Women take up where the girls left off
Amid the youthful chatter and homework-cramming at the Ballet Arts Studio in Beacon, a group of determined grown-ups are putting on their leotards and warming up their muscles in preparation for a weekly class.
Each of the women in the “low-intermediate adult ballet” session taught by Deanna Ford on Tuesday evenings has a history with ballet.
Juliet Harvey, 48, earned a bachelor of fine arts in dance, but took a long break until after the birth of her second child in 2010.
“I thought maybe I’d want to take a class again,” she explains. “Your mind is working as much, if not more, than your body. It was a reawakening, without the pressure I felt as a child. It’s my time, for myself, to move — a meditation. I’m definitely a much better mom because of it.”
Zarine Schildhorn, 30, has been dancing for 27 years. “I was very serious about it,” she says. She was injured in high school but danced through college while earning a degree in electrical engineering. She took a break during grad school but “my old ballet school reached out because they needed me for The Nutcracker. Now I don’t want to stop.
“It’s different from what most people think,” she says. “Electrical engineering is difficult, mental work. In ballet, a lot of thought goes into it, because while you’re trying to be technically perfect, you’re also filled with the emotion of the music.”
Patrice Shea, 58, considers ballet class “the only thing I do for myself all week; I make every effort to get here. As an adult, I feel it’s important to feel strong, flexible and balanced.” Shea said that, like Harvey, she stopped dancing when she had children but found herself wanting to get back into shape. “This class is a judgment-free zone,” she says.
Back to Tap
Adult tap classes are also popular at Ballet Arts Studio. Two regulars are Mitch and Amy Dul of Nelsonville.
“Mitch has always wanted to tap, so last year I bought him tap shoes for his 60th birthday,” Amy explains. “Our daughter, Tess, taught him some fundamentals, and he watched YouTube tutorials and practiced on a piece of plywood in the basement. Then we both signed up for Katie Bissinger’s beginner tap class.”
Mitch says he was intrigued because Amy and Tess “always look so joyful when they tap. There’s an unabashed happiness when they tap together and I like percussion and I saw it as a form of music.”
Amy Dul studied ballet as a child and modern dance at college, earning a master’s of fine arts in dance and dance education from New York University while performing with two avant-garde modern dance companies.
She began taking classes from Bissinger about six years ago but broke her toe and stopped. “Mitch and I started up together a year ago and it has been rewarding,” she says. “It’s great exercise and a great mental workout and fun to boot.”
Mitch’s dance background is more limited. “In the late 1970s and ’80s, Lynn Swann, a wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers — my favorite team — was a strong advocate for taking dance classes,” so Mitch took some modern and ballet classes as an undergraduate — but no tap. “What’s surprised me about tap is how counterintuitive it is,” he says. “It’s not like any other form of dance. It’s like asking my feet to do something they wouldn’t naturally do.”
Michele Humphrey-Nicol, 58, has the most professional experience of the group. While she was growing up in Ohio, her mother took her “kicking and screaming” to class from the second through sixth grades. But after seeing a production of A Chorus Line at age 13, she was hooked. She later won a scholarship to the Cleveland Ballet, moved to New York City, and performed in musical theater, including the national tour of Cats, for 15 years.
Today she is a physical therapist and Pilates instructor. The Tuesday ballet class “helps keep my sanity,” she says. “It’s extremely challenging, wonderful for physical expression, balance, bone density. Deanna is an amazing instructor.”
The dancers say ballet isn’t like riding a bicycle — it doesn’t all come back right.
“Jumping is hard,” Harvey says. “The gravity is tough.” For Shea, it’s the turns, but she is forgiving. “You have to accept the limitations of your body as you age,” she says. “We’re not going to beat ourselves up if we can’t do a triple pirouette.” Dizziness is a factor for Humphrey-Nicol, as is flexibility. “It’s hard — ridiculously bad from when I was younger,” she says.
The women critique themselves, but the class environment is the opposite. “My former teacher was from the Royal Ballet, trained in a strict syllabus, everyone focused on themselves — all of which are very good for a child taking a class,” says Schildhorn. “As an adult, everyone talks and laughs and has conversations.” She says she also enjoys her classes at a Kingston studio “with 15- and 16-year-olds. There I’m the weird old person.”
“We know we’re not going to be professional dancers,” says Shea. “This hour and a half empties your mind completely of work and other problems. It’s a mental break the way no other mental break can be.” After all, adds Harvey: “I’m so much kinder to myself now than when I was in my teens.”
Ballet Arts Studio is located at 107 Teller Ave. in Beacon. For adults, beginner ballet meets Wednesday, low-intermediate ballet on Tuesday, and beginner tap on Monday. Each class begins at 7:30 p.m. The first session for newcomers is $18, after which cards for eight classes during a three-month period can be purchased for $120. Classes run through June 1. See balletartsstudio.com or call 845-831-1870.