By Kate Feinberg Robins
My rediscovery of ballet after retiring from a pre-professional performance career at age 18 has been gradual, to say the least.
During my last couple years of high school, I was dancing lead roles with the Cuyahoga Valley Youth Ballet and preparing to audition for professional companies, or to continue my training at professional schools if I wasn’t yet good enough to be hired. At 5’ 1”, good enough to be hired meant good enough to be a soloist. No one would hire a dancer my height for the corps.
I auditioned for American Ballet Theatre’s Studio Company, and unsurprisingly, didn’t make it. I made the second cut at Julliard, but didn’t quite get in. I finished high school prepared to enter Butler University’s ballet program on a merit scholarship. There I would stay, perfecting my skills until I could finally get paid to do what I loved—or so I thought.
But during that summer between high school and college, I discovered that I no longer loved it enough to give up everything else. I wanted to reach beyond the walls of the dance studios and theatres, to do all those things I had always had to say no to. I wanted to study philosophy and travel the world.
It would be another ten years before I could enjoy a ballet class again. I was afraid to set foot in a studio and see how terrible my dancing had surely become. I was embarrassed to be seen at less than my prime. I feared that a ballet class would only bring frustration over what I could no longer do.
In the years after I stopped performing, I was occasionally asked to teach ballet—first to young gymnasts in Indiana, and later to professional flamenco dancers and amateur folk dancers in Chile. Eventually, I began seeking out opportunities to work with students who didn’t see ballet as a serious career option, but enjoyed and appreciated it alongside their main interests and pursuits.
I taught middle and high school students who cared more about orchestra, drama, academics, and athletics than ballet. I taught children who were enjoying their childhoods. I taught adults who were finishing their PhDs, building their careers, and raising their children. Through these students, I rediscovered my own love for ballet and discovered that it could be part of my life—and so many other people’s lives—without giving up everything else.
Ballet study as a casual pursuit has traditionally not been taken seriously by professionals. No one likes to see their profession cheapened by amateurs claiming to know it all. Yet, like with all fields, I think there is a happy medium. Students with a passing interest in a subject can learn from professionals with the awareness that their growing knowledge and skills will only ever scratch the surface.
Ballet study has a great deal to offer to adults and children of all ages with all kinds of goals and interests. The website balletforadults.com, while aimed primarily at adults, offers practical tips for any casual student who is serious about doing their best in ballet class, even if their best will never be good enough for a professional career.
What I like most about this site is that it clearly explains things that tend to be taken for granted in ballet classrooms. When young people train intensively, they are socialized into the norms of ballet study. For casual students who take the occasional class or start learning later in life, this socialization doesn’t happen. They enter the studio unaware of where they should stand, what they should wear, or how they should address the teacher. Balletforadults.com breaks down these norms, kind of like a guide book for tourists who don’t expect to pass for natives, but do hope to get by and enjoy themselves.
This website is also a great example of the kind of high quality work that can be accomplished when professionals from a variety of fields put their energy into promoting ballet. The blog’s creators are graphic designers, photographers, writers, and teachers. Their skills in all of these areas shine through in a beautifully presented and accessible blog.
My main critique of the site is that despite its posts encouraging all kinds of people to study ballet, the photographs portray almost exclusively slender young women. If you don’t see yourself on this site, don’t be deterred. Just take it as a useful source of information, so that you can go into your next ballet class a little better informed.