Where to Start? Beginning Ballet as an Adult

Recently I’ve been getting lots of emails from people wanting to start (or come back to) ballet, often in their twenties. I’ve been more than happy to reply to people and help them prepare for their first class, and it has made me think about what advice I would give myself, if I could go back 3 and a half years to when I first started ballet.

I thought I would share some of the advice I have been giving out in the hope that it might answer some questions people have, and calm some fears. I also asked for some help from my twitter followers and got some great questions and tips that I’ve tried to include. These tips are in semi-chronological order and I’ve tried to cover most of the big topics – let me know if I missed anything off!

Finding a class

So you’ve decided to try a ballet class? First off, that’s awesome! Seriously. Even if you try and class and find ballet is not for you, it’s awesome that you want to give it a shot. Now you just need to find a class, right?

To find a ballet class, Google (or your favourite search engine) is your friend. Just do a quick search for “Adult Ballet classes in your town/city” and see what crops up. You should hopefully find a few different options crop up. If not try just searching for “ballet classes” or “ballet schools”.

If you have a look at the websites you’ll probably see lots of different options. You may be offered “Introductory Ballet”, “Elementary Ballet”, “Beginners Ballet”, “Basic Ballet”, “Ballet 101″ and more. Are all these going to be the same level? Probably not! Unfortunately, there’s no standard naming convention for ballet classes, especially not in adult classes. Your best bet is to look for anything that sounds like “introductory”, “basic” or “beginner”. Usually schools will have a little explanation of what their class names mean (with a guide to how much experience you need to take it), but if you’re in doubt at all then give the school a call and ask over the phone.

If possible, try and find a school that offers a ballet ‘course’ – my first class was a “Ballet 101″ course at Princeton Ballet School. This had a set length (I think it was about 8 weeks) and the class gradually increased in difficulty over that period, allowing students to build on various moves. There’s also the advantage of having the same teacher for all the classes!

If you have a few options available, have a look at all the schools and pick the one that you like most. You might end up trying classes at a few schools in the future to find the best class, so it doesn’t matter too much which if your first one! If you’re a guy, you might want to try and find a class with a male teacher – it won’t really matter technique-wise when you’re starting, but it can help you feel more comfortable going to class (it helped me when I started!).

Clothing

So you’ve found a local school and booked for your first class. What on earth do you wear?!

My shoes (Capezio, Cobra, 10.5M), thread, needle, permanent marker, masking tape and the amazing Ballet Apparel for Men book!

Preparing my shoes for my Ballet DIY: Sewing your shoes post

It’s easy if you’re a kid taking ballet class – you’d have a class uniform (generally set by the exam board) and you’d simply wear what you were told. As an adult there is much more flexibility (pun intended!) and each school has different rules. Check out the website of where you’ll be takling class – they’ll often have some guidelines for adult dancers. However, this doesn’t always include advice for male students!

The ‘standard’ ballet outfit for guys is black tights and a white t-shirt, whereas for girls it’s usually a black leotard and pink tights. However, each school has their own guidelines so you’ll want to check first. To be honest, you don’t need to worry too much about clothing before you go – the important things to have are ballet shoes (some places say you can take class in socks but I think this is a bit dangerous!) and if you’re a guy you should get a dance belt. I’ve mentioned in previous posts about getting a dance belt, but the easiest way to get one is to go to a dance shop. They’ll be able to tell you what size to get (judging by your waist size), but they may have to order in one for you (I’ve been shocked at how little male dancewear shops tend to stock!).

For answers to loads of questions about dancewear, make sure you check out the BalletForMen Free e-Book, which is totally awesome. And if you’re in the US, you can always order from the fantastic BoysDanceToo who will, I’m sure, be happy to answer any queries.

Preparing for your first class

Lauren Cuthbertson in Serenade. Photo Credit - Johan Persson.

Best way to prepare? Don’t! Just watch the pros… Lauren Cuthbertson in Serenade. Photo Credit – Johan Persson.

I get lots of people asking me how they should prepare for their first ballet class. My answer: don’t! There’s no need, and trying to do some ballet before starting classes means you could pick up bad habits and risk injuring yourself.

If you’re absolutely desparate to do something then you can get into the habit of doing some light stretching every day (after properly warming up!). Don’t do anything too tricky, just stretching out the hamstrings and doing butterfly and pigeon stretches will help.

And you can always prepare for going to your first class by watching some ballet :) If you’ve never seen a live performance (I hadn’t before taking class) then you can check out the DTB Guide to seeing a ballet.

Now a drumroll please! It’s time for…

First class

So, the day of your first class has arrived – eek! You’re probably a little nervous and not really sure what to expect.

First, make sure you arrive early enough to get changed (you don’t want to walk/bus/drive there in a dance belt!) and find your way to the studio. You’ll probably have to wait for the class beforehand to finish, which can be a great time to introduce yourself to other dancers in the class (and possibly the teacher). Unlike the stereotypes, the adult ballet world is super-friendly. There’s no competitive atmosphere, and everyone is really supportive and nice. I’m sure if you introduce yourself they’ll give you advice about the class and lots of words of encouragement.

Head into the studio and find a place at the barre. If you’re a guy, it’s polite to help move any portable barres to the centre of the room – especially if they’re old and really heavy! You can also check with your neighbour at the barre if the spot you’ve chosen is free – some people stand in the same spot each week so it’s polite not to grab their place. You’ll find one of the nice things about ballet is that it’s quite old-fashioned in terms of manners, so the basic rule is to act like a gentleman/lady and you’ll be fine.

What to do once the class starts? I always give the same piece of advice. It’s so important I’m going to put it in big letters:

JUST ENJOY YOURSELF!
That’s it. It’s that simple. Try everything, and pay attention but don’t worry if you don’t get things first try (if only it was that easy!). You’ll find as the weeks go on that you’ll pick things up, and also learn things “by osmosis” from the other dancers in your class. Listen to all corrections (whether the teacher directs them at you or at someone else). Try to listen to the music and keep in time but don’t worry if you get confused by a tricky combination. There’ll be loads of ballet terminology being thrown around, but again don’t worry about memorising it all – you’ll pick it up surprisingly quickly!

My concentration face during class - I promise I'm still enjoying myself!

My concentration face during class – I promise I’m still enjoying myself!

Finally, when class is over you’ll probably have a “reverence” where you bow/curtsey to the teacher and (if you’re lucky enough to have one) pianist, usually followed by a short round of applause to show your appreciation. I always go up to the teacher afterwards to thank them personally and they generally seem to appreciate this. This also gives you a chance to get some feedback or ask them some questions.

Afterwards

What do you do after your class? My main advice would be to start a “Dance Journal”. This is just a small notebook you keep in your dance bag and use to jot down comments after each class. Your comments don’t have to be deep (and don’t worry about spelling – I wrote “gleassay” for months before I realised it was spelt “glisse”!) they are just there to remind you what corrections you had. You can then glance over your journal before a class to see what you should keep in mind.

Don’t rush into taking lots of classes after your first. Your body needs time to adjust to ballet and doing too much too quickly will risk injury. @RosieCox007 asked what to do between classes? Keep on stretching between classes but resist the urge to ‘practice’ until you know enough technique. It’s very easy to teach yourself bad habits, and even injure yourself, if you’re not careful. Once you get onto balances then you can practice these in between classes – standing in first or fifth releve when brushing your teeth or washing the dishes!

Progressing

Once you’ve started taking a regular class, as I said in the last section – slowly build up classes. Talk to your teachers and they should be able to recommend classes when you’re ready. Don’t be afraid to try another dance school if the class isn’t for you – you might not find the perfect teacher first time! @Bella_Isy asked what to look for in a good teacher, saying that she found it took her a long time to find the right one. I’ve been lucky to have always had amazing teachers, but I would definitely look for a teacher who encourages you and gives you feedback/corrections. I’ve heard stories of teachers sitting in a corner giving no feedback to students at all – this is no use to beginners! I personally like “hands on” teachers who will manually correct your position, but I know other adults who really hate this.

The important thing to do when moving on in your ballet “life” is to pace yourself. Don’t be afraid to take basic level classes even if you’ve been dancing for a while. I still take the occasional “Basic Ballet” class and find it really useful to look at some of the fundamentals of my technique. And believe me, it’s perfectly possible to finish a “Basic Ballet” class and be knackered and drenched in sweat!

Me dancing with Ellie in the Le Corsaire Adage (© Derwood Photography). Would never have believed I could do this!

Me dancing with Ellie in the Le Corsaire Adage at a gala last year(© Derwood Photography). If you stick with ballet and work hard then there’s no reason this can’t be you!

If you are interested in performing, then after a year or so you might want to look out for a local adult group. There’s quite a few cropping up now – my local group is Ballet Bristol, and in London I know about Chelsea Ballet and London Amateur Ballet. There’s usually a wide range of abilities with these groups and they should be able to let you know if beginners can join one of their classes. Even if you don’t get to perform for a while, they can be a great chance to meet other dancers and take another class.

I’ll finish with a lovely tip from @ClareKenward on twitter: “keep remembering that you’re doing it for fun or fitness when you can’t do a step right the first or fortieth time.” This is definitely true – being an adult recreational dancer can be demoralising when you see ten year old children out-pirouetting you, but just remember that we’re doing this just for fun!

Anything Else?

So that’s my blitz through how to start ballet as an adult. I’m sure I’ve missed loads and I’m sure that you, reader, probably have more questions. Let me know if you have any tips or queries in the comments section below, on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. I’ll try my best to answer them all, and if there are loads I’ll probably merge them into a new post.

Until next time, keep on (or start) dancing!

Signature

23 Comments

  1. I just started my first ballet class at 25! You and other ballet bloggers were my inspiration for finally taking the leap. I also started my own blog and posted about my first class here: http://bookofballet.wordpress.com/2014/03/14/chapter-1-my-ballet-life-begins/

    Reading your blog was like seeing a checklist of everything that I went through preparing for my first ballet class. Googling ballet classes? Check. Calling ballet school to figure out the difference between “Beginner Ballet” and “Novice Ballet?” Check. (Seriously who names these things…) Already got told by ballet instructor to practice balancing on one foot while I brush my teeth. I’ll have to work up to the “standing in first or fifth releve” part.

    My first class flew by in a rush and I am counting down the days until my next! Thanks for all the great advice!

    Reply
  2. Very good advice as usual and double congratulations to bookofballet on starting ballet and starting a blog. Good luck with the blog and perhaps chookas with the ballet.

    I would just like to add a word for the mature student. There really isn’t an upper age limit. Northern Ballet Academy in Leeds offers several classes for students over the age of 55. I am well above that age and I am not by any means the oldest. The Royal Academy of Dance is running a Silver Swans programme in the North of England for older students and there has been a similar programme in Scotland for months. Rambert offers classes for the over 60s in London.

    If you are new to ballet I think it helps to go with a friend especially of he or she is new to ballet too.

    Finally, whenever I attend a new class I review it for my own blog. With 5 entries for Leeds, London and Huddersfield it is somewhat limited but I will add to it in time. http://jelterps.blogspot.co.uk/p/schools.html

    Reply
  3. Great advice all around, especially regarding teachers. In my opinion there is nothing worse than a teacher who treats adults as purely recreational, and is happy to sit back and watch them make the same mistake every week. I wouldn’t have grown at all if the teachers at my studio weren’t willing to correct. From the other side of the coin I think it’s so important as students to encourage the feedback, to listen attentively and try to internalize. Critique can be hard, but it’s so valuable. Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
    • I completely agree, especially about listening to feedback and accepting critique. I’ve always tried to work on all corrections in class (whether mine or not) and once you realise that you are in class to be critiqued (that’s how you learn!) then it becomes much easier I think.

      Glad you enjoyed the post!
      Dave

      Reply
  4. Jamie Benson wrote a wonderful post in reply to a young man who sought advice on starting out in ballet class: http://ballettothepeople.com/2014/02/04/straight-talk-for-hip-hop-and-ballet-dudes/ While Jamie was ostensibly answering a fashion question, he got right to the heart of why ballet can seem so intimidating to an adult beginner – and how it can be so rewarding, whether your goal is to perform professionally or just get a great workout, or something in-between.

    Reply
    • Hi Carla,

      That post is awesome! Thank you so much for sharing – and thanks to Jamie for answering. I really like the point of clothing getting you in the mood for class (“putting on a dance belt means I’m not messing around”), and I completely agree. I actually have a bit of a hierarchy of what I wear in a class – if I predict a class is going to be really hard (like my 4hr rehearsals on Sundays) or in the run up to a performance I’ll start wearing smarter kit to class (i.e. black tights instead of a biketard) to get me in “hardcore ballet mode”!

      Dave

      Reply
  5. I have two tips for anyone going to their first ballet class. First, you should surround yourself with the best dancers and learn from them. Both at the bar and in the center find the best dancers in class and follow them if you are lost. Additionally, when going across the floor in groups, never go in the first group and never go in the last group. The first group generally had the people who are the best. You should watch them so you can see how to do the steps. The last group often is made up of the newest students. If you are in a group with all the other first-timers, they are often as lost as you are. There isn’t anyone to follow if you are lost too.

    Second, make sure you have enough dance space. It If you are standing to close to the barre or a wall, you cannot properly execute a combination. If you are standing to close to another dancer, it prevents both of you from performing well. At the barre, you should have enough space to lift you leg in front, in back, and to the side without kicking anyone. If you fell like you may kick someone, you are to close. In the center, stagger yourself so that you are not directly in front of, behind, or next to another dancer.

    Reply
    • Completely agree with these! I think spatial awareness is such an important skill for dancers and can take some people a while to pick up. It’s important to work at it – make sure you are always aware of your position in relation to everyone else otherwise it can be dangerous and unproductive.

      I like the point of not being in the first/last group, and the same goes for not standing at the end of the barre if you are a beginner – much better to let someone who knows the class stand there so people can follow their lead. That being said, I’ve had teachers who insist on the men going together in either the first or last group at which point the rule doesn’t apply!

      Reply
  6. I am 57 and starting my class in about a month. I am in good shape and do some weightlifting and kettlebells. Will those activities help or hurt me when I start ballet class? Also do ballet come in the same sizes as regular men’s shoes?

    Reply
    • Unfortunately not! Often dance clothing companies will provide a guide for working out what ballet shoe size you might be from your street shoe size but as they are quite different to your everyday shoe it really is best to try and get to a dance shop. This will allow you to try different sizes and an assistant will be able to help you find the best fit (the best fit may not be the one you think fits best – ballet shoes tend to be quite snug!).

      Reply
  7. Thanks. I will definitely go to a shop then. 22days to go till class starts. It nice that you take the time to answer. I appreciate it.

    Reply
  8. What a difference in shoe and ballet slipper sizes. For regular shoes I am a size 8 1/2 wide, for ballet slippers I am a 12W. Tomorrow is my 3rd class. It’s very informal but I truly enjoy it. I have been doing some stretching at home so I expect the weird feeling in my legs will go away. I wish I had started ballet classes years ago.

    Reply
    • Yup! Ballet shoes and street shoes are totally different size-wise! And different brands of ballet shoes have different sizing charts so I always make sure to try on a pair of shoes before buying a new brand. Hope you’re enjoying dancing in ballet shoes – I find it so much better than in socks or bare feet!

      Reply
  9. Hello Dear Dave
    I want to thank you for this article. I’m from Iran, so as you might guess I never got to go to any dance classes, cause most of the things here is forbidden for women from going to stadium to compete in a swimming contest. that’s horrible. I’m 30 and I still love ballet, I have watched videos and tried to be more flexible. but I wanna learn ballet.
    and to be a free person, I want to immigrate somewhere else. where I can have pets, ride a bike, and learn to dance… I wanna be free.
    I wanna thank you for giving me motivation, for helping me to realize it’s not late. and I can still learn ballet. I love to dance. I can do side split but not the middle yet.
    I hope someday I can take part in a ballet class.

    thank you million times…

    I wish you the best
    ps: my dad always tells me you are not from here… there must have been a mistake, :D

    Reply
    • Hello Bahar!

      Thank you so much for your comment. I’m so sorry to hear that you can’t go to dance classes in your country – it is, however, very inspiring to hear your passion for ballet and dance. It is certainly never too late to learn ballet, and I hope you get the chance to take classes soon – in the meantime I hope you keep on watching videos and dancing. Great job on the splits too!

      Thank you again for your message – your passion for ballet and dance has really inspired me. I truly hope that you will get to take a ballet class soon – I can tell that when you do you will dance with all your heart.

      Dave

      Reply

Leave a Comment.