I walked into the advanced beginner class at the Washington School of Ballet Saturday morning feeling like a student returning to school a day after playing hooky: anxious. Timid. A tad guilty.
I’ve participated in other forms of dance for years, but it would take some serious evil-stepsister-like antics to squeeze my feet into my last pair of ballet slippers. Let’s just say it had been a while.
The wide studio was dressed sparsely with barres lining three-fourths of the room. By the time the instructor started the class at 9:45 AM, the space was packed with 35 dancers (including four men), ranging from young twentysomethings to retirees, dressed in traditional leotards, tights, and ballet slippers.
Our teacher for the morning was Aaron Jackson, who trained at the School of American Ballet before becoming a full-time company member with the Washington Ballet for eight seasons. Roaming the room throughout the 90-minute class (scored by an in-room pianist), Jackson adjusted students’ form and gave random bits of insightful encouragement. My favorite came after a combination ending with a dramatic back arch: “If there is ever a moment to release your inner diva or divo, that was it, ladies and gentlemen.”
The class included traditional combinations at the barre: small routines including deep pliés, tendus (toe points), and arabesques (leg raises). Each move isolated different muscles, leaving my legs shaky after the first two combinations. Jackson repeatedly remind students to activate their center throughout the class and emphasized proper posture and arm position, creating a long list of technicalities to be aware of during every exercise.
Although the class was labeled advanced beginner, it would be very difficult for any student without at least two years of ballet experience. Jackson spouted off barre and floor combinations in rapid succession, using his hands to mark foot movements and giving little time for review. Even with ten-plus years of ballet experience, I was lost on some combinations, sneaking glances at my neighbors on the barre for clues as to what came next. (Washington School of Ballet offers a weekly adult beginner’s ballet class, which introduces basic moves and terms to those with little or no experience.)
Following barre combinations, Jackson led the class in a structured barre stretch that helped open the hips and loosen the lower back. The portable barres in the middle of the room were then cleared away for floor exercises, including pirouettes and jetés.
As Jackson led us through our curtsies and bows, thanking the pianist and the “audience,” he invited the class to take time to reflect on their practice. I was reminded of a comment made by one of the students—also a former dancer—earlier in the class. When asked why she was here on a Saturday morning, she pressed her hand to her chest: “There was a hole here without dance,” she said. “This helped fill it.”
Washington School of Ballet. 3515 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-362-3606. $17 to $19 per class. Visit the website for the full class schedule.
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