«Ballet no longer the preserve of the posh as women of all ages flock to classes to boost their fitnes»
IT’S a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon. Shops, coffee bars and licensed premises are all open, yet I am in a ballet studio, waiting for a class to begin.
In the front row, teenage girls with buns, leotards and unnaturally bendy legs are flexing and stretching.
In the back row there are ballet teachers and middle-aged women who have seen Black Swan and rekindled their childhood desire to wear a tutu and prance on pointe. And me.
It turns out that, while I have been watching Breaking Bad and eating biscuits, the rest of the world has been doing pliés and developés. They were at the barre while I was at the bar.
They look great in Lycra and know their arabesques from their elbows.
What have I let myself in for?
Our teacher, Dr Anne Hogan, is director of education at the Royal Academy of Dance in London – the UK’s most prestigious ballet school.
She says dance should not just be for the lithe and lovely.
As part of research into the lifelong benefits of dance, Royal Academy teachers have been putting pensioners through their paces. The oldest dancer was 102.
“Beyond the physical benefits, dancing gives you a challenge and a social outlet,” said Anne.
“It’s fun. It keeps you moving. Wherever you are in life, dance can help with your wellbeing.”
I suppress the thought that a flat white and a chocolate brownie could also help with my wellbeing.
Today we are not, to my huge relief, actually dancing.
We are doing what Anne calls “pilates adapted for ballet, body conditioning and floor work using classical ballet technique and focused on the core”.
It turns out that this is quite like dancing, with lots of kicks and pointed toes, but we do it lying on a mat.
For those of us who don’t speak ballet and need a map to find our pelvic floors, this is all very complicated. Anne tells us to imagine we have walked into a freezing cold lake. That feeling of aaaargh is me tightening my pelvic floor.
Still in the lake, I have to position two headlights on my hips. Then make legs like a frog with beautiful arms. I thrash about like a dying fly while everyone around me glides through this routine.
They look as if they are synchronised swimming on dry land. I look as if I am drowning in the freezing cold lake while gasping for my last breath.
“Press ups!” she announces cheerily. “Just 16!”
It is not enough that we perform these and other fiendishly difficult exercises, like tricep dips, while there are perfectly good films on the telly.
We have to perform them with a ballet twist. This usually means raising and pointing a leg that would be just as happy planted firmly on the floor.
This, Anne claims, is an invigorating distraction from the pain of doing the exercise the normal way.
Then my heart soars. Anne announces that it is time for a rum baba. Now this is my kind of work out.
Turns out that it was just her Boston accent. It’s time for rond de jambe, lying on the floor making semi-circles in the air.
Then we have to do our high kicks. “Let it fly!” she instructs us. “Beautiful!”
She must have had her back to me at that point.
By the time the class ends, I’m sweating like a bear. I could quite fancy that walk into the freezing cold lake. But, despite the creaks, crunches and general humiliation, the class was great fun. And it turns out I’m not the only grown-up who thinks so.
Ballet teachers report a huge rise in the number of women who want to dance.
Anne puts it down to Black Swan, Strictly Come Dancing and the growing number of celebrities who put in the pliés.
And to the fact that, as the pensioners found, dancing is sociable and enjoyable in a way pounding a treadmill is not.
The Royal Academy of Dance will run free classes for adults across Scotland in January.
I fancy another go. After a few sessions, I might even be ready to try dancing standing up.
Go to www.rad.org.uk.
Scottish Ballet have a ballet floorwork routine on their website which features many of the moves that Anne showed in her class. Using this, anyone can try these exercises at home, without the humiliation of wearing shorts in front of bendy teenagers. Designed to strengthen and stretch the muscles, all these exercises should be performed in loose, comfy clothing, on a mat or rug on the floor. The pelvic muscles should be engaged, stomach muscles pulled tight and the spine in a neutral position.
Lie on your tummy with your arms out in front. Lift your head and come up onto your forearms. Making one leg as long as possible, point the toes and lift a few inches. Flex foot at the top, point again and return foot to the floor. Repeat six or eight times, then do the other leg.
Lie on one side, with hips square to the floor and legs together. Engage the stomach muscles for stability and balance. Point the toes of the top foot, sweep the toes up to the knee and then kick up with the toe still pointed, flex the foot at the top, then bring it down to the other leg. Do this six or eight times, then reverse the feet, flexing as the leg goes up and pointing the toe on the way down. Repeat on the other side.