Guest Post: Profile of Susan Attfield from Pretoria, South Africa

Today’s post (Adult Ballerina Project’s first guest post!) is brought to you by Susan Attfield, who owns her own ballet studio, Dance Hub, in Pretoria, South Africa. You can read her blog, Ballet for Adults in South Africa, here. Enjoy her post about being an adult ballerina and going on to open her own studio!

I started dancing just more than four years ago. I did two years of modern dancing when I was about 15 years old, but always want to do ballet. I had no prior experience in ballet till 2008 and never did ballet as a child.

Prior to starting ballet myself, I have not even seen a ballet or a live ballet performance on stage ever! I have always known that I wanted to do ballet, even as a child. My mother however, believed ballet was too expensive to take on as a hobby and wanted me to rather excel in athletic track events, which I did.

The art of movement is fascinating to me! You can tell immediately when you meet someone how they feel and what their “internal dialogue” is by the way the stand and move. Any form of dancing is therapy and all people have the intrinsic ability to dance. The therapeutic value of ballet and the aesthetics ballet lines inspired me as an adult to start at age 40 with my first ballet lesson. I always thought ballet would be very feminine and basically the only requirements would be to look as gracious and pretty as possible…all of my preconceived ideas flew out the ballet hall the first time I had to do a developpe and by the time I could finally, correctly master grande battements, I knew there was very little “pretty” left in me but that ballet is a load of athleticism mixed with the most courage you can muster on that particular day.

After two years of doing about four ballet classes per week at other studios, I became slightly obsessed with adult recreational ballet, but teachers and people in general were really shocked when they heard how old I was and would not invest more time and hours in training. Even when I proved to them that they could make an income as ballet teachers by offering ballet classes, they showed very little interest in teaching adults. The majority of teachers told me that I was an exception to the rule and that adult ballet classes would be too hard to maintain. Although irritated by their lack of interest, I could see their point.

I started Dance Hub in Jan 2011 after none of my negotiations with other ballet studios were unsuccessful. I wanted to learn ballet for the sake of learning ballet and I was sure my passion for adult ballet along with my good business skills (I had several successful businesses in Human Resources and Marketing previously) would allow me to start a small adult ballet studio.

I decided to start my own ballet studio, Dance Hub and employ qualified ballet teachers myself and really put adult ballet on the map! Dance Hub currently offers 8 adult ballet classes per week and is now the biggest adult ballet studio in our area. We have 3 qualified teachers. We have a waiting list of adults who want to join and sometimes people have to wait several months before I get a cancellation in a class that I can fill with a new student.

Dance Hub has also participated in Dance Masters South Africa this year, winning our category and beating a very well-known and respected ballet studio that had dominated Pretoria for the past 25 years! We are officially the best adult ballet group in Gauteng, South Africa. Dance Hub also participated in proper shows with designed and fitted costumes and stage make-up, doing four shows in three days at Atterbury Theatre in Pretoria during October 2012. We were also invited by South African Ballet Theatre (the professional classical ballet performing company of South Africa) to dance in two of their outreach programs during Nov 2012. Last week, I got a phone call from an Events Manager asking me to perform for 15 mins at his Black Tie Fundraiser Event at a very lucrative rate; however most of our performers are writing academic exams and will not be able to perform in November. It’s all proof that adult ballet is well and alive and that you don’t only need to be a young, professional dancer to get opportunities to perform.

Dance Hub offers Ballet Basics Absolute Beginner, Beginner, Advance Beginner, Intermediate Foundation, Intermediate and Pointe classes to adults over the age of 18 but younger than 50. The reason why we don’t take students older than 50 is because of the likelihood of injury. Ballet is hard on your body and even more so on older bodies. All the students sign liability waivers before they may dance, but people are unconvinced about injuries before they start and just like I also did, believe ballet is just about looking pretty and elegant. We have several men in our classes as well as a very well trained male ballet dancer who do our Intermediate dance classes. Most of our students are ladies in their 20’s and 30’s and around 80 % have never done ballet before. We have several ladies who can dance on an intermediate level and who have done a lot of ballet. They are the most dedicated bunch of people and also part of the group that performed in shows this year. I am very lucky to have been included in this performance group of Dance Hub and to have the opportunity to dance ballet on professional stages with these inspiring other adult dancers!

My aspiration is to end up dancing neo-classical dance using my classical ballet training. I am not really fond of classical ballets – I don’t like their story lines – I find it too unrealistic. I also think the movements are sometimes too rigid. I much prefer Pina Bausch inspired dancing – ordinary people dancing in ordinary settings and often not even in theatres – that to me is true art and natural movement. I started a group about two years ago combining ballet and parkour ( free running) in the streets of Pretoria, Gauteng, South Africa at sunrise. We combine adult ballet dancers with traceurs or free runners in ordinary street settings. This group is called Before Sunrise, Pretoria and we have had four big events already using about 6 adult recreational ballet dancers and 6 – 8 traceurs at a time. It is great fun doing beautiful ballet movements alongside strong parkour athletes at the break of dawn at ordinary street settings and historical monuments. Some photos and video of Before Sunrise, Pretoria events can be seen on my blog here.

Being an owner of a ballet studio and not a teacher is confusing. I basically build up a ballet studio but don’t teach. I never wanted to teach. I simply want to dance. I do all the admin, marketing and HR at Dance Hub and tell the teachers what I want them to teach. Once the music starts to play in the studio, I am not the boss but the eager student, just like any other student at the barre and the teachers treat me just like that. There is a mutual respect and the deep understanding that we are in a symbiotic relationship – the one needs the other to survive and we will do whatever it takes to make it work. I write emails to the teachers if I feel they need to focus a bit more on certain stuff or if they need to use new music. They all know that they are in charge the second the music starts playing till they close the door to the studio after class. As a student, you also know that if you don’t work, you are going to get yelled at (something I really enjoy since it shows that they believe I have untapped talent – haha) and one particular teacher can have a very disappointed look when you are tired on don’t do your best. I try to avoid all eye contact during class when I’m tired but every now and again I have a magic class and do magical things and she looks at me with such intrigued awe. It’s moments like that, when you feel unbelievably light and strong, moments when you feel you know the secret to joy, the secret to life itself!

It is this feeling of triumphant victory that I wanted to share with other adult ballet dancers! Although it’s going to be so very difficult and a constant uphill battle, both mentally and even more so physically, the perseverance and agony will pay off in the end. My advice to adults who are thinking about starting with ballet is to forget about societal prejudice, ignore all reason, laugh in the face of adversity and simply just start with your ballet classes…and then persevere…

Mohammed Alli hated every minute of training, but afterwards he said, ‘Don’t quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.’

I sometimes take a break from dancing in the classes and love to watch a class every now and again. I often think there is nothing more beautiful, nothing more noble than the perseverance of an adult ballet dancer for the sake of art. I salute you, dear adult dancer, may you live the rest of your life as a champion.

Thanks Susan!

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