Dance: Beginners’ Ballet For Adults, Or Of Artistry, Aches And Appreciation

September 14, 2022


Beginners Ballet Class for Adults with Mark Hawkins / Various venues


Mark Hawkins is a highly-regarded ex-professional dancer and in-demand choreographer, coach and teacher. I am a middle-aged writer who was last any good at anything that required hamstrings sometime in the early Nineties.

We are friends, so he invited me to come and try out one of his beginners’ ballet classes for adults. And because we are friends, I agreed that that might be a viable idea. Not a good one, given my infirmities; just something vaguely possible.

Arriving at the National School of the Arts in Braamfontein with my wife (who has a good deal of previous ballet experience and is thus far more likely to be able to drive home later if I snap a tendon or something), it’s impossible – for us civilians at least – to avoid feeling like we’re skipping up the steps of New York’s High School of Performing Arts in Fame. Until, that is, we note how slippery the tiles in the grand entrance are.

Gathered in one of the school’s dance studios are a collection of theatre industry stalwarts, public relations types and a couple of others who, like me, only ever entered such rooms as spectators before joining the class. Mark is set up with a laptop to play enjoyable instrumental versions of various popular contemporary songs – which handily removes the temptation to compare yourself to a professional ballet dancer, as they deal with completely different compositions and so obviously can’t relate – and a bright pink fly swatter, used later to remind stragglers which part of their body isn’t in the right place.

Mark is a cheerfully grouchy taskmaster, laying out a set of positions and movements that must be repeated in order and then pressing play before first-timers have had a chance to gather their wits. Mercifully, he does demonstrate the sequences himself, either at the front of the class or walking around and joining wannabe dancers at the barre to remind of what comes next and what angles legs or feet should be at.

There is that old joke about musicians only being able to count from one to four and dancers only from five to eight, but there is much more than that expected here, even from the rookies. And any pride you have in your sense of rhythm will be swiftly dismantled as you try and dance a waltz rhythm – which usually involves counting to three, shifting and then repeating – in which the instructions “Lift and step” are actually one count. More experienced class attendees manage much better – the proof in the pudding when it comes to Mark’s techniques – and casually show off by throwing in syncopated arm movements that my brain simply refuses to process.

There is conditioning thrown in amongst the elegance (well, it might be elegant in seven classes’ time…), with various muscle groups getting stretched and tested in ways that sports simply doesn’t do. Imminent cramps aren’t given a chance to develop as Mark finishes one exercise and moves on to the next.

At one point, in response to some good-natured moaning, he makes a gruff comment about people all thinking that ballet is so easy. And while nobody in this room believes that for a second – our bodies make a solid argument in defence of the art form’s challenging nature – it’s a point that deserves underlining. As an observer with any level of passion for ballet, you’d have to be blind to miss the level of athletic commitment required to perform the various movements well, never mind at the level professional dancers are expected to achieve. But trying to complete a single sequence in a class – not to get it all correct or to achieve satisfactory lines in the basic positions; just to follow simple instructions and begin and end more or less at the same time as everyone else – gives you a wholly new appreciation for what is achieved on stage (at any level, from school talent show to major professional production).

Where I am happy if I manage to convince one leg to stay straight and then to bend on the correct count, a corps de ballet member is able to operate each limb independently and to curve or lift or move them with graceful control. A soloist is capable of considerably more, and a principal dancer is yet further advanced, and likely to regard my efforts with the same gentle pity as Usain Bolt might show me if I finished a short sprint race in more than double the time it took him.

This is not the Olympics, though. It is a friendly space, full of like-minded folk who understand the health benefits of getting Mark to put them through their balletic paces, and who resolutely fail to judge you if the best you can do when attempting a split is some sort of wonky isosceles triangle that leaves you temporarily unable to stand up. And it is a workout for any arts appreciation sensibilities you may have, too, instantly ratcheting up your grasp of just how special good artists – dancers in this case – are, and what price they have paid for their proficiency.