How Ballet Dancing Got My Body Fit And My Mind Strong

When I hear the word “ballet,” it conjures feelings of calmness and relaxation. No, not because I have fond memories of seeing The Nutcracker as a child, but because these days, it is the main focus of my fitness routine.

I was never a good dancer. From the time I was about four years old, I’d tried out several different styles of dance: tap, jazz, Irish. I loved dancing, though I had no clue that I was bad at it. I just blissfully bumbled along in my sparkly costumes.

In high school, I was faced with reality. I had been taking classes with some friends at a new dance studio, where I worked its front desk to pay the tuition, and one day I sneaked a look at my account in the system. There was an administrative note: If I ever tried to take the jazz class with my friends again, they should only let me sign up for level one.

After that, I didn’t go back to jazz class.

Related: How To Get A Full Workout Using Just Your Own Bodyweight

I didn’t want to give up on dance completely, but I was also afraid of looking stupid. I hadn’t realized that I was noticeably more of a beginner than the other girls, even though I’d been taking classes for years. Why hadn’t anyone told me?

By the time I hit college, I took a few dance classes, but that’s it. One class in particular stood out to me: ballet. I loved the live piano music playing classical and musical theatre medleys, the camaraderie, and most of all, how good I felt afterward. I felt flexible, taller, and high on endorphins. But those feelings of embarrassment from high school stuck around.

There was an administrative note: If I ever tried to take the jazz class with my friends again, they should only let me sign up for level one.

After I graduated, lack of convenience and logistics forced me to quit physical activity entirely—unless you count sprinting to catch up with an adorable dog.  Every so often, I would see a musical or watch a dance movie (think: Center Stage or Step Up) and feel twitchy. I missed it, even if I didn’t want to swallow my pride and show up to a class where I might fall short.

I thought back to my ballet class. Why not try it again? I asked myself. So I went, logistics be damned.

I was surrounded by confident regulars who seemed to already know everything. My old fears came back: People might be thinking I should move down a level (and worse, I thought they would be right). After class, the teacher announced that someone would be coming to film the class the next week. I didn’t go back.

Maybe dance classes aren’t for me, but I can still dance at home, I thought. I got a ballet DVD from the library and tried its workouts, but it didn’t hit the spot. I couldn’t stop wishing that it were actually ballet rather than ballet-inspired. It never gave me that rush I was looking for.

Then I read about another studio (this one seemed smaller and less intense) offering ballet classes, so I decided to try one more time.

Related: Shop fitness products to take your workout to the next level. 

The new studio had only one level of adult ballet classes in the evenings: It was labeled ‘beginner,’ and I was relieved that I didn’t have to pick a number to define my skill level or attempt to discern whether my ballet ability was basic, beginner, or advanced beginner (a perplexing oxymoron). I thought that might help me let go of my worries.

I bought a new lacy black leotard and float-y skirt, and wore it with pink tights and slippers. I was so nervous that I showed up early and walked right into the previous class, full of advanced children effortlessly practicing their pirouettes.

Then, finally, the teacher invited the adult students inside and called us to the barre. The pianist started playing, and I danced.

Ballet has a lot of rules. Sometimes I find it comforting to know exactly what’s expected of me. I know where I’m supposed to be. My mind quiets.

Ballet makes me feel taller, like there’s more space between each vertebrae. Now when I feel competitive in ballet class, it’s mostly with myself.

Maybe I needed time to get older and care less about other people’s opinions in order to enjoy dance. I also needed to find the right teachers for me—ones that give constructive criticism about how to improve my technique, and are more interested in body alignment than how graceful I look (or don’t look).

Ballet has a lot of rules. Sometimes I find it comforting to know exactly what’s expected of me. I know where I’m supposed to be. My mind quiets.

At the same time, I get an amazing workout. I don’t have a lot of strength yet in my arms, and sometimes when I hold my arms in second position—out to the side with a slight curve—I can feel them shaking as the muscles develop.

Related: Shop products to boost your flexibility. 

Classes often include a series of leaps and jumps that leave me breathless and my heart thumping fast, and plies—movements that involve bending knees with feet turned out and a flat back—are great for my thighs and butt. Ballet also helps me improve my flexibility, strengthen my core muscles, and work on my posture.

After years of anxiety, I finally found my way back to blissful bumbling. I feel much more connected to my body and what it can do, and I’m glad to be making progress toward not caring so much what people think. At last, I’m not afraid to make mistakes, and dance as I was always intended to—for myself.