Dance Camp Diary — Hope and Nerves

July 4, 2012:

I heard about Sun King Dance adult dance camps a couple of years ago from a ballet friend of mine. Last year was insane so I wasn’t able to go, but this year I’m doing it. I just put the check in the mail today. The camp is August 12-18 in Richmond, Virginia at the studios used by the Richmond Ballet Company. I don’t know how good it will be but I know that it’s going to be wonderful to be around other adults who love to dance. Camp starts in 5.5 weeks. I can’t wait!

I was debating with myself about how many classes to sign up for, but in the end decided to play it safe with the 1/2 day package plus partnering class.  I wanted to take either the Full-Day or All Ballet packages but I need to be careful not to injure myself. Four hours of dance per day should be sufficient. :-}

I’ve asked them to hook me up with a room mate. They will try to find someone of similar age and interests for me to share a hotel room with. I don’t need the financial break; I just thought it would be nice to have a buddy. I hope that I’m able to make some friends there.

I wasn’t sure what level to sign up for. They have 4 levels: 2 (Advanced Beginning), 3A (Beginning Intermediate), 3B (Advanced Intermediate) and 4 (Advanced). From the description I think I’m 3A, but at my studio I’m 3B. There’s a placement class at the beginning of the camp. I hope I’m 3B!

How the heck am I going to get in shape for 4 hours of dancing a day?!!

My Body Fat Obsession

Now here’s a hackneyed topic that, none-the-less, continues to pre-occupy me: body fat.

Clinically speaking my weight is normal but for a dancer — especially a ballet dancer — I’m a bit heavy. I’m 5′ 4.5″ and at my maximum I weighed 142, or about 20 pounds over my goal weight. In contrast, as a young adult just out of college I weighed 118. At the time keeping my weight at that level was more or less effortless. I ate small, frequent meals and stayed away from refined sugars like they were the plague. I worked out regularly at the “Y” and at my home gym. That lasted for a year or two. (I wish I could tell you that I enjoyed being thin but I didn’t. I wanted to get down to 116. I was obsessed with those measly 2 pounds!) And then, like most adults, I gradually gained weight over the next 30 years. Fortunately I’ve put on less than pound a year on average.

I’ve been struggling for the past decade to get back down below 135. I’ve tried diet pills and supplements, fasting, eating “mindfully”, eating on a strict schedule, counting calories, and taking up running. None of this has worked for me. Counting calories was the worst. I always gained weight when I tried it. I became obsessed with food when I counted calories or ate by the clock. Running might work for some people, but I just can’t seem to get in the habit. Plus, my knees object to it. Eating mindfully is a good idea, but it doesn’t make any difference in my body weight. And pills only work temporarily, if they work at all. Fasting was a complete disaster. I thought it would kick-start my weight loss, but instead it made me feel horribly sick and weak. Earlier, in my late 30’s and early 40’s, there were three occasions when I was competing for fitness competitions when I did manage to diet down to 120 or so. I looked great but I felt like hell, and I put on even more weight after each show. “Fitness” was not good for my health. Clearly, I needed a new plan.

Over the past year I’ve finally managed to get back down to between 130 and 135, mostly I did this by (1) stopping my daily afternoon trips to the vending machine and (2) being diligent about making it to my three ballet classes per week. After all that struggling, I can hardly believe that it was that simple. I’ve been holding steady at 132 for the past few months. I’d love to say that I’m content to stay where I am, but the truth is that I’m not. Shoot me, but I want to look good in pink tights and a tutu.  I’m happy with my progress, but I’m not content. I’d still like to get down to about 122. But I need to do it in a way that’s sustainable and healthy!

My plan is to go back to the small, frequent meals that served me well when I was a young woman. It’s harder to do now that I’m older and have a more hectic and stressful life. It’ll take some planning ahead and self-discipline. My plan during the work week is to eat a late breakfast before I leave the house, break my lunch into two meals (lunch and an afternoon snack), bring a snack with me from home for before dance class, and then eat again when I get home. That adds up to five meals per day. I also plan to increase my ballet classes from 3 to 4 per week. (I may also throw in a yoga class…we’ll see.) Additionally, I’ve recently given up caffiene (again) so I’m hoping that that will help me to keep my stress level — and thus my blood sugar — under control.

I don’t know if this plan will work or not, but it seems reasonable. Also in my favor: The Nutcracker auditions are just 2 months away so I’m highly motivated. If it does work, I promise to be thrilled when I tip the scales 122! And in the meantime I will count my blessings. Afterall, 132 definitely feels much better than 142 did. I’ll keep you posted on my progress. Hopefully you’ll get some useful tips.

7/8/12

I’ve been off from work this past week and have not been exercising at all. And YET, by following the guideline of eating every 3 hours or whenever I get hungry — whichever comes first — I’ve been losing weight. This happens to me whenever I go on vacation: I eat more and lose weight. I think it’s related to having low stress levels. We’ll see how things go when I return to work next week….

4/6/13

My weight continues to go steadily down. I’m currently at 127 lbs. (15 down; 5 to go.) What this “diet” lacks in glamour, it makes up for in effectiveness, and simplicity. I never feel deprived, and am confident that I can maintain my weight. It’s been very slow going though, which can be frustrating at times. But slow and steady wins the race. Right?! I’ve tried telling some of my friends about my “diet” plan, but nobody seems to be intrigued by it, which is disappointing for me, because I believe this plan could easily work for anyone who tried it. In fact, people generally assume that I’m losing weight IN SPITE of snacking all the time. I promise you that the opposite is true. Who wouldn’t everyone want to try this approach??? I’m mystified.

Moving Past the Plateau

Occasionally I get stuck; I feel like I’m not improving or learning anything new. I get frustrated with myself. You know the feeling, right? Here are some techniques that you can use to ramp it up a notch.

1. Work-out outside of class

Ask yourself (or your teacher) “What do I need to work on outside of class? Core Strength? Cardiovascular fitness? Flexibility?” It can be tough to find the time and motivation to exercise outside of class, but it doesn’t have to be a major commitment. I love the Ab Ripper X DVD (from the P90X box set). That work-out is only 15 minutes, and I can usually persuade someone in the house to do it with me. Another option is the gym at my office where there’s a core strength training class that’s only 30 minutes one day a week. Yoga and Pilates are both terrific complements to ballet and are readily available. There’s a studio within walking distance of my home that has classes every day of the week including the days when my dance studio is closed. Some studios have Stretch and Tone classes specifically designed for dancers that you can avail yourself of. One variation of that theme are Ballet Barre classes for non-dancers that have been popping up in larger cities. They’re sort of a ballet-style boot camp workout, that is to say that they’re very intense but are designed not to build bulky muscles. Sadly, there aren’t ballet boot camp classes where I live, so I work-out at home to DVDs. I like the ones from Bar Method. Another workout DVD that I like to do at home is the P90X jump training, Plyometrics. It does wonders for my jumps and cardiovascular fitness. I’ve also seen some gains from having my boyfriend help me stretch out, although I can’t count on that regularly. For foot flexibility I recently purchased a wooden foot stretcher on line from a European company. I don’t know if it’s working yet, but it sure does feel good on my arch and I can use it while I’m lazing about watching a movie.

2. Moonlight

Per my warnings in previous blogs you have to be careful about moonlighting as it can be seen as disrespectful to your teacher. That said, if you’re lucky enough to find another teacher who you want to take 1 or 2 classes per week from, go for it. Different teachers give different corrections and different types of combinations. Taking from another teacher occasionally can be quite instructive.  As an adult I feel that I have to be careful about over-doing it and injuring myself but if you ramp up slowly by adding once class at a time, and listening to your body, you should be fine.

3. Summer Camp

Summer camp is not just for children anymore. There are ballet summer camps for adults too. I haven’t been to one for years but this can be a terrific vacation where you meet other adults who love to dance. And when you come back you’re re-energized. Look on line for camps or ask around at your studio. A dance buddy of mine sent me a link to this camp: http://www.sunkingdance.com/about.htm. I don’t know anything about this particular one, Sun King Dance, but it looks good from what I can tell from their web site. Or if you can’t find a summer ballet camp for adults that you like there are other vacation options like yoga retreats. A few years ago I attended an ariel arts day camp with my niece in Denver, Ariel Dance over Denver. It was a blast!!!

4. Private Lessons

Taking a private lesson can be highly instructional. One can make some great strides in a short time from taking a private lesson because all of the teacher’s energy is focused on you. Summer is the perfect time to take private lessons as this is when most studios are closed or ratcheted back on classes, so the teachers have some free time. It’s expensive but you only need to go once or twice to realize a benefit.

5. Write a Blog Post

This might seem a bit lame as it’s not doing anything to actually help you get better, but it does the trick for me. Writing about dance gets me thinking and motivated.

I hope that this post helps you to find some inspiration so that you can make some significant gains over the summer, so that you’ll be noticeably improved when The Nutcracker auditions roll around again in the Fall.

Ability isn’t Everything

Please don’t shoot the messenger, but there are some factors that have nothing — or very little — to do with your dancing ability that may influence your dance teacher (or artistic director) to cast you in a good role. While this advice is targeted at adult dancers, most of it is also applicable for younger students.

1. Be Dependable

Being dependable means showing up on time to all of your classes and rehearsals. Your teacher needs to be comfortable that she or he can count on you. Putting on a production is a lot of work which is only made more stressful if you have people in key roles who you can’t count on. Even the best dancer in the studio will not get the lead role if he or she is not dependable.

2. Work Hard

While you’re in class, pay attention and work hard. Don’t sneak off into the dressing room to check your voice mail when you should be stretching, or chat with your buddy instead of paying attention. This is disruptive to the class, disrespectful to the teacher, and gives the teacher the impression that you don’t take dancing all that seriously. Another aspect of working hard is the number of classes that you take per week. 4 or 5 classes per week is preferable to 2 or 3. And please don’t lean on the ballet barre or sit on the floor between combinations, it gives the impression that you’re lazy. Of course the main benefit of working hard is that, in addition to making a good impression, you also get better.

3. Be Thin

I know, this one is a bear. I plan to write a separate blog with some advise about how to reach your weight goals, but in the mean time please come to terms with the cold hard fact that (in general) leaner dancers get better parts. A lean dancer looks better on stage, fits better into the company costumes, is easier to lift and is easier to match up with other corps dancers, most of whom are teenagers. In addition to these more practical considerations, when you lose weight it also means that you don’t have to move those extra pounds around which means that you can jump higher and probably even get a higher extension. Bonus!

4. Volunteer

In any studio there are always opportunities to help out. For example, you can maintain the studio’s web page, make or mend costumes, help back stage at the recital, teach children’s classes, sell advertisements for the program or assist with a studio renovation project. Adults generally have more opportunities in this regard than children and teens do. It’s prudent take advantage of that edge. Plus, it’s the right thing to do and makes you feel good.

5. Be Loyal

People like people who like and admire them. Some ways to demonstrate your loyalty and admiration are to: attend the same studio over a period of years, attend the studio even though there are other studios closer to your home, bring in other dancers to the studio and express your genuine appreciation verbally. I’m not suggesting that this should be done in a disingenuous way, as that would likely be transparent anyway. What I’m saying is that if you’re genuinely loyal to your teacher, then she or he will feel a loyalty to you in return.

6. Ask for Help

Asking your teacher directly what she or he thinks you need to be focusing on to get to the next level — and listening to the answer — is a way to demonstrate humility, dedication and drive. These are all terrific qualities in a dancer. Additionally, taking a few private lessons can be very instructive as well as endearing.

Naturally, the most important factor with respect to what role you’re cast in is your ability however, there are other considerations. As an adult ballet dancer I feel that I’m at a disadvantage compared with the teenagers, so I’ll take any slight advantage that I can get.

The Unwritten Rules of Ballet Etiquette

There are a number of largely unwritten and unspoken rules of etiquette in the ballet studio. If you break them, people may look at you funny, but they probably won’t say anything. Here are the rules in black and white so that you can avoid making these ballet faux pas. Although I do attempt to explain the rationale behind each of the rules, please keep in mind as you read through them that I didn’t invent the rules. Please don’t shoot the messenger.

1. Don’t Stand at The Head of the Ballet Barre

When everyone is standing at the ballet barre with their left hand on the barre, the dancer at the front of the “line” is usually one of the best dancers in the class. There are exceptions to this rule. For example, your studio may be configured so that there is no clear “line”. But when applicable, at the beginning of class that spot will remain open until a dancer with enough experience and seniority claims it. A common faux pas that I see new students make is that they stand in this spot, presumably because it appears to be open. In an advanced class this would be considered egregiously rude and arrogant for a new student to do, but would not impact the performance of the rest of the class. On the other hand, in a beginning or intermediate class a new student standing at the head of the ballet barre can adversely impact the entire class because, consciously or unconsciously, the rest of the class will tend to follow the person at the head of the barre. A corrolarry to this rule is: if you don’t know the combination, then please don’t go with the first group when doing center floor work.

2. Do Not Give Constructive Feedback to Your Fellow Dancers

No matter how badly you want to correct one of your fellow dancers, don’t do it. It’s not your place. Only if someone explicitly asks for your help can you reasonably say something and, even then, it should be done gently. This is rule holds even if the dancer in question is a good friend of yours. I suppose it’s a bit like criticizing another person’s home or child even when they’re openly criticizing it themselves: it’s simply taboo to follow suit. On the other hand, you’re welcome to complement anyone you want as long as it’s sincere. This is true even if you don’t know the dancer at all.

3. No Underpants or Visible Bra Straps

Underpants are not worn under leotards. This is akin to wearing underpants under your bathing suit; it’s considered hopelessly tacky. (Although male dancers wear a dance belt, which is similar to a jock strap.) Some women may need to wear bras under their leotards, but bra straps should not be visible, not even sport bras. Sports bras are fine for aerobics or jazz class, but they are not worn in ballet. Straps can be pinned into leotards so that they won’t show, or special dance bras can be purchased at your local dance boutique. In any case, visible bra straps are considered unrefined and thus unballetic.

4. Wear Your Hair in a Bun

This rule may seem silly to a neophyte but it’s not negotiable for female dancers. Long hair is the hallmark of the ballerina. A young ballerina who cuts her hair short has either given up dancing or is being intentionally impudent. Fortunately, adult female dancers are usually not expected to conform to this standard, however, to be taken seriously as a performance artist it’s advisable to have hair that is at least long enough to pull back into a bun. Furthermore, that bun needs to be tidy. Not as tidy as it needs to be for a performance, but strands of hair should not be falling into your eyes and the bun should be tight, not loose or sloppy. To tame unruly strands of hair ballerinas generally favor hair bands to the alligator hair clips that gymnasts use. Buns may be worn low at the nape of the neck but are generally positioned at the crown of the head.

5. Keep the Studio Clean

There are a number of things that you can do to help keep the studio clean, for example: don’t bring food into the studio (even a sports drink), don’t wear your street shoes into the studio, don’t touch the mirror, don’t leave your warm-ups laying about, don’t use talcum powder in the studio, etc. This is a matter of common courtesy as well as a matter of safety. Foreign objects in the studio can be distracting at best and, at worst, can cause a trip and fall accident. Along these same lines, please don’t cover a sneeze with your hand and then put your hand back on the ballet bar. Yuck! Either sneeze into the crook of your elbow or, better yet, take a quick trip to the rest room to blow your nose and wash your hands before coming back to the bar. This helps prevent the spread of cold and flu viruses.

6. Do Not Ask to be “Promoted”

Never, ever ask to be cast in a specific role in a performance or to be promoted to the next higher level class. Your teacher already knows that you (like everyone else) wants to get the best possible part or class that you can. Your teacher will let you know when you’re ready. In the mean time, practice being humble. If you ask these types of questions, you only succeed in putting your teacher or Artistic Director in a awkward position, and you may even delay your promotion as you may be perceived as being cheeky.

7. Adhere to the Dress Code

Many studios have specific dress codes that you will need to adhere to, but even if they don’t have specific rules that are written down, there are still some unwritten rules. First, warm-ups either need to be form fitting, or need to be removed after plies (at the latest). Failing to do so prevents the teacher (and you) from being able to see your body, and thus give you the corrections that you need. Baggy warm-ups also impede your movement. Second, even if you’re allowed to wear any color leotard that you like, you cannot wear multi-colored leotards. They’re too loud and distracting. Third, don’t wear black footed tights with pink ballet slippers or pointe shoes. This is unsightly; it’s like wearing a plaid skirt with a polka dot shirt. (You may wear convertible black tights if they’re rolled up above your ankle or black stirrup tights that only go under the arch of your foot.) Some adult studio proprietors might instruct you to “wear whatever makes you feel comfortable” in order to encourage you to overcome your fears and attend their studio. Don’t be fooled, the rules that I’ve stated here still apply.

8. Shave Your Armpits and Bikini Line

Just as you would before you head to the beach, please shave your pits and (if needed) your bikini line before class. I understand that this hair in natural, and shaving it is an arbitrary cultural norm, but I didn’t make up the rules. They are what they are and for better or worse have become a part of our cultural psyche. It’s distracting to your teacher — and even your fellow students — to be confronted with your unsightly hair. Nothing can ruin a perfectly good penchée like an unshaved bikini line can!

9. Be Loyal

It’s considered disrespectful to your teacher for you to take classes at other studios. It’s akin to attending more than one place of worship. Fortunately as an adult dancer — especially an adult male dancer — you’ll be granted considerable leeway on this rule, but it’s still advisable to find one studio that you like and stick with it. If you have an uncontrollable urge to moonlight at another studio, then I strongly recommend that you keep that fact to yourself, otherwise you risk unintentionally offending your teacher.

10. Don’t Ask Questions

I know that this rule sounds bizarre. I will do my best to explain the rationale behind it. First, asking questions disrupts the flow of the class. Of course, different teachers have different toleration levels for questions. I’ve been to adult classes where questions of — and even chit chatting with — the teacher during the class were the norm. This can be frustrating for more serious students because it means that less time is spent actually dancing. Second, like good coaches, good ballet teachers teach to the top of the class. (It’s not like public schools where teachers usually teach to the middle, or sometime even the bottom, of the class.) In this way the performance of all of the students is improved because the “rising tide raises all the boats in the harbor.” If a question is too fundamental for the class in question, then it violates this principle.

Which isn’t to say that you can never ask questions. Senior students in particular can “get away with” asking a question now and then during class, because if they have a question, then presumably many other students in the class have the same question. Or a single “dumb” question can be posed to your teacher on your way out of class as long as it’s brief. And it’s not uncommon for students to ask each other furtive questions. Depending on your teacher, this may be considered acceptable as long as it’s done quickly and quietly, and is thus not disruptive to the rest of the class. But, for the most part, students are expected to learn by paying attention to the teacher and observing their fellow students.  If you have a complex question — such as, “can you please explain the difference between écarté devant, écarté derrière, effacée devant, effacée derrière and épaulement?” — that can’t be answered in one of these ways, then your best bet is to try looking it up on line or to schedule a 30-minute private lesson with your teacher.

11. Say “Thank You”

After reverence at the end of each class students will politely applaud. In addition, it’s important to say “thank you” to your teacher and the pianist (if you have one) on your way out. This is a common courtesy, just as it is when leaving someone’s home after a dinner party.

There are certainly some other unwritten rules that I haven’t thought to include here, but I think I’ve listed the most important — and least obvious — ones here. Most people (like me) end up learning these rules the hard way: by inadvertently breaking them, and subsequently being subjected to disapproving looks from their fellow dancers or a speedy reprimand from their teacher. Hopefully I can save you some pain and embarrassment by stating in writing what is often only implicit. And even if you and your teacher don’t agree with or adhere to some of the rules, it’s still useful to be aware of them so that you can make informed, conscience choices.

Showing Up is Half the Battle

Ballet is an unforgiving dance form. There’s no hiding behind baggy clothes and every step is precisely choreographed. One has to be willing to be mediocre for quite some time. In other words, one has to be able to tolerate looking goofy in a leotard. Even on a good day studying ballet can be a humbling experience.

Today was not one of the good days. To start with I arrived at class late, which I hate to do. Then I was distracted by the fact that I hadn’t had time to get over to my condo to fix it up a bit before the 3 showings today, and that the temperature gauge in my car showed that it had overheated on my way to the studio. What’s more, I had to miss classes last week because I had a kidney stone, so I wasn’t feeling particularly strong or flexible. And my mood showed. I was scowling for most of the class, which is not a good look for a dancer. The little voice in my head — who I call Nellie — was relentlessly critical of every little misstep that I made. Even though in hind site it was actually a pretty good class for me. At the end of class I even did a few fouettes en pointe! This is huge deal for me.

The lesson that I learned — which is the lesson that I keep learning over and over again — is that no matter how badly I feel going into class, that I always feel better coming out. I don’t recall ever once being sorry that I dragged myself to a class. And yet, there are so many times after a long, exhausting day at work, that I talk myself out of going. I need to learn to tell Nellie to quiet down and let the grown ups decide whether or not I should go to class.

Showing up for class isn’t the only key to success…but it’s definitely the main one. Last session I only signed up for 2 classes per week but this session I’ve signed up for 3. Between the kidney stone last week and a business trip at the beginning of the month, I already have 4 make-up classes to complete this session. If I put the pedal to the metal, then I’ll be able to complete all 4 of them next week. Taking 7 classes in one week will mean taking a couple of classes above my level and a couple of classes below my level, and doubling up on classes one day. It won’t be easy, but I’ll feel better without the make-ups hanging over my head and, as a bonus, it will endear me to my teacher to complete my make-ups promptly.

Next week is going to be a challenging week for me. My plan to just keep showing up at the studio and doing my best…regardless of Nellie’s opinions on the subject.

Why Ballet?

I admit it. As an adult ballet dancer, I feel a little bit superior to the women I see dancing to the oldies in aerobics class. Which isn’t to say that aerobics isn’t good exercise — it definitely is — it’s just that ballet is also good exercise…plus so much more.

When I’m dancing I’m completely in the present. There’s no room for any extraneous thoughts about what went on at work that day, or what I’m going to eat for dinner when I get home. Instead, I’m thinking about my technique, the combination, and my phrasing. I’m listening to the music — really listening to it — and trying to express the feeling of the music through my movement. I’m also listening for corrections and complements, and incorporating feedback in the moment. Even when I’m not dancing, I’m intently watching the teacher to learn the next combination, or the other dancers, looking for mistakes that I might also be making, or things that they do well that I can incorporate. Or I’m stretching out. No matter how good I get, there’s always the next level to strive for: getting my extension a bit higher, making a turn a bit cleaner, working for even more flexibility, connecting the steps together more seamlessly, etc. It’s never, ever boring.

For me, dancing is so much more than exercise. It’s a form of moving meditation. A celebration of life. As a child I took some ballet and enjoyed it, but not anywhere near at the level that I do now. When I was younger I preferred jazz, modern and popular dance. In other words, dance forms that are more audacious and visceral. As an adult I’m somewhat surprised to find that I love the refined beauty of ballet, and the complexity and sophistication of the music that inspires it. As an adult I have an appreciation of the subtlety and depth of expression that a professional ballet dancer has, and the incredible amount of discipline it takes for a dancer to achieve that level in their art. Who was it who said “Classical music is the best evidence we have for the existence of God”? That’s how I feel about classical ballet.

My challenge and frustration is that I’m operating at a level way below that ideal. As a child one has a much higher tolerance for being a tyro. You bring home a crooked pot to your parents and they praise you and you feel proud, so you go off and make more pots to bring home which get better year after year. But as an adult we’re more self-conscience. The little voice in my head keeps telling me that I should be better than I am. And I know that no matter how hard I practice that I will never be as good as I aspire to be. But I keep trying because I love it. I know intuitively that it’s what I’m meant to do. I take solace in the incremental improvements that I make, and the fact that most women my age aren’t even thinking about picking up their pointe shoes, much less going on stage with them. They’re taking aerobics instead…and watching the clock.

As a middle-aged woman I feel very fortunate to still be able to dance and to have found a dance instructor who takes me seriously as an artist. Through this blog I hope to inspire and assist other adults to follow their hearts back to dance.

Finding a Dance Studio

The first step to studying dance is finding a good dance studio. I’ve had to do this a few times in my adult life, sometimes because I moved, and other times because a favorite teacher closed up shop. If you’re lucky enough to live in a large, culturally rich, metropolitan city like Chicago, San Francisco or New York, then your search will not be as difficult, but for most adult dancers finding a studio can be quite challenging. Be prepared for the process to take some time; with patience, perseverance and creativity you can find a dance studio that’s right for you. It’s well worth the effort. Some of the factors to consider in your search are:

  1. What style of dance do you want to study?
  2. How far are you willing to drive to get to the studio?
  3. What are your goals? Do you want to have opportunities to perform, or are you just looking to get in shape?
  4. Are you willing to take classes with teenagers or does it need to be a class for adults only?
  5. What is your budget?
  6. What times of day are you available to take classes?
  7. Do you prefer a teacher who pushes you, or do you prefer a more casual atmosphere?
  8. If you’re a woman taking ballet, does the studio offer pointe classes for adults?

As an adult your options are limited because not every dance studio teaches adults and, unfortunately, if you’re dancing above the beginning level your options will be even more limited. So you’ll need to be flexible and creative: perhaps studying a different style of dance than you originally intended, or driving farther than is ideal for you. Here are some real life examples of some adult students who have found creative solutions:

  1. I have one friend who pieces together a 4 day per week dance schedule from 3 different studios.
  2. I have one acquaintance who travels over an hour to get to an all adult ballet studio 2 days per week.
  3. I have another acquaintance who talked her way into a taking gratis classes at a university.
  4. I have another dance friend who started out by taking classes with pre-teens in order to get high quality classes at her level.
  5. I personally starting taking ballet 2 days a week at my current studio, because the jazz studio that I was attending only offered 2 adult classes per week which wasn’t enough.
  6. I know of a few people who switched from dance to aerial yoga because they couldn’t find a decent studio near their home, but did find a terrific local aerial yoga school. When in Rome….
  7. Another friend of mine takes classes for free in exchange for maintaining the studio’s web site and helping out back stage during performances.

Note that many teachers are sensitive about their students — even their adult students — taking classes at other studios, so it’s advisable not to advertise the fact that you’re taking classes somewhere else. That said, you may discretely ask fellow adult dancers who you meet if they can recommend any other studios. In fact, word of mouth is probably the best way to find a good dance studio. Ask your friends where their sons and daughters take classes. Or if you have a son or daughter who dances at a studio that doesn’t offer classes to adults, ask the owner if he or she might be willing to let you take classes at your level, or if he or she can recommend a studio to you. If you’re a beginner, then your local Rec & Ed department, community college or YMCA are good places to start. The teachers at these types of venues are usually taking and/or teaching classes other places as well, and can be a terrific resource for referrals when you’re ready to move up a level. The same is true of teachers of dance-related community education classes such as yoga, tumbling or synchronized swimming. These teachers tend to be very well-connected in their communities and are helpful by nature. (Oddly, dance supply stores are generally not a good source of information on dance studios, as they cannot afford to play favorites.)

For non-beginning students, local universities or professional companies usually offer dance classes that are open to adults.  Many universities will have a way for students to enroll in dance classes without having to apply to the school or pay full tuition. Their classes tend to be during the day. Along these same lines, there are also a few studios that cater to dance teachers, so they have classes almost exclusively during the day when most other dance studios are closed. Day time classes don’t work for everyone, but are perfect for people who work in the evenings, are stay at home parents, students or retirees. Another often overlooked venue for classes are large professional theaters that have rehearsal studios that are used for visiting companies, master classes, summer intensives and, if you’re lucky, on-going classes. Classes that are conducted in professional theaters are usually offered by not-for-profit organizations and are a worthy causes to support.

Of course you can also try an internet search. This a good place to start, but keep in mind that any fool can hang up a dance studio shingle, and many fools do. Furthermore, many studios don’t have a web site. For those studios that do have web sites, here are some things to look for:

  1. A wide range of types of dance classes may seem like a good thing, but unless it’s a huge studio in New York city, this is probably a bad sign. A studio that’s a jack of all trades is likely to be a master of none. Look for a studio that specializes in the style of dance in which you’re interested.
  2. Trophies are another red flag. The studio may still be good but, generally speaking, studios that emphasize trophies are not focused on dance as an art form. As one dance studio web site that I visited stated: “If you want trophies, join a bowling league.” Sound advice.
  3. Check the schedule of course. Ideally, you’re looking for a range of levels of classes that are open to adults. Preferably, classes will be about 1.5 to 2 hours long. And naturally you want classes that are offered at times that work for you.
  4. What is the cost per class?  Some studios offer discounts if you sign up for multiple classes.
  5. Check the studio policies page. A studio that has an explicit dress code, and instructions on how to take a placement class, for example, is going to be more disciplined than one that doesn’t.
  6. Check for performance opportunities. Most studios will advertise their annual performances and audition dates on their web site.
  7. Check the biographies of the teachers. Frankly, you can’t tell too much from the bios: sometimes a teacher with little or no performance experience will turn out to be a terrific teacher, while a teacher with tons of professional experience turns out to be a lousy teacher. But still, it’s good to get a sense of your potential teacher’s background and philosophy.
  8. Get their address and determine how long it will take you to get there from work or home.
  9. Call them if you have questions. If no one answers, try calling back just before the studio opens for the day. (Note that some of the best studios that I’ve been to are horrible about answering their phone. You can’t use this as a guidepost.)

Keep an open mind; you can’t tell too much from a web site. You will need to actually visit the studio and take a class or two to really know if it’s a good fit for you. If you’re lucky, you will have identified a few options. Plan out a week or two to try them all out. Arrive early to allow time for getting lost, finding parking, introducing yourself to the teacher, making small talk with some of the other students, and paying for the class. For your own comfort, make sure that you have brought clothes that comply with the studio’s dress code, and that you have the appropriate shoes. Don’t worry too much about your own performance in the class. The first time attending any class is going to be awkward, and a good teacher will let you know whether or not that particular class is a good fit for you. Even if the class turns out to be way too hard for you, don’t duck out in the middle of it, instead, stay to observe the class. You can learn at least as much by watching a class as you can from taking it. Pay attention to the other students, the studio itself and the teacher. Some of the things you want to look for are:

  1. Does the teacher give corrections and compliments? If so, does he or she pay attention to only the best students, or does he or she pay attention to everyone?
  2. Were the other students in the class friendly towards you?
  3. Was the warm-up sufficiently long? Was enough time allotted for stretching? Did the teacher encourage you to drink water?
  4. Did the class start and end on time?
  5. Did you enjoy watching the best students in the class dance? (In fact, if possible attend or get a DVD of one of the studio’s performances.)
  6. How was the size of the studio and the class? Too big? Too small?
  7. How did the floor feel to you? Was it too hard? Too slippery?
  8. Was the class physically and mentally challenging for you?
  9. It’s a nice bonus if the studio has a pristine dressing room and shower, but I wouldn’t put this on the top of your list.

If you’re trying a few studios, then jot down some notes after class about your impressions while they’re fresh in your mind.

When all is said and done, finding a good studio is more of an art than a science. Each studio has its own personality, strengths and weaknesses. Trust your instincts and don’t be afraid to stretch a bit outside of your comfort zone. With some patience, creativity and perseverance you can find a home away from home where your love for dance will flourish. I wish you the very best in your search.