On Your Toes

Ballet can help anyone of any age develop strength, agility and balance.

by A.A. Riley

January 2014

The word “ballet” generally brings to mind images of little girls in pink tutus. But a modern view sees ballet as combining dance with elements of Pilates and yoga to provide full-body conditioning.

“You don't have to juggle going to lift weights at the gym, taking an aerobics class, taking a Pilates class and then trying to do all the brain games to keep your mind in focus. You just go to ballet classes instead,” says Mariah Bordovsky, Royal Academy of Dance Program Director at Northwest Arkansas Conservatory of Ballet in Bentonville. No wonder football players and other athletes have used ballet to rehab injuries and to increase speed and endurance.

Deanna Berman, ND, CM, of Ithaca Integrative Women’s Health in Ithaca, New York, says, “Ballet is a wonderful form of exercise and an opportunity to develop many skills necessary in life. For some, it may also be a part of the road back to health, both psychological and physical.” Besides better posture, increased flexibility and stronger muscles, Berman cites benefits that include self-confidence, connection to others, better concentration and stress relief.

Jennifer Davis, principal dancer at the conservatory, says, “It’s totally a mental exercise. You are constantly thinking of which muscles to use, checking your posture and balance.”

Steady Feet

Doctors have begun to recommnend ballet for people with balance problems or for injury recovery. Students can choose to take as many classes a week as they wish, but most studios recommend one to two classes for beginners.

Judy Wamsher, 70, of Bentonville, began taking ballet lessons to improve her sense of balance. “I had a number of falls over the past few years and had broken bones. I wanted to improve my balance and avoid falling. I started to notice results in the first month. My doctors were thrilled with the results.”

Davis, who corrected her own poor posture with ballet, has seen students make dramatic improvements. “One of my former adult students came as a therapy for his Asperger's syndrome (an autism spectrum disorder). He had a lot of trouble maintaining his balance and talking in complete sentences without stuttering or pausing often. His doctor believed that ballet might help him with both issues. I worked with him for a semester, and by the end he could balance really well on one leg on flat, and on two feet in relevé (heels up). His communication also improved drastically. He was able to form sentences and deliver them better.”

Ballet is neither age- nor gender-specific. John Lowe, Britain’s oldest ballet dancer at 93, started when he was 79 and landed his first starring role at 88. “Forty years ago I was managing a theatre in Glastonbury. We had a ballet on and as I watched from the wings I was saying to myself, ‘I wish I could do that.’ And now, all this time later, here I am,” he told The Telegraph, a British daily newspaper.

Peggie Wallis, 90, has been teaching ballet for more than 70 years. “Ballet has been wonderful, especially for stimulation of the brain,” she says. She says older students should “go easy and not push yourself. Remember just a little step in a little time.”

Adult Interest

Recent years have shown a upsurge in the demand for adult classes, but finding a school with accredited instructors who will teach adults can be tricky.

“It doesn't matter if you are a beginner or a former professional, male or female, there is a class for you,” Bordovsky says. “Some of our adults have opted to go into the classes with younger students. Because of the professional manner in which the classes are conducted, they feel comfortable joining in. Younger students are more impressed and motivated than anything else when they see an older adult able to do the work.”

Pointe (on tiptoe) classes are not required. Wallis does not rule out pointe work for adults but says, “This is where age comes into play. Overall health has to be considered, not just foot strength as with younger dancers.”

“We never make a student do anything they do not feel comfortable trying.” Davis adds. “Classes are planned to accommodate the wide spread of ages and abilities of the students and any past injuries they may have.”

''Dancing is the most amazing feeling and you come home mentally uplifted after listening to all this brilliant music,” says Lowe. “I see people smoking a cigarette. They should be doing ballet.”

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