Personal Stories: Army to Arabesque

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My story is one part satisfaction, one part regret, and hopefully one part encouragement!

I took my first ballet class at age 27, after returning from 18 months in Kuwait in the Army. My sister grew up taking ice skating and some ballet, but I never would have thought of trying ballet as a teenager for fear of what my family and friends would think. After graduating West Point and serving in a wartime environment, I felt I had enough “man cred” to go try something very different than the sports or music I had grown up doing. Plus I was moving to a new city where nobody knew me anyway.

I had seen the Nutcracker a couple of years before, and thought more seriously about giving it a try once I was finished with the Kuwait tour and back in the US. If nothing else, I would get more flexible, strong, and work new muscles that weren’t used in the running or weightlifting which I would usually do. Plus meeting some people in a new city where I didn’t know anybody couldn’t hurt.

I joined a class at an arts center in St. Louis that had a lot of dance and other performing arts classes. The teacher was great – it was more of a beginner-intermediate class with some challenging stretches and pilates exercises in between barre and center. My legs and back felt like a million bucks the day after classes. This studio had a teen performance company, but no adult performing opportunities as far as I knew. Not that I was good enough necessarily, but as I approach age 40 I wish I would have tried harder to improve enough to have a performing role in something, somewhere, no matter how small. If I had it to do over again I would have tried to become a regular student at studios with regular performances or recitals and see where that ended up.

I read many stories where guys are in demand and get a lot of encouragement wherever they start classes, but I never really experienced it myself! Maybe I was no good, too old, or just at a studio where adult classes were more for fitness rather than any other goals. Over a couple years I think one other student told me that I was pretty good, a couple of them wondered why I was taking the class, and another older student said I had a lot of courage (I don’t think she was being complimentary – it was more in the style of “You have a lot of courage to wear THAT in public…”) I did overhear some students once say they liked it when guys were in the class, so that was good.

When you are usually the only guy, you sometimes feel like you are invading the ladies’ space and that some of them probably wish you weren’t there. I had to take a semester off after a severe ankle sprain I got while running on city streets near potholes, but I still managed about six semesters before getting married and stopping ballet. I had my girlfriend come watch one of the observation classes, but she didn’t like the idea of me doing ballet—it was a big turnoff for her, so I stopped as we got more serious. At the time I didn’t think I would miss it much. In hindsight I wish I would have made it more clear that I enjoyed it and wished to keep doing it.

Now that I have a few kids I don’t have the time or money for regular classes. I figure my daughter is a more worthy recipient of dance classes right now anyway, as her whole future is in front of her. But, I do manage to take drop-in classes when I am out of town for work, and I look forward to the opportunity to do so. I routinely visit the DC area and have found some good adult classes at Maryland Youth Ballet, Russell Ballet and Kintz Mejia Ballet. In other jobs, I would visit studios in Kansas City and San Jose. The teachers have been good and encouraging and I get something out of the classes every time. I also sneak in some practice at home when I can.
In order to get any better I realize I need to work hard at my weaknesses – for years I have been terrible at pirouettes, but last week I did some pretty good ones at home, much to my surprise. We’ll see if I can replicate them in the next class!! In recent weeks I lost a few pounds, done more plank exercises, and also did more hamstring curls at the gym—an exercise I hadn’t done in years. In high school I found the hamstring curls seemed to help my balance as a baseball pitcher, so maybe they help balancing in ballet? I also spotted a little differently – I think I had been waiting too long to turn my head, and lost balance as a result. Now I move my head earlier to get my spot, and my body follows better, I think. If I could routinely pull off single pirouettes without falling out of them I would be thrilled.
What else am I working on? Turns, in general – I can do pique turns all day but pirouettes have usually been awful, and I could never figure out why. Also my turnout is horrible once my legs are straight – maybe it is my hip structure. I’ve tried every different kind of stretch that I can find for turnout. Once I start a plie my turnout is much better. And, I would like to have better balance across the board. I have a very hard time balancing on releve on a single foot, but I can hold two-foot releves all day. (If anyone else has suggestions on improving at these particular things, let me know!) I also seem to have trouble remembering complex combinations in some of the classes I take – I lose track what direction to turn, what foot should be in front or where my arms should be. I usually have to follow someone else, but then I’m slightly behind the beat. Plus, being rather tall with long legs I have a hard time keeping up with quick leg movements anyway. Maybe this comes with regular practice, or maybe trying a new class after a long day at work when the brain is already fried is a bad idea!
Am I glad I got up the courage to try ballet? Yes, very much. It was fun doing some of the steps with my little girl when she was taking her class. I also have a MUCH bigger appreciation for what I used to call “girls stuff” growing up – ballet, ice skating, gymnastics, things like that. Some of the things these athletes can do is mind-blowing. Its more impressive to me than lifting 400 pounds or running really fast, actually. I grew up playing baseball and these seem much harder. I guess it comes down to what you are raised doing – hitting is easy for me, but maybe not for someone who has danced their whole life. It’s just impressive seeing what other people can train their body to do. To other adult beginners – if you like it, keep doing it! If you want to perform, go find a place with opportunities and work towards them. Even if you try and fail, it’s better than not trying at all!

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