(Re)Beginner Ballerina Profile: Terez Mertes of The Classical Girl

This week’s profile of Terez Mertes of The Classical Girl (she does ballet and plays the violin!), who returned to ballet at 35 after giving it up because she joined the Peace Corps.

When did you start doing ballet as an adult?

When I moved to the Santa Cruz area, fifteen years ago, when I was thirty-five.

Did you ever take lessons as a kid?

Yes, I started when I was ten, at a local studio. Once a week, I took ballet and tap in a dimly lit, basement facility with linoleum floors. Quite the humble affair, but it was walking distance from our house and when you are the seventh of eight kids, the only one taking ballet, you do what’s convenient. I didn’t move up to a “real” ballet classes, with aspiring pre-professional students, until I was sixteen and could drive myself there. I remained enamored of ballet through high school and college, and was fortunate enough to perform with a local dance company through my college years.

Why did you decide to take ballet as an adult?

I’d joined the Peace Corps upon college graduation, which quickly put an end to any further ballet aspirations. In my late twenties, I  thought I’d “outgrown” ballet and the need for it, but something deep in my soul was clearly still craving it. I’d told myself no, that ballet was for younger bodies, and I joined a gym instead. But the urge, the pain of missing ballet, wouldn’t go away, so finally I returned. I had to stop once again a few years later, however, when I had a baby. In truth, I’ve started, stopped, started, stopped. Life does that to you sometimes. But I always come back.

Where do you take classes?

At the International Academy of Dance, in Santa Cruz.

What is your favorite part about ballet?

I love classical music, so that’s a big perk right there. I love the intellectual challenge of ballet, the music and movement choreographed in a way you’ll never find in an aerobics or kickboxing class. I’m forced to keep my attention focused in ballet, be present in my body, not lost in thought and just sort of going through the motions.

In class itself, I think I most enjoy the grand allegro section. It feels like the dessert portion of a meal. It’s where I don’t have to struggle with balance, with extensions, where I can just fling myself out there and really dance, regardless of how old I am or what kind of shape my body is in. It feels like the old days of performing, and I just love that. I’m also really enjoying petit allegro work, which is not something I would have said when I was younger, so maybe there are advantages to dancing as an adult. I’m stronger at it than I used to be, perhaps more driven for the chance to “perform” it, if only for myself and the mirror.

What is your least favorite part?

The fact that I can’t do things at the same skill level I used to is the least favorite part of my adult ballet experience.Ballet2 copy I have to stick to single and the occasional double pirouette. I have much lower extensions, wobbly balance, a thicker waist—these are all limitations I’ve come to accept, but they’re still not much fun.

In class, what I enjoy least is the balance work required in the adagio section. I hesitate to say all of the adagio section, because that used to be my favorite part, such a wonderful opportunity to stretch, emote, really pour everything into slow, beautiful art. Part of me can still enjoy that, the elegant upper body expressiveness, while the other part struggles and wobbles and mentally mutters curses.

Who/What is your ballet inspiration?

Every time I watch professional ballet being performed, whether in a live performance or YouTube or on TV, it re-ignites a fire in me to be doing the same thing. It gets me up and moving. It drives me to try harder, maintain what little of the art, the craft, that I can.

In terms of specific performers I admire, I’d say San Francisco Ballet principals Yuan-Yuan Tan and Sarah Van Patten, for their strength, their lyricism and the originality they bring to their dancing. On YouTube, I have just been stunned with admiration by Alina Cojocaru, principal with the Royal Ballet. (Her Aurora in Sleeping Beauty – wow!) And NYCB dancer Sarah Mearns, as well as ABT’s Misty Copeland, both embody to me everything that is healthy and positive about ballet and dancers today. Great role models, both of them, for the rising generation of ballet dancers.

What motivates you to keep dancing?

Call it thwarted ambition or the desire to excel, but as mentioned above, there’s this fire in me, this feeling that I’m only half-alive unless I’m reaching for the sky, the stars, through dance. The feeling, the pain of it can consume me when I don’t have a regular dance practice in my life. Especially if I watch a ballet performance, and I’m sitting there, passively observing. All these strong emotions rise up, this understanding that you can never be what you were, do what you once did. I know there are former dancers who don’t go back to dance, or watching performances, for that reason. And yet, it’s so deeply ingrained in me, the love of ballet, the need for the movement. When I feel that way now, I know it’s time to hurry back to the studio for another class ASAP.

Do you take any other dance classes?

No, but I’m a longtime yogi, and enjoy, in particular, the vinyasa or “flow” classes, which give me the opportunity to really “dance” the practice, which I love. I take a kickboxing class which couldn’t be more different than ballet, but it’s a good cardio workout, it’s free at my gym, the time slots work, and there’s free childcare there. (A big perk in past years when my son was little.) I also lift weights and jog; I like diversity in my workouts, and that ballet dancer’s ethic of working out six days a week has never left me.

What are your hobbies outside of ballet?

Seven years ago, when my ballet class at that time disbanded and nothing else seemed to fit my time/budget constraints, I decided to switch arts and started playing the violin. Very, very challenging! And yet, it was something performing arts-related that I could do, from my home, on a daily basis. It was classical music-based, so that part of the equation felt right. Now that I’m back in a ballet class, I’m still trying to keep up with the violin. It’s a very nourishing (and humbling) experience, to be an adult beginner on the violin. It’s why I relate so well to adult beginner ballet dancers, even though I myself am a lifelong dancer. We all understand the journey of discovery as an adult, how thrilling and humbling it can be. Switching gears, I’m also a book-reading junkie and always have stacks of books around the house, often reading two or three at the same time.

What advice would you like to give to those who want to start ballet or have just started?

Enjoy the journey, and it’s all about the journey, and the love of what you are doing, moving your body to the music. it’s such a beautiful, organic thing to do, and at the same time, it’s a pursuit that will challenge you mind, body and spirit. Don’t talk yourself out of the impulse to give it a try and/or keep at it. (I’ve blogged about this very topic in the post called “Beginners’ Remorse” over at my own site.)

And this: don’t think you’re too old, too big, too clumsy, too tall, too anything. If the urge is in you to dance, then the solution is simple. You go, and lovingly pursue that goal. And, for the record, no one arrives at perfection in ballet. Ever. You have flaws, fine, so do all of us. We all just show up to work on our stuff. Oh, and to dance to pretty music!

Anything else you’d like to add?

Aim for the stars. Dare to dream, and believe. And come visit me at my blog, The Classical Girl (www.theclassicalgirl.com)!

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