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Adult ballet: Starting ballet with limited flexibility

You can study ballet at any fitness level.
You can study ballet at any fitness level.
Photo by Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

Can you learn ballet if you are an adult with limited flexibility? Yes, you can learn ballet at any age and any level of flexibility. Ballet is a physically demanding art that requires a lot of athleticism and strength. However, you can learn ballet at any fitness level, and the ballet exercises will make you more flexible and stronger over time. It is also a physical activity that you can do for your entire life, even well into old age.

Learning Ballet with Physical Limitations

Before you start any new sport or exercise, you should consult your doctor to make sure you are healthy enough to participate in that particular type of physical activity. Ballet is both an art and a sport, and requires a great deal of athleticism. It is a good idea for an adult ballet beginner to make sure there are no physical limitations before starting ballet. For example, ballet can be hard on joints, so a person with pre-existing joint issues must take precautions when learning ballet. Most physical limitations won't prevent you from learning ballet. However, if you do have any physical limitations, make sure your ballet teacher is aware of them so she can help you safely perform the ballet exercises.

Lack of flexibility may not be a medical condition, but it does physically limit how you perform some of the ballet exercises. But even if you have very little flexibility as a ballet beginner, you can still learn proper technique and perform the ballet exercises correctly. Don't force turn out, or try to force your leg any higher or wider than it naturally can go beyond a healthy stretch. Your flexibility will increase as you continue to take class and practice ballet.

How to Keep Up in Ballet Class

When people think of ballet, they don't always realize how much energy and strength it takes to dance. You may be surprised how tired you and your muscles get after your first few ballet classes. If you are not very flexible, you may find many of the stretching exercises and ballet steps extremely hard on your muscles. This is normal and will get easier as you get stronger.

The best way to keep up in class when you start getting fatigued is to listen to your body. Try your best to do each exercise and try to challenge yourself to perform each movement, but don't overextend your muscles. If you overdo it, you may get injured. It is okay to pause if you need a few moments to catch your breath or relax a muscle that hurts too much. Over time, you will get stronger and have greater endurance to keep up in class.

Also, remember not to compare yourself to other classmates. An adult ballet class may have students with various degrees of dance experience and levels of flexibility in the same class. Everyone progresses in dance at a different rate.

Choose your adult ballet class carefully. Some classes are mainly barre workout classes, while others are ballet technique classes. Choose the one that best fits your goals and has a teacher who welcomes students of all fitness levels. Some studios will allow you to observe a class or even take a sample class before signing up for a set of classes. If you are in the Greater Grand Rapids area, Balletmore Dance Studio on Burton ST SE (near Breton Village Mall) offers adult ballet technique classes for all fitness levels.

Ways to Increase Flexibility

The ballet steps and exercises you learn in ballet class will increase your flexibility over time. Start by asking your teacher for recommended home exercises to increase flexibility. Your teacher may have some specific recommendations for you based on her knowledge of your current fitness level and dance experience.

The following activities can increase flexibility over time:

  • Stretching: Stretch before and after class to warm up and then, cool down muscles. Stretch daily at home in the morning and night. There are many good stretching exercises, ranging from the basic toe touch, butterfly stretch, and hamstring stretch to the plank.
  • Pliés: Do basic demi and grand plié exercises at home. Remember do arm movements with the pliés to also strengthen your arms. If you don't have a portable ballet barre at home, use a chair.
  • Barre exercises: Practice the barre exercises that you cover in ballet class at home. Ask your teacher for a sample home practice routine to do at home. A good set of exercises should include pliés, tendus, dégagés, frappés, and rond de jambe par terres. Youtube has some ballet barre exercises that you can watch and follow for ideas.
  • Tendus and dégagés: Practice doing tendu and dégagé exercises both slow and fast. A classic exercise is to do them in sets of eight, four, two and then one on each side while holding onto a ballet barre or chair.
  • Relevés and elevés: To strengthen your feet and increase foot flexibility, practice sets of relevés and elevés at home.
  • Port de bras: Use port de bras (movement of arms) when you practice ballet foot movements to get your whole body involved in the exercise.
  • Foot exercise: Do point and flex foot exercises. Remember to point from the ankle and keep your toes straight as you stretch into a point. Practice moving each toe forward and back to increase flexibility.

Progressing in Ballet with Limited Flexibility

Even with limited to no flexibility, you can still progress in ballet. It may take longer to reach certain ballet technique goals. But if you work hard in class on technique, practice at home, and stretch daily, you will see significant improvement over time. Some people who began ballet with extremely limited flexibility have even reached the point of being able do the splits through the practice of ballet. Even if you don't achieve your splits, you can still improve your flexibility with ballet and dance beautifully. Don't give up and keep taking class. You can reach your ballet goals.