Football socks. Tracksuit bottoms. Old t-shirt. No this isn't the attire of someone languidly sat on the sofa on a Sunday. This is the uniform I have suggested my Male Adult Beginner wears for his first ballet class with me! This outfit, like his many corporate suits, is one he is undoubtedly used to. But when he walks into the dance studio and stands facing the floor-to-ceiling mirror, he is trying on his ballet posture for the very first time in his life . . .
When one thinks about ballet, this image is a far cry from its iconic pink tutu wearing, precisely posed ballerina with razor sharp alignment and exquisitely shaped feet. The reality of this situation is that Male Adult Beginner wants to discover the fitness and health benefits basic classical ballet training can give him, so we are starting from the beginning. And in the beginning, you want to be comfortable. No flamboyant costume. No exaggerated make-up. All he has is enthusiasm and an open mind - the perfect partnership!
His key objectives for beginning ballet classes are clear; aside from being inspired by Rio Ferdinand and Jean Claude Van Damme (who both took ballet classes to improve their fitness) he'd like to increase his flexibility, to stand better and exude more confidence when giving presentations at work, plus he's "never had great core strength". One of the funniest things about my job as a ballet teacher is knowing that just the warm up will get these guys sweating! A few demi plies, standing stretches and balances are just the fundamentals . . .
The very fact that Male Adult Beginner is even here with me is a triumph; "I did ballet as a kid but stopped because my parents wanted me to do more sport," he confides. For me, as a ballet professional and someone who has been involved in the industry for nearly 25 years, this is a familiar 'justification' and I find it maddening that the stereotyping of men who dance has affected the willingness of male participants. What is definitely lacking from mainstream knowledge is that ballet is also a very masculine art form, that it was created by a man for men. Ballet requires its men to have infinite stamina in order to dance often 12 hours a day 6 days a week, incredible core strength for lifting the women and not to mention their unbeatable skill at mastering ballet's hugely technical vocabulary of movement. Based on this, I gave Male Adult Beginner a number of strength building movements to focus on in class, his favourite of which were the small, controlled jumps. Gaining height as well as landing softly was a hard task given he was still learning to be light on his feet, a la Fred Astaire, so he got given some homework - foot strengthening exercises with a Thera Band which also helps articulate the foot in order to create a more cushioned landing. Bingo! Two birds . . .
After several weeks of regular classes, Male Adult Beginner mentioned how he'd repeated my class mantra of 'lengthen to strengthen' to himself a few times and that it had positively affected his physical stature. His posture instinctively transformed as his abdominals kicked in to give him more height and at the same time, drawing his shoulders down away from his ears. He felt his breathing deepen and his stress levels drop. Even his movements became longer and his gestures more graceful! As a calming tactic, this prepared him for all challenging situations in the workplace and through repeated practice, he found his confidence soared. He gave a little victory jump and nearly had the ceiling off! He was gaining new height in his professional life as well as in the studio and his theory was that he was under some sort of mind control by me! After enjoying this moment of contrived power for a second, I assured him that the root of his success was in his very own ability to commit and create a positive mentality around his learning; that he was ultimately in control of everything he told his body to do - whether that be breathing more fluidly or holding a balance for longer, he was capable of changing many aspects of his life.
And so it is proven. Ballet can loosen you men up, send you higher and give you more guts (metaphorically speaking). Above all, ballet has a place within men's exercise routine and lifestyle alongside all other methods of training.
Before I exit, I leave you with the words of Jean Claude Van Damme: "If you can survive a ballet workout, you can survive any other sport workout".
Karis Scarlette is founder of En Avant Ballet, which offers classical ballet classes, private tuition and ballet retreats for men and women of all ages and abilities