Everything You Need to Know About Starting Ballet as an Adult

Misty Copeland Under Armour

Image: Under Armour

I think it’s safe to say that ballet is having a moment lately, and not in a pink tulle kind of way. Think Misty Copeland’s Under Armour ad or the David LaChapelle-directed video of Sergei Polunin dancing to Hozier’s “Take Me To Church.” Contrary to what stock images and the #ballet hashtag on Instagram may suggest, this isn’t about delicate waifs — it’s expressive, athletic and incredibly strong. I mean, you’ve seen Misty, right? She definitely could kick my ass, even in the white tutu she wore when I saw her dance The Nutcracker at BAM this year. I think that’s pretty cool.

I quit ballet at 13 because I didn’t like the competitive spirit, or possibly because I was a little brat who thought I was too punk rock. A friend talked me into a class again in college, and surprisingly, I loved it. It felt rewarding to work for the strength and precision required, and our teacher was a jovial Irish guy who knew we were there for fun, not competition. I signed up for an intermediate class the next semester, and was once again dismayed by black leotards, pink tights and body shaming. I dropped the class immediately and figured I’d never dance again.

A few years later, there were mentions of ballet in a Facebook group I belonged to, and a member who had danced with a company in years past volunteered to teach a class. We met on Sunday mornings in a queer art space that had once been a seedy after-hours club. The hardwood floors were a little sticky, but the mirrored walls made it the perfect ersatz dance studio. Every person in the class had a different background and different body. We did our barre warm-ups and learned routines to Adele or Florence and the Machine. It couldn’t have been more different than the nightmarish classes in my past.

Sadly, that class came to an end, but it gave me hope. Four years later, after some trial and error for the right schools, I’m still regularly taking classes. Turns out there are plenty of people who see ballet as something badass, fun and open to anybody. It may sometimes get a bad rap, and deservedly so, but if you want to dance, there’s nothing to be afraid of. If you’re thinking of returning to or starting ballet as an adult, here’s everything you need to know.

Not all schools are alike

Good adult beginner classes can be difficult to come by, but it just takes some research. Many schools in major cities are tied to companies, and those that aren’t are often solely for children and teens. If you’ve never danced before, many schools offer absolute beginner seminars to teach you the basics. After that, you’ll probably end up at a drop-in beginner class. It’s a good idea to call a few schools in advance to figure out what may be a good fit for you.

If the teacher is shame-y, go elsewhere

I firmly believe that anyone can dance, regardless of age, gender, race, shape or size. Ballet isn’t just for young white girls with slim hips and long legs, though this limiting ideal certainly persists. Even in casual adult classes, I’ve had teachers comment on my thicker thighs or excessively praise the thinnest girl in the room. Nope! Screw that. There’s no need to get all Black Swan when you’re doing it for fitness and fun. I have taken classes with and from people of every shape, gender, race, age and ability. (For example, one of the better dancers in one of my current classes happens to be blind.) That’s how it should be. If your teacher seems to think otherwise, pack up those slippers and find a new one. (If you’re in New York, I highly recommend Mark Morris — the classes there are very diverse and open-minded.)

Know what to wear

Me before a class. No pink required; pentagram shirts optional.

Me before a class. No pink required; satanic-print tee optional.

Adult ballet classes know you’re not training to join the Mariinsky. Some schools may have stricter dress codes, but formfitting comfortable clothes you’d wear for any fitness class are usually fine. I typically wear yoga pants or compression shorts with a sports bra and tank. You’ll need ballet shoes, too, though some schools will let you wear socks. There are all sorts of ballet shoes — canvas, leather, split-sole, full-sole, pink, black, white. It’s best to go to a dance store and get some assistance in picking out your first pair. (And no, beginners, you will probably not be getting pointe shoes for years, if at all.)

This isn’t your barre class…

Barre, while “ballet-inspired,” isn’t a ballet class. While you may recognize some movements from your barre class, ballet is a different animal. Yes, you hold on to a barre in both classes and they’re both great exercise, but that’s about it.

…but the structure of most ballet classes is pretty similar

Your class will likely be about 90 minutes and divided into distinct sections. You’ll warm up at the barre. Next will be center work — movements away from the barre. This may focus on leg work, arm work, balances, turns or simple steps. This is usually followed by an across-the-floor segment, where you practice steps, leaps or turns, while moving across the room. Some teachers may also include a separate section for jumps in place (like changement) or a slower floor section called an adagio. Then there’s a cool down, and you’re all done.


Don’t be afraid to ask questions

Learning (or re-learning) the French vocabulary of ballet can be intimidating. A good teacher will explain and demonstrate what the words mean, but don’t be afraid to ask the difference between tendu and dégagé again if you’re lost. You’ll have balancé and battement down faster than you can say pas de bourrée. (That’s tendu in the photo above, by the way.)

Don’t worry if you suck or need help at first

ballet class

It’s OK to ask a teacher for help! Image: @ballerinachi

Ballet is REALLY hard, and it’s OK if you’re bad at first. When I started again, I was amazed by how easily my body remembered certain movements and positions, but was frustrated by my lack of strength, flexibility and coordination. It takes time! Try not to compare yourself to others in the class — or to the pros, who have spent at least 10 years practicing daily. Stick with it because it’ll be worth it at your first wobble-free pirouette. And don’t forget, there’s no shame in asking the teacher for assistance!

You’re going to be sore

Your entire body is probably going to hurt the day after class, even if you stretch. Your arms may feel weak or muscles you didn’t even know you had in your core may ache. Even if you’re already fit, ballet uses weird muscles you don’t often use (that turned-out leg is not exactly natural) and can leave you sore. A foam roller isn’t a bad idea, and don’t be afraid to let the teacher know about any physical limitations or injuries you may have.

Practice outside of class

YouTube is an amazing resource for this with hundreds of tutorials at all levels. You could also practice développé while waiting for water to boil (use the counter as a barre) or run through some port de bras to stretch your arms at your desk.