I woke up recently with the strangest thought: “I want to try a ballet workout.”
It’s a big trend going back a decade or so, and it's something I’ve considered trying ever since I heard that Natalie Portman used a ballet workout to get in shape for the movie “Black Swan.” I went as far as to purchase a ballet workout video back when the movie was released, but the workout was seriously hard. I was never able to finish even one session despite the fact that I used to be a fitness buff.
But now I really wanted to do it. I had seen a YouTube video of an 80-year-old female bodybuilder who made the Guinness Book of World Records, and a 90-year-old gymnast who also held a world’s record. Clearly, I was falling behind in the world of senior citizen fitness. And while I had no desire to become a championship bodybuilder, maybe I could achieve the body of a dancer, and maybe I could achieve that goal with a ballet workout.
In truth, this was much more than a vanity issue. At my age, workouts are less about beauty and more about health, because excess weight combined with depleting collagen equals a butt that feels like carpet bags attached with bungee cords. It’s uncomfortable. So maybe a new workout would help my body feel more like a new car and less like an old clunker.
So I went online and found a local studio that offered barre classes at a convenient time. Then I went on YouTube and found videos of the classes. The moves didn’t look too difficult, but there seemed to be some sort of uniform. The dancers were all wearing workout leggings. Was that required? I didn’t own any fitness leggings, only bike shorts. Would I be admitted in bike shorts? Better not chance it. If there's one thing I remember from my one semester of ballet (a long time ago), it was that ballet instructors have no sense of humor about attire. If they say wear a black leotard and pink tights, they mean wear a black leotard and pink tights. No substitutions.
So I rushed out to the fitness supply store and bought some black compression pants. I tried on about 20 pairs before finally settling on a pair that would hug my butt without cutting off circulation to my ankles. I wore the pants out of the store and raced to class.
When I arrived at the studio, I found there was something else ballet people don’t have a sense of humor about: Late arrivals. My phone said I was 2 minutes early. The woman blocking the door said I was 90 seconds late. The digital clock just over her shoulder backed her up.
As I stood there, despondent, I was offered a form to fill out, registering me to attend classes. I was given a visual onceover and told my clothes were suitable. (I had been right! Bike shorts weren’t allowed!) I was encouraged to make a reservation to attend a class later that day. Finally, I was given a legal disclaimer to sign.
“Is this the form that says if I drop dead in class it’s not your fault? And my family will be responsible for cleaning up my remains at their own expense?” I quipped.
“Yes, that’s right,” she said. No sense of humor at all.
I toyed with the idea of never going back, but my hurt feelings had subsided by late afternoon. After all, I still had an aging body to consider, so I suited up and went to my first ballet fitness class.
It was insane!
They started with 20 alternating leg lifts and a few stretches. Then they went down to the floor for planks followed by one-arm planks, followed by fast alternating one-arm planks with resistance bands. This was the warmup?! PLANKS!? Who the (expletive deleted) warms up with planks?
In my limited imagination, workouts start with marching in place for 3 minutes, followed by gentle stretches and wiggling your joints for 3 more minutes. Only then can you slowly and gradually work up to an aerobic heartbeat and a gentle sweat.
But this! This was altogether different. This was a (gasp!) dance boot camp where (gasp!) judging from the technique and physiques (wheeze!) current and former dancers came to test their chops.
To make matters worse, a stereo blared a jumble of mind-numbing disco mixes as the teacher’s voice crackled through an even louder headset. It was like working out in a fog horn. The jumble of sound waves blocked out everything except the pain and my desire to cut and run.
The class leader strolled the floor calling out moves that were designed to be uncomfortable. One move called for us to get on our knees and press our chests to the barre, unless you were short as me, in which case you had to just hang your chin over the barre and hold on like a cat trying not to fall out of a tree.
“Now pulse, pulse, pulse, pulse …!” she enthused.
What the heck was I supposed to be pulsing? I tried to match the position of the rest of the class, but I couldn’t tell which direction they were pulsing, so I just held a static pose until I couldn’t stand it anymore. Then I let my forehead slump against the barre, too depleted to do more than curse the agreement that said I wouldn’t arrive late or leave early.
When it was all over, I collapsed near tears. The woman next to me saw my wet eyes and offered encouragement.
“You did great,” she said in an angelic voice. “Set a goal for yourself. Your first goal is to come back.”
It says something about a workout class when your first goal is to muster the nerve to show up again.
Then something really cool happened. The next morning, I didn’t feel wrecked. I actually felt a little boost of energy, better than I’d felt all summer. Furthermore, I didn’t hate the class anymore. I was starting to see it more as a challenge. Maybe I could give it another try. Maybe with a little additional warmup, it could be fun. Maybe I could do 20-minutes on the elliptical before going in to class. That might help.
With this in mind, I went to the mall for another pair of workout pants (signaling commit). This time I monitored the clock closely. No more time slipups. I found a pair of spandex capris that fit very comfortably, raced to the gym to warmup on the elliptical, then showed up to class 15 minutes early.
I could do this. I would conquer this (multiple-syllable-expletive-deleted) class. I introduced myself to some nearby classmates who offered helpful survival tips. This time, when the doors closed, I wasn’t in a workout class. I was a member of an elite fitness team, matching my movements to the movements of the other troupers. The music still didn’t make sense, but the reflection in the mirror of the class moving in sync was empowering, and that was enough to get me through.
Hal Hutchison, M.Ed.
Hal Wofford Hutchison, M.Ed., is a former columnist, writer and editor for the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette newspapers. She has also been a secondary educator, and a university counselor and administrator. She lives in Little Rock, Ark., with her husband of 23 years and their daughter.