This is where dancers with The Washington Ballet go to practice their pliés, pirouettes and arabesques. But these students aren’t ballet pros – they’re adults ranging from their early 20s to mid-60s in search of a more graceful workout.
Dance and Workout
With a background in competitive youth swimming, followed up with running, tennis and cycling to stay fit, James Farmer, 33, is an athlete. But when life grew busier, he let himself go, he says, and he wanted to regain peak form.
Not much of a ballet aficionado then, Farmer, a strategy consultant with IBM, was invited to an open rehearsal of The Washington Ballet three years ago and found himself “inspired.”
“I was really blown away by the grace, power and flexibility of the dancers – not the least their physiques,” he says. “[The] next weekend I was at the barre, and I’ve been there since.”
His first lesson, he says, was “the most embarrassing,” but “humbling,” experience of his adult life. “I was not familiar with the language. I found myself at the barre in a foreign land – completely out of my comfort zone.” But fellow students were supportive, he recalls, and the instructor “gracious” when he made a faux pas.
“At the end of each class, I’m exhausted,” Farmer says. “This class demands a lot of you.” With the intense focus required, “it’s not just a good physical workout – it’s also a mental workout.”
Ballet classes and barre workouts are “excellent” for non-dancers, says Rebeccah Rodriguez, once a professional dancer and now a physician at the San Diego Sports Medicine and Family Health Center.
Upper-body strength, core strength improved flexibility and posture are among the benefits of ballet, she says. For older adults, having a stronger core – which promotes balance – reduces their risk of falls, and classes offer the security of having the barre to hold.
Some classes incorporate resistance training with balls or light weights, which is helpful for students striving for the long, lean muscles of a dancer’s physique.
With an hourlong class two or three times a week, it might take students about four to six wefeks to notice changes in their body, Rodriguez says. For example, their muscles might be more toned, or they could “notice a smaller waistline – like their pants fitting a little bit looser or fitting a little bit different in the buttocks area.”
If you’re unfamiliar with ballet terms, she says barre instructors “do a pretty good job of saying ‘this is a plié’ and ‘now we’re going to move with your legs apart and turned out: This is second position.’”
She advises adults just starting out to “get a little bit of extra instruction from the teacher to keep good posture and technique, especially if they haven’t been familiar with the different positions.”
Exercise With a Flair
“All together: plié. Arms in fifth, sous-sus,” instructor Stephen Baranovics calls out as the soloist plays “My Favorite Things” at the grand piano in the corner. “Don’t tip at the hip; don’t change the shape of your foot.”
From a mile away, you’d pick Baranovics out as a lifelong dancer, with his arched back, exquisite posture and lower body in permanent turnout. Years ago he trained at The Washington School of Ballet, moving on to an international career onstage before returning as an instructor.
This evening, Baranovics has students’ complete concentration as they memorize movement sequences or make subtle adjustments. “Tilt your head to a 45-degree access; maybe lift the chin,” he says. “A little arrogance looks good … and a little narcissism.”
Just as with professionals who share the studio, “I teach a full-form ballet class, every exercise we do building on top of each other,” Baranovics says. “I train the brain; I train them to think – it’s all about coordination.”
Yearning for the Dance
Although classes weren’t available to her as a child, ballet was always a dream for Rita Ragsdale, 66, a retired Foreign Service officer and a regular in the school’s advanced beginner class.
Ragsdale believes that for most people, the motivation to do ballet is both getting a good workout and love of the artistic form. “You see these graceful dancers on stage,” she says, “and it gives you that illusion.” But for her, she’s drawn to the discipline of ballet and the structure of the class.
“I wouldn’t trade my classes for anything, even though my knees are creaking and my back is quirky,” she says. “When I’m in ballet class, all the troubles in the world disappear, and I feel invigorated, as if I have more energy when I leave the class than when I went in.”
Not a Competition
The popularity of ballet for non-dancers is growing, whether it’s classes linked to performing art academies or local professional companies or ballet-based workouts like Pure Barre and others. There are even mommy-and-me classes.
While professional dancers make it look easy to the audience, the challenge becomes clear when non-dancer students step up to the barre, says Hope Davis, an athletic trainer at The Ohio State University’s Sports Medicine and Performing Arts Program.
Classes can help stave off changes that come with aging, she says, when “muscles get really tight and inflexible, and we lose our balance – and those are really the key to ballet.”
For all its pluses, Davis says traditional ballet class alone may not be aerobic enough to maintain cardiovascular fitness, because of the frequent stops and starts as students learn and practice new moves. She says other dance styles like hip-hop may be a better choice for days you’re looking for a cardio workout.
Regardless of their level, students should avoid competing with or comparing themselves to their peers at the barre, she says: “Everyone’s body and anatomy is different.”
Rodriguez agrees. “It’s just having the confidence that you have your own goals,” she says. “You’re not trying to get a part in the ballet – this is purely for you to gain the appreciation of the art and have a good way to exercise, to improve your own strength and flexibility.”