Defying Expectations at Any Age
By Erin Ratigan
Illustrations by Amber Davis
To the untrained eye, a ballerina’s movements seem effortless, their bodies practically floating freely without pain or exertion. In reality, ballet is profoundly taxing on the body, both aerobically and muscularly. Just standing still at the barre involves muscles most people never use.
The demanding and rigorous nature of ballet training makes it a popular form of exercise for women. Kathleen Cluchey, 36, a student at Wonderfully Made Studio in Fort Worth, says taking ballet classes began as a way to give back to her body after having children.
“After that third kid, my body was pretty worn out,” Kathleen says. “I think it depleted from all the pregnancies and labors and nursing. So, I really, at that point, needed something to do for me.”
She was 32 and had never danced before – even as a child – which she says made ballet intimidating. After meeting the owner of the studio, she was invited to join the class, and with some coaxing decided to take a chance. What she found was not only a way to get in shape, but to challenge herself. In the four years since she started dancing, she said her strength, flexibility and posture have all improved significantly.
61 “Learning about posture helped my muscles feel better, it helped my core strengthen. Even just the stretching component … the simplest way to put it is it just makes my body feel better,” she says.
The comradery and inclusivity of her classmates also gives Kathleen a safe space to de-stress at the end of the day. As a teacher and mother, she said she finds her time in the studio invaluable to her mental health.
“I’ve noticed it has the same effect on me as meditation in that it just clears my mind of literally everything else,” she says. “Mostly because you can’t think about a blessed thing while you’re trying to remember how to hold your arms, and remember where to put your feet, and how to turn your feet out, and which muscles to be engaging.”
Kathy Mitchell, also a teacher, just started classes at Artistry in Motion in August. Kathy says ballet training is not only good physical exercise but is also good for her cognitive health. Since she is new to dance, Kathy says when she’s dancing she is constantly relying on her memory and using new information.
“It is freeing, and you have to not think about what else is going on or else you miss the instruction … so you can’t worry about what’s going on in the outside world,” she says.
Ballet challenges her to be brave and try new things. Standing in front of the studio mirrors means there’s nowhere to hide during class, which makes dance difficult for women struggling with body confidence. So ballet forces her to confront her self-consciousness – and gives her a means to overcome it.
Ballet-inspired workouts are commonplace in the fitness industry, from instructional videos (including a series produced by the New York City Ballet), to exercise programs, studios and specialized gym equipment. According to the statistics aggregate Statista, barre workouts have become increasingly popular, with 3.58 million Americans reporting that they participated in barre exercises in 2020.
Adult ballet classes draw in dancers from all age groups. At 75-years-old, Suzy Curley defies expectations. She takes ballet three times a week at Margo Dean and wants to add a fourth. When she visits her son in New York City, she takes classes there, taking advantage of every opportunity she gets to don her leotard and step up to the barre. She is one of the oldest students in her class, but that doesn’t stop her.
“There is a confidence that comes from being a master of yourself,” Suzy says.
Suzy has danced at Margo Dean for almost four years and says when she dances, she feels beautiful. Like Kathleen and Kathy, Suzy was not a dancer originally, but her love of dance performance inspired her to take classes.
Almost immediately after starting classes, she began feeling healthier, building abdominal strength and improved flexibility. A few months in, while walking in a parking garage, Suzy lost her footing – but instead of falling, she quickly corrected her posture and regained control. She credits this to her muscle memory from ballet class.
“Nothing about ballet so far has felt like exercise … it’s just a beautiful thing I get to do in my mind, and the body gets to come along,” she says.
While soreness and occasional injuries are just as likely with ballet training as other forms of exercise, Suzy pushes through such obstacles, and it strengthens her spirit.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” she says. “You’re going to accomplish the impossible.”
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