Teaching an old swan new tricks

Welcome to hell ladies,” he says in an Eastern European accent. I grimace as he presses down on my stiff upper back attempting to coax out an extra millimetre of flexibility. I’m finally ticking ballet class off my bucket list, but now I’m wondering what possessed me to do this.

This piece about my foray into adult ballet is a slightly edited version of the one published in the Canadian newspaper The Globe & Mail (Aug.19,2020). It’s a departure from my usual topics in this blog, but what’s usual these days? Hope you enjoy it.

When I was a little girl in the late 60s, I begged my mother to let me take ballet class. I loved the pink tutus, the pretty buns, the dreams of gracefully dancing across the stage like the Swan Princess. She sent me off to figure skating and Brownies and yet, for some reason that’s still a mystery to me, she wouldn’t budge on ballet lessons. 

With the distractions of teenagehood and then the demands of adult life, thoughts of taking ballet lessons were put on hold. But every so often, usually while watching an inspired performance of Swan Lake, those little pangs of unfulfilled desire would speak up and say: You should take lessons before it’s too late.

And here I am— fifty years after pleading with my mother—finally taking the plunge.

The class is called Absolute Beginner Adult Ballet and I’m a good 30 years older than the rest of the participants. Our instructor (Mr. C) is trained in Classical Russian Ballet and has had an illustrious dancing career. He’s an imposing figure with piercing eyes, a clean-shaven head and form-fitting, black attire.

I’ve got my hair in a slicked-back bun and I’m wearing second-hand, pink ballet slippers. Sadly, the tutu-wearing window has closed for me.

We start with warm-up exercises. The precise, controlled movements are so different from what I’m used to in my regular aerobics and strength training classes. I’m in pretty good shape, but this warm-up is killing me. Based on the groans, my younger classmates are faring no better. “Did I tell you to stop? Keep going, ladies,” says Mr. C with a devilish grin, revelling in our agony.

This brings me a disturbing flashback to elementary school gym class in suburban Montreal. For years, I had an evil gym teacher who hailed from somewhere in the former Soviet bloc. He delighted in beaning dodgeballs at timid little girls and mocking our feeble attempts at hoisting our scrawny bodies up on chin-up bars. I’ve had a lifelong disdain for dodgeball. But I’m a mature adult now, confident, not easily intimidated. I can even do a chin-up (sort of). Ballet and Mr. C don’t scare me. 

“OK ladies, hands on barre, stand up tall,” he instructs. How hard could this be? Mr. C critiques our posture one by one. He points his finger at various body parts while sternly giving feedback: “Head up, neck long, chest proud, stomach in, back straight, buttocks tight…” I’m last in line and have taken note of every adjustment. I’ve got this. He looks at me and I know instantly that I’ve missed something. “Breathe!” he says. “It must look effortless. No one wants to see clenched face. It’s ugly.”

Mr. C has us doing a little routine at the barre. “Pointe, demi-pointe, plié,” he cues. I’m concentrating hard, trying to master the terminology while executing the corresponding movement. I’m sure it doesn’t look pretty, but he fails to notice as he admonishes another lady for not keeping her head up. “You must look proud, like rooster.” Thankfully he doles out feedback in equal measure.

We are practicing port de bras, a ballet term for movement of the arms. Mr. C tells us that our shoulders must be strong and our lower arms soft and graceful. I flutter my arms, channelling my inner swan. “Your hands, they look like claws,” he chides. No one wants to look at that.”

I get nervous when Tchaikovsky begins to play. Not only do I have to remember the terms, the steps, the graceful arms and the breathing, now I also need to keep in time with the music. “Just listen, feel the music,” he implores.

Mr. C sees our perturbed expressions. “I’m not here to tell you how wonderful you all are, I’m here to teach you the fundamentals of Classical Russian Ballet,” he proclaims with artistic flair. He launches into a monologue about how we’re all too soft in this country, too in need of constant praise. I actually agree with him on this one. 

After a few sessions, I find myself looking forward to ballet class in much the same way that I looked forward to rollercoaster rides when I was a kid—with a mix of angst and excitement. Between classes, I check my posture in every window I pass, and indulge my fantasies with grands jetés between kitchen and living room. I’m progressing, albeit slowly. My hands are marginally less claw-like and my posture a little more erect.

Mr. C is still a tad intimidating; nonetheless, I’ve come to appreciate his demands for perfection, his discipline, his passion, his directness and his sense of humour. Maybe my elementary school gym teacher had these qualities too, although I doubt it. He was just plain mean.

We’ve progressed to the middle of the room. Mr. C demonstrates a beautiful diagonal pattern across the floor. I summon my inner swan once again and pretend I’m on stage dazzling the audience with my grace. “Too much drama,” he yells. I smile. It’s not exactly a compliment, but it’s a whole lot better than ugly.

Learning ballet as an adult has been a much bigger challenge than I expected. I know that I will never master a grand jeté (or even a petit one for that matter), but I’m glad that I finally took the initiative and that ballet still holds the same allure for me as it did when I was a little girl.

Sadly, after only a few months of lessons, COVID-19 restrictions put an abrupt end to my blossoming ballet skills. I know I’ll eventually return to the delight and torture of ballet class—it’s my new roller coaster thrill, and I simply can’t resist. Thanks for the ride Mr. C!

Note: When I found the images of a 1952 episode of the I Love Lucy show “The Ballet” I knew they’d be the perfect accompaniment to this piece. Lucy’s moves and expressions in Madam LeMond’s ballet class are pretty much how I looked and felt, and her teacher looks as unimpressed as Mr. C. The images did not appear in the original publication.

Categories: Crazy Fun Stuff | Tags: , , | 34 Comments

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34 thoughts on “Teaching an old swan new tricks

  1. I am applauding! Bravo! Well done! I think you are very courageous to go after this life long dream. I was drinking coffee as I read and I must admit to almost covering the keyboard when ” I flutter my arms, channelling my inner swan. “Your hands, they look like claws,” he chides. No one wants to look at that.” Oh my I’m afraid my swan might crumple in a puddle. Once we get through COVID and we will, I look forward to further ballet updates. and I say never too late for a tutu!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, thanks Sue. You are very kind with your applause. It was a humbling experience but it brought me a lot of joy. Perhaps the claws feedback was a tad harsh at the time, but it (and the other feedback) have given me plenty of laughs after the fact. I will provide an update. And you’re right, it’s never too late for a tutu…if Lucy can pull it off, so can I!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. That is amazing you contributed to a publication, and even more amazing you tried your hand at ballet after all these years. So brave of you to try something completely different. Ballet is sort of equivalent to a sport – you need the fitness for it or you’ll fall behind, and practice is key. I agree with you that Mr C might be intimidating but he wanted to make sure his students got the basics rights. I’ve never tried ballet. I have tried other random forms of dancing like fairy dance and Chinese dances, but never was very coordinated 😂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Mabel! Mr. C would love your comment. He is absolutely committed to making sure that students get the basics right—so important in ballet and probably true for much of what we do in life. Good for you for trying different types of dancing. I just googled fairy dancing and it looks beautiful.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Holy crap! Way to put yourself out there….super proud of you for doing this. Your description of this experience is soooo well done. When I was about 11, I went to my friends ballet class and have never laughed so hard in my life. Mr C would have been disappointed in them…but they loved it for the same reason you wanted to participate. I wonder why your mom didn’t want you doing this? Glad you are ticking things off the life list – and thanks for the Lucy snaps and the “too much drama comment” made me laugh outloud here at the airport.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Pam, you made my day! I’m glad you appreciate the Lucy photos. They made me smile, remembering those goofy Lucy re-runs I watched as a kid. I’ve wondered about my mother’s apprehensions too. I suspect she found the whole little kid ballet thing too frivolous—she was a no-nonsense recent immigrant. The description of my experience came easily—I had a lot to work with between my own story and the over-the-top Mr.C. I’m glad you had your own laughs with ballet!
      The airport? Going somewhere interesting?

      Like

  4. Oh, Caroline, what a delightful piece of writing. I giggled out loud at the vivid descriptions. I take my hat off to you for the courage to take adult balet classes, summoning your inner swan to revel in equal measures of delight and torture. It is a perfect example of the fact that it is never too late to do the things we wish we did.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for your nice comments, Jolandi. I’m glad you got a giggle. I’m happy and relieved that I finally took the step from googling adult ballet classes in my neighbourhood (done many times in the past) to actually attending. It gives me the confidence to try other new things.

      Like

      • It is interesting that you say that it is giving you the confidence to try other new things, Caroline. A while ago I took a giant step (I’m adrenaline induced activity averse) to start Yoga Trapeze classes. I enjoyed it so much that I did a teacher training online! It taught me that I can do things I never imagined possible, and like you, it is giving me the courage to think very differently about what is possible and what is not. I think we often lose confidence in ourselves as we age, and I definitely needed that kick up my butt when I turned 50. 🙂 So here is to many more new adventures into what we think is possible.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I am so impressed!!! It looks like tons of fun. I bought one of those headstand benches but I think the trapeze contraption allows much more options and is probably easier on the neck (I over did it). I might have to get you to teach me!

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          • The yoga trapeze is definitely much better for the neck, not to mention great traction for the back. I’m completely in love with it. At the moment, with my move to Portugal, I have no place to hang it, and I miss hanging upside down. I have plans for a yoga studio, which is still just a dream, but when summer comes, I have the perfect place for it in one of our cork oaks. 😉

            Liked by 1 person

  5. i imagine it would be something very hard to learn at an older age, but kudos to you for giving it a go!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s never too late to learn something new 🙂 It seems that all your effort (and pain) has been paid off. Is it possible to do some basic steps/moves at home? Or you need to train in a group?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Len! While I prefer the face-to-face setting, it’s totally possible to practice at home. I’m doing this with other activities like yoga and zumba online. Technology has been a saviour during the pandemic.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Kudos for learning something you’ve always wanted to learn! I smiled when I read about what Mr. C said to you about how a lot of people are in need of constant praise. My parents were never easy in giving compliments, in fact they often demanded perfection from me. That sounds harsh, but I find it tremendously helpful for my adult life. However, I always remind myself to give a little praise every now and then to others. I also would love to learn how to dance, and for many years I’ve wanted to do something Pilobolus dance company has been doing. These days, however, I’m more interested in learning Javanese traditional dance as I’m continuously trying to reconnect with my cultural roots.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your parents sound a lot like my father. It was rough at times when I was younger, but like you, I appreciate it now. I hope you also remember to give yourself a little praise now and then. I encourage you to explore your interest in dance. I have found dance (not just ballet but other forms I’ve done and continue to practice) to be so good for both my physical and mental health. The added component of reconnecting to your cultural roots through traditional dance makes it all the more compelling.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Oh good for you Caroline! It sounds like a torture of passion, but it must be amazing to be able to see and feel the progress. Too bad your lessons had to stop 😦
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Alison. My progress was sloooow, but some of what I learned (especially on posture) has stuck. Depending on how the situation, I’m hoping to start again in the new year.
      Speaking of learning new things, are you watching Battle of the Blades on CBC? I’m amazed how those hockey players (male and female) learn figure skating routines.

      Liked by 1 person

      • OMG YES! I love BOTB. The entire show makes me smile, even tho I’m not a huge fan of the new co-host (couldn’t they at least get someone who could skate!) and, well, to put it bluntly I’ve never been a fan of Kurt when he opens his mouth lol. Just skate Kurt! But even these 2 minor things don’t detract from the joy I get watching this show. I do wish they’d make time for more of the behind-the-scenes stuff tho.
        A.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It’s a wonderful indulgence! I wish they wouldn’t eliminate any of the teams for the first 2-3 weeks as some have great potential that takes a few performances to come through.I miss seeing Kurt skate, and I must admit that I enjoyed the silly repartee between Kurt and Ron. Maybe the new co-host is there to attract a younger audience, though my son and friends have never heard of her. Yes, they absolutely should have found someone who could skate. I’ve never seen her move from her spot! Enough…I could go on and on about BOTB!

          Liked by 1 person

  9. Well done. You will smile every time you think about your ballet as you have fulfilled your childhood dream. You will never need to wonder nor wish about ballet again. You did it.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Sweet story! Stay on your toes!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I think we had the same childhood. One of my friend’s sister was in Royal Winnipeg Ballet. We begged her to teach us so she gave us lessons in their basement. She laughed and laughed at our clumsy, oafish moves. I loved it! Your instructor is mean! But I love that you see the good side when he says you’re overacting! I’ll look for it in the Globe and Mail. Congrats!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Maggie. That would have been cool to have a friend in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. I can just picture you guys practicing in the basement. I quite enjoy my instructor’s over-the-top personality and probably appreciate him much more at my age than if were 20. Some aspects of aging are OK!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. How fun! I’ve never had a hankering to do ballet, but I know I would love what it would do for my posture, flexibility, and strength. One of my sisters took ballet for years, and her teacher was just as stern and formidable as yours! Hope you can get back to it soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was amazed by the strength and flexibility it takes, even at the beginner level. I thought I might have a bit of a leg up because I’m active and in pretty good shape, but this was a humbling experience. It was also a good reminder to not shy away from trying new things as I get older.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I took a beginner’s ballet course as an adult a few years ago. I had zero experience with ballet or any dance as a kid. It was much more challenging than I thought, but had a lot of fun with it. I took a few other courses and kept with it for about two years, before quitting. I found that in order to progress, I’d have to dedicate at least 2-3 nights a week to it, and just didn’t have the time. Ballet helped a lot with balance and posture. It also helped me become more confident. Even if you don’t know all the moves, just pretend like you do anyway and have fun with it. Good for you for trying something new.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m glad you also found it more challenging that expected! I agree that to progress with ballet, one day a week isn’t going to cut it. I wouldn’t dedicate 2-3 nights as there are so many other activities I also enjoy. Even my short stint in ballet has made me much more aware of my posture…just for this I’m happy I did it. It has also given me more confidence to try other new things. Thanks for sharing your story about adult ballet lessons!

      Liked by 2 people

  14. Hi. It’s interesting how our childhood interests often carry through into adulthood, or reignite in adulthood. Are you practicing ballet at home now?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was pretty good about practicing at home in those dreadful early COVID months but started to slack off in summer. Some things, like yoga, seem to work better for me alone in my house. It has been interesting to see how we’ve adapted (or not) to in-home activities that we used to do in a group setting.

      Liked by 1 person

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