Adult ballet classes: It's not too late to find your Sugar Plum Fairy
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The Nutcracker, Swan Lake - Christmas wouldn't be the same without these classic ballets - and if you've ever yearned to pas de deux or Arabesque, then it's not too late, adult ballet is the classiest new fitness class, writes Julie Lucas...
In the years I spent watching my daughter’s ballet lessons, and the proud mummy feeling that (gulp) made me for reach for a tissue whenever Emma performed or effortlessly passed yet another exam, I often felt a nagging regret that I hadn’t been blessed with such an opportunity.
True, contemporary dance was my thing while growing up. But the appeal of ballet’s timeless qualities - beauty, elegance and femininity - has never waned.
Well, it’s never too late. No, really. Because thanks to professional ballerina, Syanne Day - one of a rising number of tutors now offering adult ballet fitness - my dream has finally come true.
‘I adore teaching and my adult ballet classes target beginners and intermediate level,’ Syanne explains. ‘My aim is for everyone, no matter their age or experience to enjoy dancing.’
A couple of days before my debut, sorry, ballet class, I meet Syanne to discuss her dancing career which began as a toddler when she was ‘transfixed watching my older sister’s classes.’
The epitome of grace, she attended Jayne Marie Dancing School in Berkhamsted before moving to Birmingham where she boarded at the independent Elmhurst Ballet School.
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Still in her early teens but undaunted by the move to our second biggest city, this life-changing experience set her up for the next stage of training.
‘Being at Elmhurst was a dancer’s dream, with long, hard days dancing,' she says. 'Then, at 16, I went to London to join English National Ballet School. Another exciting move which I loved!’
The audition process for the national school began with photographs to ascertain her aesthetics as a ballet dancer - turn out, lines - followed by a class in which her flexibility was tested. The final audition also included a physio assessment to check spine, leg measurement and hip rotation. ‘Two days later I received a letter saying I’d been accepted.’
I prepare myself for my slightly less rigorous first class. It’s been a few years since she last pirouetted, but when I mention the class to my daughter she insists on coming along and immediately dug out her old ballet shoes.
Don’t worry if you’ve never owned a pair, several of the dozen or so women who attended, including me, were barefoot. Ballet clothes aren’t a requirement either; leggings or gym workout gear are ideal as they allow for free, unhindered movement.
Is it just for women? Syanne says she has several men attending classes too, especially online.
I confess to feeling a little nervous when we arrived at Warners End Community Centre in Hemel Hempstead. Would my pliés let me down? Would I be too busy focusing on my balance to follow instructions?
Honestly, I needn’t have worried. Syanne stressed that everyone should engage at their own level and soon we were gliding between first and fifth positions.
Gently encouraging, she explained and demonstrated each move. Yes, being on tiptoes took a lot of concentration but, like my fellow dancers, I used a chair for balance as we were guided through relevés and chassés to a background of classical and contemporary music.
A positive energy pervaded the room, a credit not only to Syanne’s artistic skill but her passion for teaching.
Syanne's tutoring skills were enhanced when she studied professional ballet practice at university. ‘I hadn’t done A Levels so thought I should get a degree and tick that box,' she explains. 'The course was all about developing myself as a performer or in any other way to do with dance. I chose to look at teaching theories.’
In fact, she has been teaching since the age of 16. Although a gruelling four years at ENB involved dedicating herself to performance, two nasty injuries - a split tendon in her ankle and shin stress fractures - scuppered her career for a while.
Unable to perform, teaching proved to be a stimulating alternative until, once recovered, her career progressed and she was soon cast in English National Ballet’s Swan Lake.
‘The Royal Albert Hall production was my first professional contract with ENB and I toured the UK with them,’ she recalls. While confessing to a degree of nerves, neither the emotion nor prestige of the venue unduly intimidated her.
She went on to work with other companies including Cork City Ballet, Mercurial Dance and Let’s All Dance and also secured leading roles in The Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty.
But back to Syanne’s current passion. In her new adult ballet class she has the knack of teaching renowned dance steps without intimidating anyone. ‘Make sure your palms are facing inwards in fifth position,’ we’re reminded, ‘Ballet is about precision. Point your toes, extend through the arms,’ she prompts before we continue with battements and are soon putting together a short routine which leaves everyone on a high.
By the end of the hour I am both relieved (the ever smiling Syanne insists she was impressed with both of us) and motivated (like my fellow students, I stayed upright). And so, our ballet fix sated, for a week at least, Emma and I feel toned, with our posture just that little bit more correct.
But how, I ask my daughter, did this compare to past classes? She doesn’t hold back her enthusiasm. ‘It was fun and a great intro for newbies or those who have not danced for a while. Syanne covered the core basics which are good for toning and core strength.’
As well as teaching, St Albans based Syanne still retains a passion for performing.
Unfulfilled ambitions include the black swan. ‘We learned the pas de deux at school and I loved the challenge of upholding the character whilst performing intricate work.
Another dream would be to perform the pas de deux in Kenneth MacMillan’s Concerto. Sugar Plum Fairy, which I have performed, was a dream.’
And what about theatres, does she have a favourite? ‘The smaller ones are quite nice because you can see the audience’s facial expressions.
'Actually, you can in the Royal Albert Hall, too. I must say, I love performing at intimate venues because you feel so close to the audience, but nothing beats the buzz of performing at iconic theatres like the London Coliseum or the Theatre Royal.’
With the rise of barre fitness, the popularity of adult ballet is on the increase. For Syanne, who reports a growing need for such classes in the county, this is good news.
It is for you, too. If you have never had the opportunity to dance, or it’s been a while since you tied the ribbons of your pink satin ballet shoes, I urge you to head to one of the growing number of classes, and release your inner Sugar Plum Fairy.
Adult ballet classes £40) are held at the Warners End Community Centre in Hemel Hempstead and online. For more on Syanne's classes, visit dancewithsyanne.com