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Advice for Late Starters to Ballet

I was a late starter to dance and still managed to reach pre-professional level. I am back after a hiatus, still with high aspirations.

How do you become a professional (or even a pre-professional)-level dancer?

Society would have you believe that you must discover your potential before kindergarten and start training by the age of eight. In fact, as soon as you're out of diapers would be ideal.

If you're one of this special minority (who seem to always make up the majority in dance studios), then just stick with the program, work hard, and you'll see yourself climb through the ranks.

But what if you started older? What if you started... as a teenager or later?

You probably will have noticed very quickly that you don't have nearly the opportunities available to you. Many studios are designed precisely with the above model in mind—with the intention that seriously minded students will start as children and work their way up as they grow up, ultimately reaching their prime by their early to mid-teens.

The teens and adults without that head start are often put into one class that takes place once a week. Most of the people in such classes have pretty much accepted that their ship has sailed (or just have other commitments and don't want to mortgage their life for dance), and don't mind the fact that the youngsters in the company program get all the attention while they are just an afterthought, if even that. Most of them won't even be there but a year or two anyway.

But you know you're different. You know you still have the talent and the work ethic, and all you want is to have the same opportunities to succeed as your early starting counterparts. And you know with the right support and training, you could do very well.

What do you do? Where do you go from here?

My very first dance performance, at 14 years old. I started dance when I took it for the first time as an elective in middle school.

My very first dance performance, at 14 years old. I started dance when I took it for the first time as an elective in middle school.

First, let me tell you that you're not alone. I was once in your position, and the psychological effects were great. I hated watching dance because all the performers started when they were eight or younger, and so it was just a visual of what society (and possibly my instructors) were convinced I'd never be. I was always afraid to talk to my instructors about my goals as I always feared that they'd be brutally honest about my late start giving me a lower ceiling as far as my potential was concerned.

If you think dancers who started at age three are in a race against time, think how I felt starting dance at 14 (and not starting ballet until 15). My biggest fear was never being allowed to go en pointe. Once I was over that hurdle, the fear of not progressing was always in the back of my mind. Struggling with a move felt worse than death because I could not afford to be held back. I was already older than all my classmates as it was.

But over time I've also come to know that all was not lost.

As I venture back into dance (after falling out of love with it during some difficult years in college), I have come to discover many things which would have helped me tremendously just starting out. Here is what I would tell my former self, which is also my advice to other late starters as well as those returning to dance after a hiatus.

While there are no guarantees and I can't promise you anything, I hope these tips will help aid your progress and make your experience go a lot more smoothly.

In my Spanish costume for the Nutcracker, for my studio's pre-company ballet.

In my Spanish costume for the Nutcracker, for my studio's pre-company ballet.

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1. If Possible, Find an Accommodating Studio

Depending on your location, this could be the hardest part. By no means am I asking you to uproot all for a dance studio, but communication is key here.

I remember when I was first starting out, I was in the adult beginner class, because that is all my studio had for people my age. The problem was that they did not have any higher level classes for teens and adults, even upon satisfactory completion of the required skills in the beginner class. My mother inquired about this, and simply stated to my instructor that I wanted to be in a ballet class that was "going somewhere." My instructor then spoke to the studio director, who suggested that I try the pre-company class. They would then see how it went and go from there.

The only disadvantage was that I had to take class with some much younger girls. I was 16 and everyone else in the class was 10 or 11. But that was not so important to me as was the fact that I was now on track to achieving my goals.

Check with your local studio and explain to them what it is you're looking for. If your studio is anything like mine was, they might allow you into their company or progressive ballet program, but you'll have to take in stride the fact that you'll probably be the oldest in your class by a pretty substantial margin. You may or may not stand out on stage depending on how much older you are.

The most important thing at this point is how much you're learning and how effectively you're applying it to your dancing.

2. Focus on the Present, Not the Future

I was going to say to evaluate just how badly you want this, however, if you've gone so far as to search for late starter tips, I am assuming you've already decided what a ballet career means to you and why you want to do it.

Instead, I am going to advise you that living in the present moment will, in the long run, take you much further than having (perpetual) tunnel vision about your dreams for the future. This was a hard lesson for me to learn, and one I am still working on as I am a perfectionist by nature whom God did not bless with the virtue of patience. When I want something, I need it now.

By no means should you let go of your dreams for the future. But in time, you will also notice that the people who seem to make it the furthest in their careers are the ones who embrace the journey and the learning process, rather than the ones who obsess over the future incessantly.

It makes sense, too, as they are giving each moment of their training their undivided focus, rather than having that focus plagued by images of what may or may not happen to them five to ten years down the road.

It is an easy trap to all into as a late starter as you feel you've already lost so much time, but it is not a mindset worth getting stuck in.

Photo taken after my very first pointe lesson. My first pair of pointe shoes was more exciting than my drivers' license (yes, really).

Photo taken after my very first pointe lesson. My first pair of pointe shoes was more exciting than my drivers' license (yes, really).

3. You Are Never Too Good for the Basics... Ever!

This was probably one of my biggest mistakes as a young dancer, and I regret not realizing it until about five years into my training. I have come to find, however, that the sooner you realize it, the better:

What truly separates the "elite" from everyone else is not how capable they are of performing advanced skills, but rather the fact that they have cleaner, more precise basics than everyone else.

If you take nothing else from these three pieces of advice I have included here, at least take this to heart.

I think I always knew this deep down, but because of my late start, I had it ingrained into my mind that it was too late. I found pretty early on that because of my muscular build, anything that tended to favor "brute" strength came naturally, and with that, I could jump higher than everyone else without much effort. I grew to feel that since my basics were never going to be great, I needed a stand-out move to make up for it, and so big jumps became my trademark. I always hated it when I had to do a part on stage that only consisted of "easy" steps. I also felt that since I was in one of my studio's highest level classes, I should be over the basics.

I later had a strict Russian instructor who drilled the basics with us over and over and over. At first, I thought it was a regression from where I was (or felt I was) before, and went through the motions without really seeing the point of it. Whenever I would mess up on one of these basic steps, I would come home and lament that, "It's so easy it's hard."

Often the basics seem so simple that our brain wants to make them harder than they are. Other times, we feel we're so much more advanced than that, or so intent to progress quickly that we feel we must look that much more impressive when performing these basic steps, which leads us to psyche ourselves out.

Always working to better your basics does not mean regression. If you can spare the time and expense, it would actually be extremely helpful to take a beginner class to supplement your other classes. If not, practice on your own time. I have found "The Ballet Workout" DVD to be an invaluable resource on my journey back into dance, and wish I had used it more often when I was younger.

The stronger your basics are, the better your overall technique and more efficient your progress will be, regardless of your current skill level.

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