t just possible for adult students, but almost inevitable. “I think that anybody who does anything for an extended period of time — especially people who are passionate about what they’re doing, or interested in what they’re doing — improvements are just par for the course,” he says.
And for adults, a growing mastery of ballet technique has benefits outside of the dance studio — it makes everyday movements like bending over to tie your shoes or carry a heavy box easier, says Ross — no small thing, given that these both become more difficult with age.
“As you take ballet, I think what you find is that you get to know your body in a different way than you’ve ever known it,” says Ross. “And I think that those things, they’re not only good for ballet, but they also translate into regular life.”
And though you might assume that dance teachers would prefer to work with young students in preprofessional programs than adults with no hope of a career in dance, Ross says this isn’t the case. He says he loves teaching all of his students, but that “Working with adults brings me a different kind of joy, because these people, they are here because they love to move their bodies, they love to dance. And that really resonates with me, because I came to dancing quite late.”
Ross started ballet when he was 13, which is indeed considered late by industry standards. The art form “just really connected with me, on a sort of internal level,” he says, and he sees that love of dance reflected in his adult students.
ADI’s Chayer says adults actually have an advantage when it comes to picking up ballet technique. “The adults learn more quickly than the kids do so we can get a lot more done with an adult class,” she says. “What it takes us a year to do with the kids, we can do in a month with the adults.”
While ballet may be good for your posture, and maybe someday you’ll go en pointe, there’s something else to be gained from these classes, something that I suspect I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate if I had started dancing when I was younger.
When I walked into my first ballet class a year and a half ago, I didn’t know how to do anything. I was 29, ancient in dance years. My alignment and turnout were, by ballet standards, objectively terrible. But my looming 30th birthday was the memento mori I needed to revive an abandoned childhood dream. And as soon as we started our exercises at the barre, I knew I would be back.
Ballet may be a route to a career for students in schools like the one at PNB, but for adults, it’s something else: an escape from work stress, a departure from overscheduled lives and an anxiety-provoking news cycle. It’s a chance to return to our bodies, to be true beginners again — something rarely available to adults.
Ballet is hard, and it sometimes hurts. But when I walked out of my first class — feeling like my brain had emerged from a restorative vacation, and like I’d grown physically taller than I had been on the way in — I felt a bittersweet collision of emotions that have followed me to the barre ever since: immediate regret that I’d waited so long to try something that made me so happy, and relief that I could still have years of dancing ahead of me — that it wasn’t too late.
I’m not alone. Since I’ve started taking dance, I’ve met a number of adult ballerinas in class and in my everyday life. These women tend to be in their 40s and 50s, smart and driven. Their stories are remarkably similar and typically go like this: They had always wanted to dance, and so, in their early 30s, in some wholesome variation on a mid-life crisis, they realized they had a choice. They could feel wistful about ballet for the rest of their lives, or they could begin. They chose to begin.
And with teachers like Chayer and Ross, and numerous adult ballet programs across the city, there’s no reason not to. “I always tell [my students] to be courageous,” says Ross. “You’ll never know if you like something; you’ll never know if you’re good at something unless you actually put yourself out there and try to do it.”