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Gotta Dance! Adults Rediscover Ballet

Classic, graceful moves stretch muscles, mind

[Originally published in the Miami Herald; not in online archive.]

Tony Catanzaro paces, hawk-eyed, between the barres.

“Chin and head up, heels forward, press back, toes down,” he barks at the would-be ballerinas.

He demonstrates a combination, posture ramrod-straight, arms and feet beating like wings, all light and air and grace.

The dancers imitate—or try to. Some can raise their legs higher than others can. Some wobble off-balance or cling to the barre. They are not together.

They don’t care.

They are “adult beginners,” a potentially humiliating designation they ignore because they’re getting good exercise. Many are losing weight. Stretching muscles.

And something more.

“I used to go to the gym, but I got very bored. Here, you can express yourself,” says Helen Kleinpeter, a student in her late 30s taking Catanzaro’s class at the Ballet Academy of Miami.

“You’re always learning something. In dance, you get a workout and you’re using an art form.”

Ivonne Labrada, 26, a Catanzaro student who once danced with Dance Theatre of Harlem, agrees.

“You develop more strength and stamina from ballet. Your muscles are lengthened. You don’t look bulky or stocky. Ballet gives you a more feminine, ethereal look.”

For those who hunger for discipline, classicism, and something more esthetically satisfying than stepping or bounding to blaring rock, ballet may be a great workout.

“It makes you much more flexible and provides muscle toning, though not as much as weight training,” said Janet Parke, a fitness instructor at Broward Community College.

“Once they get into strenuous workouts with leaping moves, they are getting their heart rate up, so it can be considered aerobic.”

Exercise doesn’t have to be continuous to be aerobic, as long as it raises your heart rate. Her only caution: If you’re over 35 and haven’t been aerobically active, see your doctor first. And don’t give way to the temptation to make up for lost time by yanking limbs out of their sockets. Increase your range gradually.

Adult ballet students often have inhibitions, said Renee Zintgraff, a veteran teacher at the Miami Conservatory. Yet self-consciousness can vanish quickly.

She handles her class firmly, speaking in a stew of English, Spanish, Russian and French, constantly reminding students how far they have come.

“At first—Remember?—You thought you were going to die,” she says after leading a class through a stretch sequence that involves grabbing the foot and pulling it up above the head, then higher and to the side.

Accomplishing the seemingly impossible is part of the allure of ballet.

Most ballet studies are offering adult beginner classes, said Rebecca Terrell, executive director of the Florida Dance Association in Miami.

“It’s not how they make their bread and butter, but there’s enough interest to warrant a class or two.”

“There are those who never had the opportunity as children, but always wanted to and decided there’s no time like now. We have students from college through their 40s and 50s,” said Megan Mackey, director of the School of Ballet Florida in West Palm Beach.

Some go on to intermediate classes; others stay in the beginning class for years. Few graduate to the pointe-shoe classes necessary for professionals.

“Pointe work is very difficult and can be very painful, very hard on your feet,” Mackey said. “I don’t recommend it if you’ve never tried it.”

No pink satin pointe shoes, no silk bodices and skirts of tulle, no footlights, no cries of “Bravo!” and no audition requests from the Miami City Ballet await the adult beginner.

“We’re not talking about a professional career as a ballerina,” Catanzaro says.

But a persistent older beginner can be moving across the floor and dancing in two years.

Despite the pain and hard work, they keep coming back.