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The Growth of Adult's Ballet

By Dr. Tania Kopytko

This research was undertaken and published in Issue 40 of the DANZ Magazine in 2015

Dance continues to grow internationally as an art and recreational form and one of the more recent growth areas is reported to be adult’s ballet. The growth is across diverse cultures. In China ballet for senior citizens is popular in senior citizens’ schools and, similarly in Russia, ballet for adults is also increasing due to the growth of the middle classes who partake in broader leisure and recreational activities. A YouTube search will provide hundreds of examples of adult ballet classes and projects across the globe. In the UK it is currently seen as an untapped market for studios, particularly in a weak economy. The Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) has covered the growth in various RAD magazine articles, and has provided training for specialist approaches to teaching adults. In 2013 the RAD reported that there had been a 70% jump in the number of adult dancers, dubbed “the silver swans”, signing up for classes in recent years.

Films such as The Black Swan and TV series featuring adults and ballet has encouraged this growth. The Russians (since 1994) and then the English (2014) created projects and then TV series on the theme of “Big Ballet” about adults performing who were also not the usual slim size associated with ballet dancers. In the UK various high profile dance organisations have run promotional projects. A week of free ballet lessons, including classes for adults, was held across Scotland following the Genée Ballet Competition in Glasgow, as part of creating a legacy of dance in the local community. The publicised Scottish Ballet’s Regenerate adults ballet group are in their 60s and 70s, with the eldest 102, and have been overwhelmed with responses to join. Sadlers Wells successfully runs two ballet classes for over 55s. All this activity reinforces other general changes in dance attitude over the past 15 years. Some call it the “democratisation of dance” – that is re-embracing “dance for all”, or recognising dance’s part in the general fabric of society rather than an occupation or past time just for the young of specific body size and shape.

In New Zealand we are up to three and sometimes four generations of families, mainly in the female line, who have learned ballet in one studio. This is creating a major New Zealand ballet legacy and contributing to the support and growth of the art form in many ways. It is an organic growth, increasing as generations grow. Many grandmothers and mothers are encouraging their children to take up ballet and providing the support for the youngsters to get to lessons. Mothers and grandmothers remember how they loved ballet and decide also to attend classes at the same studio. But new non-ballet legacy adults are also joining the groundswell.

The growth in adult’s ballet has been noticed in the New Zealand media sometimes positively, sometimes less so. The NZ Woman’s Weekly ran an article on “Why Ballet is Good for You” on the 16th of May 2014 citing improved posture, boosting mood, improved balance, easing stress and using little used muscles amongst the benefits.

DANZ has undertaken a small New Zealand survey to see if the worldwide movement is happening here. Five studios or dance projects in Dunedin, Napier, Auckland and Wellington responded to our call for information and thirty-five adults returned questionnaires. The information gives some food for thought for dance teachers providing classes for adults.

The respondents were aged between 14 and 62. One 14 year old was learning ballet to improve her gymnastics but also commented: “I love ballet! I never really thought I would, but I really do!” Of the participants the majority were in their 40s and 50s.

Of the 35 participants, 33 were female.

15% had always wanted to learn ballet before, but it had not been affordable or possible in their childhood.

20% had never done any ballet before while 43% indicated they had learned ballet as a child.
32% had started ballet in the past year while 20% had been attending an adult’s ballet class for between two to four years. Three of the participants had been learning ballet for between 20 and 30 years, first as a child then continuing on through adulthood: “I never really stopped.” “It’s part of my life.”

People joined for a variety of reasons but physical and mental health were the most commonly cited reasons for joining. Other reasons given included they were bored with the repetitiveness of the gym or Zumba, they were competitive so liked that element in ballet and were taking exams, they liked the discipline and attention needed in ballet, they loved the artistry or the flow of the movements to beautiful music. For many it offered a vastly different world from their work and family.

57% hoped the adult’s ballet class would also introduce them to a new social life, where they would meet new friends, make new social connections or meet people of like mind and maybe also enjoy group activity beyond the class, such as attend ballet performances or dance movies. “I took those who were interested to observe the RNZBC doing a warmup class before the performance and the performance - both of which they loved.”

48% wanted mental stimulation, a challenge, mental fitness, a “sanity saver”, mental discipline and relaxation. Participants said: “It makes my day feel better – I leave feeling good.” “It makes me feel young.” “Ballet uses different thought processes; it is a great relaxer and reviver.”

The key improvements people were looking for through adult’s ballet were physical ones such as strengthening, posture, flexibility and stretching, or mental ones such as stimulation and challenge through to relaxation and escape. But there was also a strong desire for social activity linked to the class and the art form, perhaps a new area for a dance teacher to expand into or delegate to a class member to manage.

We asked people what improvements could happen. Most were very satisfied with their current classes but some wanted more than one class a week and some wanted more chances to dance or “perform and complete routines or dances” to beautiful music rather than ballet exercises, or “more movement and not too much standing around”. Some participants wanted more feedback in order to improve their technique, for example “to improve our line, hands or arms”. This would suggest that asking for feedback on the class would help improve what the teacher provides and contribute to student motivation and retention.

The major improvement needed was in promotion and communication with many referring to the great difficulty in finding information on adult’s ballet in their local area. Some said that while ballet schools and studios clearly advertised their children’s classes they didn’t often promote their adult’s dance classes.

60% of the participants had used Google to look for information on adult’s ballet. Others had asked around, looked in the Yellow pages, or found out through word of mouth. 40% of the participants said that they had difficulty finding information, including a slow studio response to their enquiry. People also requested clear information on the class such as whether it was primarily a social class or a serious class.

This suggests that studios need to improve their on line presence and if they want to attract an adult market, they have to specifically advertise this aspect of their business.

Some participants chose to share what they had experienced in the past that had put them off adult’s ballet. The responses give us some insights into the specific needs of adult dance learners and why teachers who teach adult’s dance need to be attuned to this and take it seriously.

“I really appreciate classes being designed for adult beginners to learn and progress and not just (where the teacher will) turn up and go through the motions” and “I have had some teachers (in the past) who see adults as ‘futureless’ so they don’t encourage striving and development”. Another said it is apparent in a class when the teacher sees adult students as “cash cows” for their business and their focus is really on young students.

The teachers involved in the projects and classes in this study backed up these observations. They believe the key to great adult ballet classes is keeping it fun but still teaching the basics;  continuity from week to week but taking different approaches according to the class needs - “some want to do syllabus work while others are performance orientated, so it is important to know what they are interested in and plan for that."

Variety in content, approach and complexity provided stimulation for the adult mind as well as meeting various physical and movement needs: “Making it broad ranging in context, musicality and technique. I talk about Louis 14th, Taglioni etc - to give them a sense of the heritage of ballet. I also make a point of encouraging them even as I'm being quite particular about posture and technique…I like to get them waltzing and travelling - having some fun with moving around the studio in a simple way. The beginners enjoy this aerobic aspect also”.

Other teachers talked about the importance of being aware of safety, as adults may have had injuries or other physical issues that the teacher needs to be aware of; and some studios organise block bookings for their adult students to attend dance performances.

Teachers stressed that understanding the way adults learn and teaching to their needs was very important:

“Adults tend to process mentally before implementing things in their bodies, while children tend to mimic until they understand what they are trying to achieve.” The value was well understood: “These classes give a strong life-style message that dance is an essential and important part or your life.”

The small survey shows the desire for adult’s ballet exists in New Zealand and perhaps this is as yet an untapped market. It also shows that adults have specific expectations for their classes and want to be taken seriously as dance students within the parameters of an adult’s dance experience. Within this also lie many opportunities for the growth and appreciation of ballet and the ballet audience.

Thank you sincerely to the dance studios and projects, teachers and adult students who contributed to this research.

Links for more information
Silver Swans (BBC)
Health benefits of ballet for older adults (Daily Mail)
Big Ballet UK 
Big Ballet Russia (YouTube)

Download the article/resource (Iss. 40) The Growth of Adult's Ballet

The Growth of Adult's Ballet - Full Article

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