More than once, when I'm sporting my faded, well-loved ballet hoodie, some slight variation of this conversation ensues:

"Is your daughter the dancer?"

"Actually," I say, "I am."

"Wow!" they enthuse. "Who do you dance with? Or have you retired...?"

"I don't dance with a company. I'm not a professional. I just take classes."

Insert mic drop/record scratch/quizzical looks.


Adult ballet dancers are a big question mark. Former professional? No. Dance teacher keeping up her technique? Hardly. Like a handful of adult dancers I know, I started ballet as a kid. I liked it okay but quit when I discovered singing and theater. My interest was resurrected in college, thanks to a professor who treated us like real dancers, not just kids looking to round out their academic load with electives. From that point on, I was hooked and took class on and off throughout my 20s and 30s.

About four years ago, when my daughter was a toddler, I had more time to devote to classes. After getting lots of "Sorry, we don't have classes for adults," I landed at The Brookline Ballet School near Boston, where I was challenged alongside students of all ages, from teens to 60-plus. I loved everything about class—from the first plié to my stilted saut de chat. My skills were woefully rusty, and it took a couple of years to make it from barre to grand allégro without feeling like my legs were going to fall off.

But even though I was progressing at a pretty good clip, I could never shake the feeling that I was kind of a joke, that adult students are an afterthought, in a placating, "Aw, that's cute" way. My teachers took us seriously, so why didn't others?

It didn't help that, a few days before my first pointe class for adults, I called a dancewear boutique about a shoe fitting and got the irksome question. Again.

"For your daughter?" the saleswoman asked.

"Nope. For me." I remembered how a former bunhead/acquaintance huffed when I told her I'd love to do pointe work one day. "Adults," she smirked, "have no business wearing pointe shoes." Her remark inferred that I was simply going to slip into a pair of Blochs and flail around like some wannabe ballerina. Of course, I knew that pursuing pointe meant ensuring I had the proper leg and ankle strength assessed by a teacher familiar with training adults. There would be hours and hours spent at the barre, doing more relevés than I could count. But I looked forward to savoring each wobbly échappé and piqué—even if the people in my life couldn't understand why a 45-year-old woman would devote so much time to something she would never, ever master.

Fortunately, there are teachers who relish older students. Kathy Mata, of Alonzo King LINES Ballet | Dance Center in San Francisco, is revered in the adult dance community. Wanting to give adults the chance to experience performing in front of an audience, she started Kathy Mata Ballet in 1988 and produces multiple shows a year.

Kat Wildish, a ballet teacher in New York City, gives her adult students opportunities to perform classical repertoire as part of a showcase held three weekends per year. They've grown from a 20-person studio audience in 2008 to frequently sold-out shows.

Mata feels that adults can bring a lot to ballet, and they shouldn't be overlooked as potentially powerful performers. "They have maturity and knowledge of life events—they really yearn to dance to fill their souls. Children sometimes follow the teacher, but the adult has the wisdom to digest the material given," says Mata.

The adults where I currently train, at Open Door Studios, in Charlotte, North Carolina, are all about soaking in corrections. We pepper our teachers with questions about arm placement or piqué turns, or laugh about striving to touch our legs to our ears with each grand battement. While I often default to what my body isn't able to do yet (multiple pirouettes, a penché to die for), I am hopeful, dedicated and determined.

The funny thing is, my now-6-year-old takes ballet. "Just like you," she says. That's right. Just like me.

Ballet Careers
Sisters Isabella Shaker and Alexandra Pullen. Photo Courtesy Alexandra Pullen.

This is the second in a series of articles this month about ballet siblings.

My mom was in the corps de ballet at American Ballet Theatre. A generation later, so was I. As if that's not enough for one family, my younger sister Isabella Shaker dreams of following in our dancing footsteps. Her endeavor, and her status as somewhat of a child prodigy, stirs feelings of pride and apprehension within me, since I have lived through the ups and downs of this intense yet rewarding career.

Ballet will always be my first love and the thing that brings me the most joy, and my dance career has opened endless opportunities for me. However, it's a difficult career path that requires a lifelong dedication. It's super competitive and can lead to body image issues, physical injury and stress. Most dancers will face some of these problems; I definitely dealt with all three.

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Ballet Stars
Photo by Gabriel Davalos, Courtesy Valdés

For decades the name Alicia Alonso has been virtually synonymous with Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the company she co-founded in Havana in 1948. Alonso died on October 17, just shy of what would have been her 99th birthday. In recent years, she had stepped back from day-to-day decision-making in the company. As if preparing for the future, in January, the company's leading ballerina, 42-year-old Viengsay Valdés, was named deputy director, a job that seems to encompass most of the responsibilities of a traditional director. Now, presumably, she will step into her new role as director of the company. Her debut as curator of the repertory comes in November, when the troupe will perform three mixed bills selected by her at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso. The following has been translated from a conversation conducted in Spanish, Valdés' native tongue.

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Ballet Stars
Photo by Jayme Thornton

It's National Bullying Prevention Month—and Houston Ballet breakout star Harper Watters is exactly the advocate young dancers facing bullying need. Watters is no novice when it comes to slaying on social media, but his Bullying Prevention Month collaboration with Teen Vogue and Instagram is him at his most raw, speaking about his own experiences with bullies, and how his love of dance helped him to overcome adversity. Watters even penned an incredible op-ed for Teen Vogue's website, where he talks candidly about growing up queer. Catch his amazing anti-bullying video here—and, as Watters says, "Stay fabulous, stay flawless, stay flexible, but most importantly, stay fearless."

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News
Alicia Alonso with Igor Youskevitch. Sedge Leblang, Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives.

Her Dying Swan was as fragile as her Juliet was rebellious; her Odile, scheming, her Swanilda, insouciant. Her Belle was joyous, and her Carmen, both brooding and full-blooded. But there was one role in particular that prompted dance critic Arnold Haskell to ask, "How do you interpret Giselle when you are Giselle?"

At eight, Alicia Alonso took her first ballet class on a stage in her native Cuba, wearing street clothes. Fifteen years later, put in for an ailing Alicia Markova in a performance of Giselle with Ballet Theatre, she staked her claim to that title role.

Alonso received recognition throughout the world for her flawless technique and her ability to become one with the characters she danced, even after she became nearly blind. After a career in New York, she and her then husband Fernando Alonso established the Cuban National Ballet and the Cuban National Ballet School, both of which grew into major international dance powerhouses and beloved institutions in their home country. On October 17, the company announced that, after leading the company for a remarkable 71 years, Alonso died from cardiovascular disease at the age of 98.

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