The Grace Period: Meeting Myself in Ballet Class

by Susan Reimer-Torn
December 16, 2016

Here I am, at the age of 65, back at the ballet barre, doubting my stamina, my balance, even my capacity to focus on the sequences. At this age, everyone assumes I will be a dance spectator, possibly a critic, but not a participant. More than any other performing art, ballet assumes a youthful body, with nary a weakness or wrinkle or extra weight. Its aesthetic principles depend on the limitless energy and effortless perfection of youth.

In my twenties, I was a dance class regular, a non-professional devotee who, for a decade, found her greatest joy in classical movement. It feels self-indulgent to attempt this now. I am twenty pounds heavier than I was four decades ago and way too pressured by health and financial concerns to detour into gossamer dreams. I cannot imagine that I will access the ballet high again. But since the class is available at my workout hour at my local gym, I overcome skepticism and join in.

ballet-class-postI immediately notice the inclusive age range: from young girls with turn-out and high extensions to gray-haired folks in orthopedic sneakers. There are men of a certain age who are retired from a dance career and women who have never danced before. Our teacher, a woman in her mid-fifties called Audrey, has
created Ballet Moves™ a technique for all levels of adult dancers. The emphasis is on moving attentively to classical and modern music and on maintaining body and musical awareness. There are plenty of options – no one has to jump or turn, we do work on balance but a good portion of the class is warm-up on the mat, derived from the method known as barre au sol. It is clear that Audrey has a room full of loyal followers, most of whom, like me, are part of the gym’s Silver Sneaker program. But we are all out there on the floor, conscious of moving in space, with no ageist hierarchy.

I assume a first position with my feet forming a modified V and stretch out a rounded right arm. Immediately, my agitation quiets. Ballet’s precise organization of time and space settles a chaotic world into mannered civility. I breathe easier. The steady 4/4 piano accompaniment, the outward spiraling of my hips and
verticality of my spine align me with a sense of possibility. Finding a plumb line from my head down to my second toe, I’m putting a stake in the ground.

We practice tendues and degagés. These exercises teach us to shift from two feet to one, then back to two, then repeat the patterns, persistently and patiently. It is only later, once we have acquired ease with these shifts, that we attempt maintaining balance on one foot, first supported and then on our own. I find in this a metaphor for the inevitable shift in my life as my husband copes with the recent diagnosis of a chronic disease and slows way down, leaving me to assume many responsibilities for the first time. Perhaps I can practice this – from two feet to one, then back again until I find the strength to balance on my own.

I’m most distressed by my difficulty in focusing. Soon I realize why this is. Ballet practice takes place in the gap between the possible and the perfect. The younger dancer has hopes of shrinking that gap, but at this age, it is only going to widen. I’m tuning out to avoid that reality. I practice remaining in the present moment for 30 seconds, then a full minute, next time, a few minutes more. When I stay in the now, the reward is greater freedom of movement. Eventually, my mind wanders less and I benefit from stronger centering during class and even enhanced clarity throughout the day.

The mind-body practice of this modified ballet class sparks long dormant muscle memory. This triggers a lively internal dialogue between me and my younger self. She seems pleased that by choosing this class I am allowing her sensibility to find expression.

She reminds me that dance was always a go-to place for courage in challenging times. When she struck out for the world of aspiring dancers, she escaped the drab parameters of a strictly religious family. It took her a while to stand on her own two feet. When trying to find my balance in the center of the room these early autumn days, I remember how she gradually got grounded in a world that was new to her. Her long-ago courage infuses my own.

One morning, while in an expansive side-stretch to a lilting Tchaikovsky melody, my younger self points out that these classes are my grace period. Ballet is all about seemingly effortless transitions. I have time to find my footing, make shifts, let personal strength and confidence build. In ballet we push a little past our presumed edge, but not before we fully prepare.

During this time, I catch Professor Berthold Hoecher of the University of Chicago speaking on NPR’s Academic Minute about his research into which mind-body practices most cultivate wisdom. Ballet was included only as a control group, since its practice “had no hypothesized link to wisdom.” But, in a surprise twist, it turned out that “ballet made dancers wiser,” with results resembling those of meditation, and its benefits exceeding those of other somatic techniques that make greater spiritual claims. The amazed Hoecher hypothesized that ballet made dancers “more sensitive to life,” hence more capable of making “wise decisions that lead to well-being.” I’m pleased to be a living example of his discovery as are so many others in the class who never expected to experience this much joy by simply being in their bodies, its limitation and its capacities all considered.

There are days when I can stand on one leg and extend the other a little higher than before. To do that, I need to find an equilibrium between the part of myself that stabilizes and the part that reaches out into the world. I may indeed one day be without my usual safety and supports, but ballet has taught me that I need not teeter over the edge.

Susan Reimer-Torn began her career as a dance historian, writer and educator, then moved to France where she lived for 22-years, writing for the International Herald Tribune while raising a family. After returning to her native New York City in 2001, she became certified as a Life Coach and hypnotherapist, specializing in women seeking increased visibility in mid-life. Susan is now an active, freelance journalist and the author of a well-received memoir, Maybe Not Such a Good Girl: Reflections on Rupture and Return (2014). She is currently at work on a book about the challenges of long-term marriage. She supports her writing habit with a new post-retirement career, joining Klara Madlin Brokerage as a licensed salesperson.