I stepped into the gym and looked around — weights, dumbbells, kettlebells, mystery-bells with names that escaped me lined the mirrored walls. Machines reminiscent of medieval torture devices. A ball I quickly learned was definitely not a beach ball. And a horde of buff, intimidating people huffing to the beat of their headphones. What was I doing in a place like this?
The gym was never a place I expected to find myself. But as a young woman with a career and extraordinarily limited free time, it had finally hit me that I needed to do something about my fitness. I increasingly felt drained and out of breath, and the happy hour specials on tater tots weren’t going to help me in those regards. Running was simply not an option; after years of ballet and pointe in middle and high school, my knees seemed to scream at the idea of running as a form of physical activity.
Then a crazy idea struck me: why not dance again?
The only thing stopping me from strapping on a pair of ballet slippers was the fear of embarrassing myself as an “adult ballerina” in front of a room full of people (after all, if I wasn’t a professional ballerina by this point, it was just a “hobby,” right?)
That and not knowing if a ballet class for adults even existed.
Spoiler alert: Ballet classes for adults do exist.
When I discovered that the Pittsburgh Ballet Theater offered community division dance classes, I immediately purchased a new pair of ballet slippers and signed up for my first class in over 10 years.
It’s no surprise that ballet, being a physical activity, comes with physical benefits. Ballet strengthens not only your legs and feet, but draws upon balance, flexibility, and even arm strength to a degree. While arm strength for a dancer isn’t the same as that of a weightlifter, holding your arms in second position for six minutes certainly requires some muscle — and diligence!
Ballet builds strength among key muscle groups in the legs and core such as the back, quads, glutes, calves, and feet/ankles. From flexing and pointing the feet in relevé, to the deep squats of plié, ballet’s wide array of moves work everything from these large muscle groups to smaller, less frequently used muscles.
The perfect posture of a ballerina isn’t just for a graceful figure. Combined with core strength and flexibility, posture helps with balance for all of ballet’s turns and extensions. A pirouette isn’t an effortless spin, despite how easy ballerinas can make it appear. Without a strong center and balance, the graceful turns you’re used to seeing on stage would fall flat — literally.
It’s hard to not feel good when music and dance are involved. Ballet may not be an upbeat social dance, but the concentration required to be performing the moves in the moment can help to direct focus away from stress. There’s even evidence that dance has numerous neurological benefits for the brain, such as improved motor control and memory.
My brain spends most of the day ping pong-ing between tasks and ideas, making it difficult to relax and not focus on the stress of the day when I come home from work. Mentally quiet activities like yoga don’t calm my wandering mind down, but rather give my thoughts space to roam wild. Over the years, I’ve found that I need activities that keep my thoughts focused on something. Take baking, for instance. My mind can’t wander; I have to focus on the recipe, measuring, gathering ingredients, doing the next step. Everything is written down so I don’t have to do much thinking, just focusing and staying with the step at hand. Ballet is my physical equivalent of baking — my mind stays focused on learning positions, remembering what comes next in the sequence, or even reminding myself to put emphasis on the right beat of my pique.
The mental benefits of ballet for me personally may be somewhat unorthodox, but studies continue to explore the relationship between ballet and the brain. As more adults look to alternative forms of physical activity as they age, the benefits of dance on the mind increasingly stand out. A 2003 study explored how the mental effort and social component of ballet can reduce the risk of dementia. And for those with Parkinson’s disease, ballet can aid in expression and communication.
There’s even evidence that ballet can make the brain more effective at balancing. Ballet may change how the brain gets signals from the inner ear, helping to reduce dizziness (think of all of those pirouettes!)
Ballet may simply be a hobby for me, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy it or take it seriously. In fact, it’s not so weird, being a ballerina in my late 20s. I get up and move, I allow my mind time to decompress, I form friendships with other “grown up” ballerinas, and I build my confidence more each week. Some fitness activities leave me feeling a little flat, but, with ballet, I’m creating something through dance and expression.
And I’m helping to keep those tater tots at bay.
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