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How I discovered a love for ballet as an adult

Connie Hanzhang Jin/NPR

Sometimes you can find new interests in old places. For me, it was discovering a love of ballet more than 15 years after I first started training.

Let me explain. I took ballet lessons from second grade to the end of high school. Dance, in its various forms, dominated my adolescence. In high school, most weeknights and weekends were devoted to training or rehearsals.

My parents put me in classes as a kid and I just sort of kept going — I enjoyed the mental and physical exercise, mostly. It's strange, looking back on those years now, because while I certainly didn't hate it, I don't know that I had any particular passion for it either. I didn't stay after class to perfect my turns. I never sought out clips of performances online. When I watch performances of my favorite dancers now, I rarely felt the kind of radiant energy that I see on their faces — their pure joy in movement.

<strong data-stringify-type="bold">Connie Hanzhang Jin </strong>is a graphics reporter at NPR.
/ Anisha Datta
Anisha Datta
Connie Hanzhang Jin is a graphics reporter at NPR.

When I went to college, I dabbled in a couple of dance groups, but never with a level of commitment. After I graduated and started working, things fizzled out even more. I went to a couple dance classes, but I felt out of shape and uninspired. It felt like I was slowly closing a chapter in my life, with no particular sorrow about the matter.

It wasn't until the pandemic hit and I moved back in with my parents that things changed.

The ladies who sparked my love for ballet

I can't pinpoint what exactly led to my decision to start classes at a local studio in my hometown — boredom, a desire to get out of the house, a need to move my body to music again — but I can nail down what helped spark a genuine love for the art.

It was the group of adults that I ended up taking classes with: around 20 Chinese ladies, all of them starting ballet as adults.

Stepping into the studio again unearthed a whole set of unexpected feelings. My body felt foreign and uncertain. I fell out of turns, dizzy with movement. I wasn't strong or flexible enough to accomplish moves that used to be second nature. I had to stop to gasp for breath after each combination in the center.

Mostly, I felt ashamed and frustrated at my body for what it could no longer do.

But my classmates helped. They cheered me on and complimented me when I felt self conscious, which was often. In turn, I'd give advice on moves that they were struggling with, if they asked.

Our teacher Miguel treated us both like proper students, consistently challenging us when we had mastered certain moves, but also as adults who knew their own limits and desires. It was a level of respect and autonomy very different from the training I was used to as an adolescent.

John Wessels / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images

Finding a new purpose in my passion

The longer I watched these women in class and got to know them, the more I was moved by their dedication. Ballet, like certain other disciplines such as gymnastics or figure skating, can feel like an intensive activity bound to the realm of childhood. Statistically, it's very unlikely for someone to successfully pursue a career as a ballerina if they start training as an adult. Alternatively, recreational adult programs with structured difficulty levels, intensive instruction and performance opportunities are rare outside of major cities.

As an adult, it can feel daunting to start in that landscape. Even as a returning dancer, I felt a lot of doubt and shame. What was the point?

But this was a group of middle-aged women, many of whom attended class multiple times a week, who would stay after class to perfect their moves, who advocated for their own education and sought out performance opportunities. Some of them had been coming to classes for years. Here was the point staring me right in the face — it didn't matter; they just loved to dance.

Their passion for ballet helped me see it in a new light. It didn't need to be competitive; it was something people did for fun, no matter their skill level or previous experience. It helped me orient myself when I was struggling — that I was doing this for myself at the end of the day.

Slowly, it began to feel challenging in a good way. I started setting realistic goals for myself — getting my double turns back, or getting my leg extensions past 90 degrees. Little by little, it felt silly to hold all this pressure for perfection on myself.

Because truly, who cared? In a way, I was totally isolated in this endeavor — I wasn't taking classes at my old school or with anyone I knew. I was living with my parents and working from home, so I didn't have much of a social calendar. My days were occupied with work and dance. There wasn't a big performance to train for, or anyone to stress about comparing myself to, or competing for roles.

Redirecting energy back to myself

I started having fun, and I started surprising myself. I found myself wanting to stay after class with them and trade tips. They invited me into their WeChat group. In my spare time, I'd sometimes find myself watching ballet performances online.

They were learning pointe — why not do it too? They were performing with the rest of the school at the year-end show — why not join in?

I've found that when you dance, it's an exercise in directing your energy to a number of different areas. For example, smiling for the audience, making your teachers proud, or constantly keeping in mind a dozen different corrections to perfect your technique. Like all the best cons, when done well, this feat looks effortless.

I spent that year with the ladies redirecting all that energy back to myself. Asking my body what it felt ready for, or what it felt excited to do, or what felt scary or uncomfortable. It was fine if I had an off day in class. If an old injury flared up, it was OK to rest for however long it took to feel better. If my shoes were uncomfortable, I didn't need to fight through pain to perform.

When we stepped on stage for our year-end performance, I felt the effects of that sustained attention. There were the usual thoughts — paying attention to our formations in my peripheral vision, remembering last-minute corrections — but they only skimmed the surface of the joy I felt as my body flowed through well-practiced movements. I grinned into the dark auditorium, past the bright stage lights and ghostly faces of the audience.

One of my college friends came to watch one of our shows for the first time. In the lobby afterward, after the mingled rush of greetings and congratulations, she remarked, "Wow, I can tell you really like to dance!"

I smiled and nodded. It was true.

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