Over Thirty, En Pointe
After living in North Carolina for nearly twelve years I returned to my childhood hometown in Colorado about a year ago. I had taken dance classes in North Carolina but had a really hard time finding a class that was rewarding for me. Quite often I found myself in tears after class because I felt like I was being judged by everyone and was never good enough. There was a strong emphasis on competitions where, apparently (I have never gone to one), jumping high and turning as fast and as often as possible is of utmost importance. I was never a natural turner, and though I was a natural jumper, as an adult my feet feel heavy and I can’t beat to save my life. Instead of exploring the art of ballet I felt I was competing with every other class member to jump the highest or turn the most. Ballet class lost its charm.
Every few years I would, unsuccessfully, try a new class until I found Dance Center of Greensboro where three other adult dancers were also exploring ballet again. I had finally found my ballet bliss. I still couldn’t beat or land multiple pirouettes, but I found a place where I could try, fail, and sometimes even succeed. With our teacher’s encouragement, my classmates and I decided to get pointe shoes and started attending a class populated with teenagers. The push to do it was as much about camaraderie as it was about pushing ourselves to the next level. All four of us had been en pointe when we were younger so it was not completely new. For me, it felt amazing to put pointe shoes on again because I have always been more confident with pointe shoes than soft shoes. I know that sounds odd since pointe shoes are notoriously painful, but, as wobbly as I was, I felt like I could truly create beautiful lines again and I was once again engaged in the balletic form. Unfortunately, only three months after re-starting pointe I moved to Colorado and feared my growth with pointe shoes might come to an abrupt end.
Initially, I found three schools offering pointe classes to adults in the Denver area. One was somewhat expensive and had overly stringent rules that made me think of those highly competitive NC schools; another had suspended their adult classes for the remainder of the year; and the last one happened to be the school I had grown up attending – Boulder Ballet (formerly Ballet Arts). So, I headed up to Boulder.
My first feeling when I walked in to the adult pointe class was intimidation because the class was fairly big and there were many older students that I assumed must be retired professional dancers (who else would be en pointe, right?). Almost immediately, I was greeted by Julie Mahoney with a big smile and a gracious, “Welcome to adult pointe class.”
Mahoney, 27, had danced for a few years when she was 5 and 6 (at Boulder Ballet), started again in her teenage years, has taken classes ever since, but had never danced en pointe. For her, dance has never been about a professional career; she danced because she loved to move to music and it was a mentally stimulating form of exercise. She didn’t think pointe was something she could start in her twenties, but the teacher was very encouraging so she gave it a try. Once she found shoes she really liked, she was fully hooked and now, feels that she has a true appreciation for ballet style and technique. Taking pointe class not only changed how she danced, but also her experience watching ballet performances.
After Julie welcomed me and I had my shoes on, Kristen Demaree, the teacher, then came over and explained that there were many different levels in the class and to work according to my personal comfort. I went to the barre where I stood next to Christina Chao, 51. I would have been intimidated by her beautiful dancing had I not met her before class and realized how nice she was. She is amazingly modest and would turn to me during class and say, “I don’t know if I can do this, but let’s give it a shot.”
Chao started taking ballet when she was 27 and stopped when her children were born. Once her children reached their teenage years she was able to find the time to begin again. The adult pointe class directly follows an adult technique class and, at age 49, she decided to try the class. She loved how strong pointe-work made her ankles and feet as well as the noticeable improvement in her overall technique.
It turns out that this pointe class, which is in its fourth year, was first taught by Barbara Demaree (who is also the founder of Ballet Arts; in this article she is described as, “the doyen of the art form in Boulder and the soul of elegance” -very apropos). She also happened to be my original ballet teacher when I was a little girl! Back then she showed me how to sew my ribbons, take care of my feet, and taught my very first pointe class ever. Boulder Ballet has a pretty extensive adult class schedule and many students were asking for a pointe class. A couple years ago when Barbara had to cut back some classes, her daughter Kristen took over.
Most of the students in the class did not dance en pointe when they were teenagers and some, such as Diane Shamis, now in her late 50s, didn’t even start dancing at all until her late 40s. In fact, of the regular dancers in the class, only myself and Thea Posch, 48, danced en pointe when we were younger.
Posch danced professionally for five years before a foot injury sidelined her. Like myself, she thought she had hung up her pointe shoes for good. But when Boulder Ballet started the adult pointe class, something in her heart told her to strap the shoes back on. Now, she loves that she can say she is a 50 year-old woman who still dances en pointe.
Many of the women in our class never thought dancing en pointe was even an option for adult students. Lynne Buhlig, 50’s, first took ballet class when she was a freshman in college, but soon volleyball and schoolwork took up all her time. Ten years ago she started again with the adult technique classes at Boulder Ballet, but never imagined she would have the opportunity to dance en pointe. Buhlig loves the beauty and the physical challenge of ballet. When the adult pointe class was added she joined right away and it gave her the opportunity to fulfill her dream of dancing en pointe – even in her 50s.
Dancing en pointe is the penultimate expression of the beauty and lines of ballet. While reaching this pinnacle is important to adult dancers at Boulder Ballet, there is also a strong sense of camaraderie that is not always fostered in other environments. Sarah Opitz-Stapleton, 30s, points out that she has found friendships and a community that she never experienced in other classes. She feels that everyone is very committed and extremely supportive of exploring movement in a manner that is perhaps freer than professional dancers because we aren’t subject to the pressures of the profession.
Sometimes I think we get caught up in the idea that ballet is about being better than the other girl; that it is about who is the most flexible, the fastest, the youngest. Being in this class, with these dancers, reminds me that ballet isn’t really about any of that.
Years ago, someone told me a story about when she was stagehanding at a theater for a visiting ballet troupe where a famous older Russian ballerina would be performing (for some reason I feel that it may have been Maya Plisetskaya, but I can not remember for sure; here she is dancing at 61). Apparently, the ballerina was very old at the time and could barely even walk, but at the end of the show she received standing ovations after performing The Dying Swan. It didn’t matter that she could barely bourree across the stage; her presence, the movement of her arms, the commitment to her art, was enough to send the crowd into a frenzy.
That is why I continue to go to pointe class. I don’t need to jump the highest, turn the fastest, or put on a tutu; I just need to be part of a beautiful art form, which is a feeling that survives no matter how old you are.