Ups and Downs of Adult Ballet Training: Why we get better, then worse, then better again

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Ballet dancer posing on a road.

Even though most adult ballet students do not aspire to be professionals, they still want to be the best ballet dancers they can be.

When you learn ballet as an adult, your technical progress may not be linear. You may, at times, feel like you are running back and forth or stuck on a treadmill.

This can be frustrating because it goes against the very nature of how we believe the world should work...

We like to think that if we work really, really hard at something, we will get better and better until we are the best we can possibly be — but that's not always the case, especially when you are pursuing something new as an adult, and most especially when you are pursuing something as physically demanding and as difficult as ballet.

I used to think of my ballet progress like a train on a track approaching a destination — the destination being my future enlightened state as the best dancer I could be, like some kind of ballet nirvana.

If I just stuck with ballet long enough and trained hard enough, I thought, then I would improve steadily until all I had to do was maintain my physical ability while focusing primarily on my artistry.

But that never happened.

I could rarely afford to train at the level I truly wanted, and even when I could dedicate myself to intense training, I still experienced ups and downs in my progress.

Slowly, my mindset has changed.

For adult ballet students, progress comes in waves

I no longer think of my ballet journey as a train on a track to a singular destination. I see it more like the waves on a heart monitor.

Ups and downs are steady. And the upward climb of improvement is so gradual that it is barely perceptible. I often do not even notice my progress until I look back at dance photos and videos from several years ago.

While I find it difficult to see my progress in the day-to-day, my regresses, on the other hand, are obvious and often jarring.

Here’s an example: last year, for two glorious months, I could double pirouette.

Then suddenly, I couldn't, which was disappointing and confusing.

These days, my doubles are slowly coming back.

But my doubles might disappear again.

And that’s okay.

Instead of experiencing a steady increase in technical improvement in ballet class, many of us will get better, then worse, then a little better, and then a little worse before we get better again.

But why does this happen?

It happens, because life happens.

You might get an injury. You might get busy at work. You might get sick. You might have a baby. You might experience financial hardship that forces you to cut back on classes.

Or your body may mysteriously stop cooperating during certain stretches or steps. (It's happened to me!)

The truth is: you may experience any manner of setbacks.

But take heart, this is normal and to be expected.

Adult students face unique obstacles 

No matter how badly we would like to, most of us simply cannot make ballet our number one priority. We are squeezing ballet into an adult life that is already quite full.

Another issue is that many of us take open classes, which we love — but these classes lack the structure of syllabi and are not designed to lead to long term progress.

Our nonlinear progress, then, comes down to two core issues. Number one: life is imperfect and gets in the way. Number two: most of us do not have access to the type of training that would set us on a steady track to more linear progress.

These issues leave many of us wishing for more structure and consistency in our ballet life.

Adult ballet students crave more opportunities 

While I am thankful for my training, I do not hesitate to admit that I am longing for more.

And I know I am not alone.

Many adult ballet students feel this way: incredibly grateful for what we have, but also wistfully wishing for more.

One reason why I write this blog is to add my voice to the discussion of adult ballet, to declare to the world that adult ballet students are passionate, hard-working, and most importantly: we want (need!) more.

We long for serious training so that our dancing might improve at a steadier pace; so that, should any performance opportunities come our way, we could take the stage with joy and confidence and dance to the best of our ability.

We want to dance at the highest level we can achieve 

Most of us do not have any delusions about our dancing. We know what we do in the dance studio will always be for the pure love of it, not for a salary or for any kind of clout in the ballet world.

And yet, we still want to pursue ballet as rigorously as we can.

Even though we do not aspire to be professionals, we still want to be the best ballet dancers we can be. 

That’s why I'm thankful to every teacher who takes the time to give me thoughtful corrections.

Those corrections mean the world to me and are the only reason I have made any progress at all — the only reason I have ever managed to lift a leg above ninety degrees, the only reason I have ever accomplished a handful of double pirouettes.

We will keep fighting the good ballet fight

My progress may not be linear. I may lose my doubles, then find them again, only to lose them again.

And I'll probably never pull off thirty-two fouett├ęs.

But the studio still feels like my home.

I still long for opportunities to expand my training and experience in ballet. I still want to improve as much as I possibly can.

And that's what I'll keep trying to do.

Dancing is about living in the present moment 

Adult ballet students: if you ever feel discouraged by nonlinear ballet progress, take a deep breath.

Give yourself grace as you work with the resources you have.

Like most things in life, ballet is most enjoyable when we live in the moment and take it one day at a time. Even if you are having a nothing-but-wobbly-single-pirouettes kind of day, there is still so much to love about ballet and so many reasons to keep taking class.

Learning ballet as an adult certainly brings deeper, more personal meaning to the old adage: “Life is about the journey, not the destination.”

Cheesy as it may sound, don’t forget to enjoy the journey.