Ballet for Grownups

By Marian Jones   Fox News
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NEW YORK — There was not a tutu in sight as students lined up for beginning ballet class.

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The instructor, Finis, is 62
but has the lithe body of a 35-year-old

My co-worker, Will, who thought the class might be a good way to meet women, stood nervously in the back wearing fuzzy blue workout pants. He grimaced at me and I grimaced back sympathetically; I too felt like leaping out the window of the Broadway Dance Center after realizing my tights had a hole in the rear.

Luckily, Finis (the teacher) emphasized the basic mechanics of the dance rather than jumps and flourishes. Although this meant the cardiac benefits were nil, the emphasis on mechanics made the class a very intense workout.

"Ballet is a very balanced way to strengthen and stretch," says Dr. Ann Cotter, a Morristown, N.J., rehabilitation specialist and former dancer. "In almost any sport, some parts of body are used preferentially. What's great about ballet is that nearly every muscle in the body is used."

'Square' Dancing

Finis, a ballet training guru with a series of videos to his credit, held up a cardboard square in front of his flat belly. "The hips should nevermoooove-nevermooove-nevermoove," he instructed in a poetic cadence that flowed over the twinkling piano music.

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Beginning ballet students' bones are untrained for some of the positions — like plies

We stood in first position: heels together, feet out like a duck. Then we went to second position — duck feet apart.

I pointed my right toe and tried to move my leg out while trying to keep my back straight, tummy in and hips square, all while fighting the tendency to turn my hips. Like any activity done by a pro, this movement looked incredibly easy when Finis did it, but my legs seemed unable to do it without making me feel like my sinews were pulling off my bones.

Finis told us to releve — to lift up so we were standing on our toes to make sure we were balanced properly. If we fell over, that meant we were rocking our weight back too far.

Next, we would go down into a slow plie — a splayed-out position where the knees bend out over outward-turned feet. I tried to keep my buttocks and stomach tucked in and the head and neck up. Finis had us imagine our heads and trunks pushing straight up while our legs bent out over our toes. I felt like a piece of rolled gingerbread cookie dough.

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Whoa! I got air on this one!

This position, and many of the ballet positions where the feet are turned out, involved opening up the inner thigh and hip muscles to a degree that other exercise does not ordinarily open them.

This movement can be harmful if it is not done right, Cotter cautions. "You can turn out the ankle more easily than you can turn out the hip. But if the ankle is turned out more than hip, there is going to be torque between the ankle and the hip, and this is going to [strain] the knee joint."

How Is Ballet a Workout?

I found ballet class not much of a cardiovascular workout. On a muscular level, though, I'd worked hard and learned to hold my body differently. Normally I stand hunched over like a cavewoman, with my butt out and head forward, but I left class feeling at least an inch taller.

After class, Finis, who's 62 but has the body of a 35-year-old, makes his argument for ballet as a lifelong fitness activity. "With all that heart-pounding aerobics, people are going to live forever, but they'll end up deaf and crippled." he says. He believes ballet can provide body awareness and muscular tone to help people age gracefully — or at least not trip in step aerobics class.