'That was harder than Zumba,” says a new voice behind me, as I peel myself off the floor. I have never tried Zumba, but the news is satisfying. I have always enjoyed the notion that ballet is the most challenging of physical endeavours. “If you’re not in pain, you’re not doing it right,” laughs Elaine, a regular in this adult ballet class, clutching her lower back after an attempt at “attitude position”. Meanwhile our teacher, Lizzie, adjusts my hips, my face growing as pink as the walls. I’m used to being touched and pummeled like this, but tonight the class is punishing.
We are in the old Courthouse in Penzance, home of the Lockwood-Urban Dance and Theatre School – probably the country’s most westerly temple to the terpsichorean arts. A sign on the door to the studio says “Court Room”, but there is no evidence inside of its judicial past. A wooden barre is attached to two walls. Large mirrors line two more. The only judgments made in this room are on the position of feet, heads and arms.
The Lockwood-Urban Dance and Theatre School has been going for 24 years, established by Judith Lockwood-Urban, a former professional dancer. Offering classes in several disciplines including ballet, tap, lyrical, modern, freestyle and jazz, the dance school is like many others across the country. Kids flock here in the evenings to leap and lunge their way through an exam syllabus. I can hear some of them in the studio on the floor above us. Through the ceiling comes the repetitive thud of girls landing jetés. Upstairs, ambition abounds.
Ambition is a lesser part of adult ballet, but it is still an important ingredient. Tara, a 45-year-old dispensing technician who attends eight dance classes a week, pushes herself hard. Keen on dancing from a young age, Tara had no formal dance training until she took her first adult ballet class here three years ago. Now, as well as this class, Tara has a weekly private ballet lesson while preparing for an intermediate-level exam. “I just love it,” she says. “I give it 100 per cent. If I do something wrong I get so frustrated.”
Caroline as a young ballet student
Although others in the class take it less seriously, it’s the demands of ballet that keep people coming. Without a smidgen of personal ambition, the point of ballet, really, is lost. For me, ballet’s disciplined, exacting nature provides a release. It takes my full attention to attempt perfection beyond my reach. I started adult ballet two years ago as a means of removing myself from workaday toils; of plunging myself into an hour of striving for striving’s sake. That might sound like too much hard work, but I find it the ideal recreation. In an adult ballet class there is no pretence that any among us will be the next Tamara Rojo. By my age, 36, a dancer’s career is often over. The pleasure comes not in dreaming of the stage but in every correction of ligament and bone.
It was more complicated when I was young. A vivid early memory is of coming face to face with my first ballet class, aged three. Wearing daps and a red sundress I remember standing in the doorway of a large scout hall looking at little girls in pink and white skirts, a kindly old lady at a piano and a teacher beckoning me. It was an Alice in Wonderland moment. I entered that world there and then and for 15 years never left it.
Throughout my entire school life my mum would drive me across Wiltshire to at least one ballet class a week. As I progressed through the grades, Tuesday nights became Tuesday and Thursday nights, then Tuesday, Thursday and Friday nights. I never joined my friends at after-school hockey or netball because “I’ve got ballet”. Eventually I added a Saturday morning class to the list. I was ambitious, but ultimately I went to university and the ballet stopped. In my early 20s I returned to a couple of my old classes, but I’d lost it. My posture was out. The foot I’d broken while running, drunk, wearing heels ached with every tendu. My pirouettes were still good, but my jetés never left the ground. That was it. My ego couldn’t take the battering.
Taking a ballet class is 'striving for striving's sake' says Caroline (in centre, grey top) [PHOTO: JAY WILLIAMS]
By 34 I was free of all that. I started ballet again because I missed it – profoundly. In the intervening years I had tried yoga, Pilates, circuits, even boxing, but nothing would stick where ballet had left its mark. Without it, the greatest joy I knew was dancing, unseen, to Dave Brubeck’s Take Five. I still recommend it, but life is richer still for a weekly ballet class.
Adult ballet is not just for those who danced in their youth. Even Lizzie, our teacher, didn’t try it until she was 21. A member of the local operatic society, Lizzie started ballet at Lockwood-Urban “because in opera, if you couldn’t dance you were sent to the back”. Now, Lizzie teaches the younger ones at the school, as well as the non-syllabus adult ballet class.
Training at the Lockwood-Urban Centre in Cornwall [PHOTO: JAY WILLIAMS]
Tailored to our experience, ability and condition, the first 10 minutes are spent warming up on the floor to the likes of Abba and Rihanna, a welcome but unusual component of a ballet class. After that, our bodies limbered, we do ballet proper. We take to the barre, pop music replaced with piano. We go through a series of exercises – pliés, glissades, développés, battement frappes (the French terminology just one other thing to test us). Then it’s into the centre of the room for the fluid adage and jumpy allegro sections. I prefer the former, having never got airborne with ease.
I won’t be giving ballet up again – if anything, I’d like to do more. As well as finding its rigour good for my noggin, it feels great to regain good flexibility, strength and posture. I’m not tall, so it all helps. I am further encouraged by an excellent, intelligent book published by The Royal Academy of Dancelast year called The Song of the Body: Dance for Lifelong Wellbeing. Championing dance as a powerful enhancer of wellbeing for all ages, the book shines a light on the many ways in which dance affects us and in which we affect others through dance. Besides its physical benefits, the book explores the social and spiritual impact of dance. Personally, I think that fashionable word “spirituality” finally finds its meaning in ballet. I’m no leaper, but ballet makes me high.