Some people get married or start having kids when they turn 30. I started taking ballet.
Every Wednesday, I throw my dance bag in the car and drive to NW Dance Project’s studios across the street from the Franz Bakery building just off East Burnside. I pay my drop-in fee and put on pink canvas soft shoes with the rest of the ballet students while we wait for the jazz class that meets before ours to end, hearing the trippy opening bars of the Ed Sheeran song they’re dancing to booming into the lobby.
Once they’re out, we place portable barres in neat rows, and I find a place at the barre where I can see myself in the studio mirror. We’re a big, varied group of adults, representing all body types and fitness levels. We show up in running shorts and sweatpants and leggings, because while ballet is full of rules and precision, in this class, no one cares what you wear. If you’re already an adult when you start taking ballet, no one will force you to come to class in the requisite pink tights, black leotard, and perfectly bobby-pinned, hair-netted bun (although some of us do anyway).
But the differences between most ballet classes and ours go well beyond optics. Before we start our barre exercises, our teacher always begins by reminding us that our level is for people who have never taken ballet before, as if politely encouraging those with more experience to leave before it’s too late. After class one day, a fellow student, one of the only men in the class, compares it to kindergarten. He’s right. There’s nothing competitive about our class: We are here to make friends. None of us will ever progress to a career in ballet, or probably even pointe shoes for that matter, and we all know it. We’re here because, for our own individual reasons, we’ve all decided to become dancers as adults.
Welcome to the surprisingly beautiful, improbably kind world of Adult Absolute Beginner Ballet.
My first foray into ballet began (and ended) abruptly when I was five, after I failed to grasp that the static and rigid movements my surprisingly strict community center teacher was forcing me to do would eventually become the graceful dance I’d seen onstage at Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet. Delayed gratification is a difficult concept for a stubborn five-year-old to grasp; I remained skeptical that this exercise in frustration could actually be the thing I’d have to do if I wanted to achieve my dream of dancing the role of Clara in The Nutcracker.
I quit on the spot, and ever since, whenever I watch ballet, I’m reminded of a missed opportunity. It’s a remote one, and I know it: The world of professional dance can be forbiddingly complex and full of seemingly arbitrary rules, and I was a headstrong, daydream-prone kid who also happened to be five. There’s no guarantee I would have made it very far even if I had stuck with it. Still, even the most well-adjusted people I know will admit to having this wistful feeling about something. If you don’t believe me, ask almost anyone what Olympic sport they think they would’ve competed in, had the appropriate timing and training been available to them.
This is an unfortunate condition of growing up: It’s a rare adult who can say that their youthful aspirations came true in the exact way they hoped. But like the dancer who learns to modify her choreography in the moment if something should go wrong onstage, sometimes our aspirations merely evolve. The gesture isn’t dropped forever, but picked up later in a slightly altered form. This is especially true if your childhood dreams fixated on ballet, because it’s never too late to dance. It was news to me, but it’s true: You really can take up ballet as a beginner at almost any age, through the proliferation of Adult Absolute Beginner Ballet classes (and yes, that’s really what they’re called).
Almost no one takes up a career in ballet when coming in as an adult. But a true beginner can take pleasure in dance in a way I imagine professionals can’t. Because it wasn’t until I took up ballet—with all the grace and ease of a blindfolded baby deer—that I finally discovered the cure for perfectionism in the ineffable joy of being bad at something.
When you start taking ballet as an adult, you have to be your own dance mom. That means researching studios (I chose NW Dance Project because it seemed less strict than a traditional ballet school), getting yourself to class, sewing on your own shoe ribbons (there are good YouTube tutorials for this), figuring out how the hell leotard sizing works (remember that teenagers wear them and order a size up), and learning whether you’re supposed to wear underwear under your tights (no, you’re not, and yes, it’s weird at first).
After spending hours scouring dance blogs and message boards, I finally made it to my first class two weeks before my 30th birthday. I expected to love everything about it, and I did: the pink tights, the sound the soles of ballet slippers make when they slide across the surface of the sprung floor in tendus or coupés, the way we begin each sequence at the barre by delicately positioning our hands over the cool brushed metal in time to the music. I love the jumps and the precision. I even love how, at the end of class, we all put on bulky sweats and sneakers over our delicate dance clothes before heading out into the night. But perhaps best of all, I love the subtle vengeance of spending 75 minutes without thinking once about the president.
Oddly, I have Donald Trump to thank for my newly revived hobby.
For many of us, the presidential election was an intrusive homewrecker that dissolved partnerships; a triggering mindfuck that brought up old pain. For me, it felt like a deeply personal attack on competent women everywhere—a confirmation of all of my worst fears about what a sexist society thinks of women who have the audacity to be smart and ambitious and strong. “They really hate us, don’t they?” I asked a friend months later, though I knew the answer.
As a young person trying to break into a male-dominated field, I spent my 20s afraid of being perceived as a froofy little girl, and acted accordingly. I was a hardcore feminist who’d nonetheless listened to the boys in my MFA program as they mansplained their Raymond Carver tattoos. I consciously practiced not speaking in uptones. I worried I had vocal fry. I limited ballet talk to visits with my mom. I wanted so badly to be taken seriously that I sought others’ approval at the expense of my own.
Oh, we live in a country that hates the dreams of little girls? I thought. Well, I’m going to become a fucking ballerina.
After the election, I lost my patience for this almost overnight. I was furious. Tamping down the desires of my inner five-year-old girl finally felt like the self-effacing erasure it had always been. How many ways do women edit and adjust themselves every day to exist in a world that hates them? I wondered. For me, it had already been too many, and for too long.
And so I began actively returning to the things I’d always loved but had dismissed as too feminine, too froofy, too much. Ballet was one of them.
Oh, we live in a country that hates the dreams of little girls? I thought.
Well, I’m going to become a fucking ballerina.
As with all things tagged as feminine, the more I learn about ballet, the more I see how cultural narratives have been used to obfuscate its subversive undertones. Why do people dismiss ballet? Maybe because women care about it. Maybe because for all its courtly origins and associations with Natalie Portman’s crazed eyes and disordered eating in Black Swan, ballet is one art form where women have long held influence, from the earliest ballerinas like Marie Taglioni. It’s true that many story ballets hinge on the idea that marriage is the happy ending that will save the heroine—Swan Lake is a good example of this, with its cursed princess who can only be saved from her predicament (she’s a part-time swan) by the pledge of eternal love from a dashing prince. But in ballet, the ballerina rules, and men often play more peripheral characters—princes are interchangeable; princesses are not. The thing that people love about Swan Lake is watching a single ballerina dance the dual roles of Odette and Odile, the White and Black Swans. The princess’ predicament is secondary to the athletic prowess of the woman playing her—athletic prowess that forms the ballet’s center. There is a reason little girls love all this so much, and I think it goes well beyond tutus. Ballet is also one of the only art forms that melds traditional notions of femininity with absurd athleticism. If you look at them, most professional ballerinas aren’t malnourished-looking, but visibly strong.
No one personifies this better than Carrie Imler, a principal dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet who I’ve been watching onstage since I was five. Imler isn’t delicate or willowy. She looks like an athlete, and dances with unparalleled technical precision and insane power. She’s known for her jumps and fouetté turns. Fellow PNB principal Jonathan Porretta has said on record that Imler can jump higher than some of the men in their company, and I believe him.
Dancers like Imler remind me of something that should be obvious to anyone who’s ever taken ballet: It’s as much about strength and expression as it is about grace and beauty. It doesn’t have to be about making yourself smaller. The first time I saw Imler perform was as Flora, Queen of the Flowers in PNB’s now tragically retired version of The Nutcracker. It’s one of the ballet’s many performances that don’t center on a pas de deux between an archetypal prince and princess, but on a single woman dancing at the center of a group in front of almost 3,000 audience members. When she performs, Imler soars high above the stage, with perfect form, looking completely at home in her body.
If you’ve forgotten—if you spend too much time in your head—ballet will remind you that you have a body. It will humble you. No matter how lithe and strong you think you are, leaning back into a port de bras, knowing how easy it would be to fall directly backward, makes you realize the effort and control required to contort and smooth the body into positions it was never quite meant to hold. It looks beautiful, but it doesn’t always feel beautiful, and while a five-year-old can attend class and imagine someday playing the role of Clara in The Nutcracker or the Black Swan, an adult ballet student knows she never will. We know that our ballet careers will be limited to the studio. For us, this is it. For me, this is plenty.
I know what it’s like when being an athlete stops being fun. When I was a competitive distance runner in high school, I ran through injuries and used to dread my cross-country and track meets. For the entire school day before any race, I’d think about the starting gun, anxiety slowly building with each class period, feeding a sense of fear disproportionate to the task at hand that would bloom into overwhelming panic by the time I toed the start line in my racing spikes.
I was a good runner, although I mostly didn’t know it. I am not a good dancer, and it delights me to no end. My legs are strong from years of running, but mostly in the wrong places for ballet; I am extremely uncoordinated; and I have a bad habit of sickling my feet. But I’m never anxious about ballet class. Because it affords no hope for progression, Absolute Beginner Ballet disrupts the self-defeating perfectionism that too often accompanies athletics. The stakes are low, the improvements tiny. With the pressure that comes with being good at something wholly absent, it’s possible just to sink into the movements themselves without expecting anything else to happen. Everyone should be lucky enough to do something this badly.
Around week five of my return to ballet, our beginning class has a sub who pushes us through new exercises so quickly we’re not quite sure what’s happened until we’re practicing arabesques without the barre. It’s a sunny day, so the class is smaller than usual, and the teacher makes us repeat ourselves if we’ve made too many mistakes. At first, this is infuriating: For the entire warm-up, I’m basically trying not to fall over, and at this speed, it’s a struggle to maintain even mediocre control over my wayward hips. But by the end of class, when the sub makes us figure out an adagio combination on our own and we put together our rudimentary ballet steps into something fluid and connected, I realize she is teaching us to dance. We have finally made the transition from static positions to actual motion, the shift that seemed impossible when I was five.
And when she has us work the combination in groups so we can watch each other, when she tells us to focus more on the expression in the music than getting the steps perfectly right, I realize she is teaching us how to perform. She isn’t treating us like the ragtag band of late-onset wannabe ballerinas we are, but like professionals, like dancers. In a single class under her instruction, I realize that while opportunities to perform as an adult ballet student may be few and far between, a good teacher will make you feel as if you’re onstage in every single class.
On a visit home a month before I started class at NW Dance Project, I learned my mom had taken up ballet in her 30s, too. This is something we’d never talked about, despite going to ballets together for 25 years, and despite the fact she was the champion of my short-lived ballet lessons (and my decision to quit). Before I was born, she had a miscarriage. I knew that. What I didn’t know was that she took ballet afterwards, because, as she puts it: “I wanted to do something I couldn’t have done if I was pregnant.”
Taking ballet once a week because you want to is something you can only do when you’re relatively young and relatively unattached, happily so or not. My mother saw it as a way to embrace being in a transitional state rather than to grieve it. I can understand this. The older I get, the more weddings and baby showers I get invited to, the more I encounter people who feel emboldened to ask me about my own childless, unmarried state (and seem disappointed with the answers I provide), the harder it is to forget that to be a comparatively unattached woman in your 30s is to be perceived as an outlier, to be told your life is just a liminal period before marriage or motherhood makes you a real person.
But I’m already a real person, and since I started taking ballet, I’m a person with better posture and balance. And I know that if those other, more socially acceptable pursuits ever make their way into my life, I’m going to miss spending my Wednesday nights at the barre. To lose them will be a sacrifice, and it’s one I don’t plan to make lightly.
Meanwhile, I wake up every day in a freshly hellish political climate that regularly finds new and ever more creative ways to devalue women and girls and our desires and dreams. But ballet gave me a dream when I was five, and it’s given me a new one now that I’m grown up. When I’m dancing, I don’t think about playing Clara in The Nutcracker anymore. I rarely think about anything but alignment, placement, and musicality—that’s the beauty of it. But if I need a push to get through a particularly challenging class, I think of Carrie Imler as the Queen of the Flowers: Even in her pointe shoes, she can jump higher than the boys. Even dancing alone, she commands an entire stage.