On Wednesdays I teach an absolute beginner ballet class for adults. And what kind of class is that, exactly? It is a start-from-scratch introduction to ballet, which includes instruction on posture, positions for the legs and arms, fundamental steps, and movement combinations. My class size varies every week from two to five students. I have a few regulars, and then others who attend a bit more sporadically.
Though some of the students who join in have danced in the past, the majority who cross the threshold into the studio are entering the world of ballet for the first time. For them, everything that happens in class is completely new, unfamiliar, and (to be honest) a little strange. The ballet positions are rather unnatural to the human body (outwardly rotated legs, a straight and lifted spine, open shoulders, specifically shaped arm positions), and the terminology is all in French. Ballet on day one? It’s confusing and uncomfortable. And that’s okay.
Because therein lies the appeal.
The posture and positions of ballet inspire an energy in the body and mind that is not found in everyday movements: the lift of the spine and the opening of the shoulders feels like a light slowly increasing its glow; the vast array of movements of the arms and legs create moods that range from spunky to serene; and each new combination of steps is like a puzzle that needs to be solved.
As the students learn each step and try things out, I see the change as the confusion and discomfort dissipate. Is a new step conquered on the first try? Definitely not. But perhaps on that second or third try the furrowed brow starts to relax, the movement becomes a little smoother, and the positions find their places a little faster.
And then? It’s time to up the ante. There is always a new step to learn, another sequence of steps to put together, and a faster (or slower) tempo to work within. The challenge is always present; there is always another goal to reach. Again, therein lies the appeal.
Ballet provides one of those paradoxical situations where as the comfort zone increases (with practice, strength, and knowledge), the desire to push further and get uncomfortable again (with more difficult steps or tempos), also increases. And then the cycle repeats.
And somewhere along the way, as the line of the physical comfort zone blurs and expands, artistry begins to bloom. The students are no longer simply executing movements and putting their arm in the correct place. That glowing light that they feel inside when they lift and open their shoulders begins to show; the spunk or serenity becomes magnified; the soul and personality have joined the mind and body to create expressions, not just movements.
Attending this week’s class was a student that started ballet in the absolute beginner class with me about a year and a half ago. He had not taken this particular class in quite some time, as he has moved along to higher levels. This week though, he attended because his older sister was in the area visiting, and she wanted to take a ballet class. She had studied ballet before, but had not danced for many years. As the class progressed, I witnessed in her what I see in my new students: it wasn’t long before her uncertainty and apprehension faded and her confidence grew. By the end, I could see the glow.
One of the many wonderful things about ballet is that once the foundation of ballet has been experienced, it is never lost. Because ballet is a set series of positions, and a specific vocabulary of steps, any ballet class (though perhaps different in style and combinations) will always essentially have the same core. That very first comfort zone that a student reaches during the learning process will always be there; it is solid. It may take a bit of time to resurface, and the muscles may need a moment to remember, but it will happen. Many returning students, like my visiting guest this week, don’t realize they still have it. And my brand new students often feel like they may never be able to establish it. How wonderful it is to observe as both of these types of students find their solid base, either again or for the first time. To see them revel in that space of comfort, to stand tall and move securely within it.
And then? As a ballet teacher, part of my role is to encourage my students (beginner or otherwise) to keep growing, try the next new step, combination, or tempo. To explain and pass on the knowledge they need to do so. To make sure they don’t settle. Do I push them beyond their comfort zone? Yes, I do.
It’s when they start pushing themselves that the magic happens.