Dancer to Dancer

Fashionably Late: Advice for Ballet's Late Starters

Ballet class at USC Kaufman (photo by Ema Peter, courtesy Glorya Kaufman School of Dance at University of Southern California)

Stefanie Roper didn't take her first ballet class until she was 20. Despite her obvious facility, she encountered plenty of naysayers. "I remember one teacher telling me, 'Honey, you're just too old,' " she says. And she did have to overcome obstacles as she entered the ballet bubble. "People talked about how good my feet were, and I didn't understand what they meant for the first four months," Roper remembers, laughing. But she found a mentor at Utah Valley University, where she was a student, and persevered. Now, six years later, Roper's professional resumé includes a stint with BHdos, Ballet Hispanico's second company.

It seems like most professional ballet dancers started taking ballet classes before they were born, especially the women. For those who didn't discover ballet until after elementary school, it can feel impossible to catch up to dyed-in-the-wool students. But it's not. Late starters face plenty of hurdles, but good facility and hard work will take you far—even if it isn't into the ranks of a ballet company.

Is It Too Late?

"The first thing I ask late starters is, 'What is your intention?' " says Natalie Wright, who owns and teaches at Ballet Conservatory West in L.A. Wright sees a lot of dancers come to ballet between the ages of 10 and 12, and says that the hardest thing about working with them is adjusting their expectations. "It's common to have a fantasy about being a ballerina, and I'm very clear with late starters up front it's not easy to achieve that fantasy," she says.

If your goal is to become a professional ballet dancer, you need to possess a fair amount of natural talent and facility to get there, particularly if you start after puberty. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School principal Janet Popeleski, who didn't start taking ballet seriously until she was 12 but went on to dance with American Ballet Theatre, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, and several other companies, says the main things a late starter needs are natural coordination and a ballet-friendly physique. But, she adds, "determination can take you far. If you have talent and determination, there's no reason you can't catch up.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School principal Janet Popeleski says determination can take late starters far. (Photo by Aimee Diandrea, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School)

"While not every late beginner will become a professional dancer, that doesn't mean studying ballet isn't worthwhile. "I talk to our former students, and whether they have moved on professionally in ballet or in another career, they can all cite ways that their training has helped them succeed by developing a good work ethic, fortitude, and grace," Popeleski says.

Get the Right Training

If you discovered ballet late but are serious about a professional career, find a reputable school—now. "The first two years of training are the most important, no matter when you start," Wright says. Popeleski points out that older dancers who begin ballet with no prior training are often better off than students who've been getting poor training for years. "Bad habits are hard to break," she says.

Wright starts all older beginners in a class with 7-year-olds. "I tell them to set aside their egos and soak up everything they can, like a sponge," she says. "Many of them complain that it's boring at first, because the fundamentals of ballet can be boring. But they literally have to learn how to stand up correctly." Wright also points out that it's better to move a student up a level if she's advancing quickly than to discourage her with a demotion if she isn't picking up the basics. Even after you move up, Wright says, it's a good idea to keep taking lower-level classes to hone those fundamental skills.

Roper with Nick Fearon in a BHdos rehearsal (photo by Alona Cohen, courtesy BHdos)

Focus on Your Strengths

While you may be disappointed to find yourself dancing next to little kids, don't get discouraged: Late beginners have some inherent advantages, too. "Older students often move up through the levels quickly because they tend to be stronger and more dedicated than younger ones," Wright says. She had one pupil who started at 12 and moved up four levels in one year because of her laser-sharp focus.

Don't let your bottom-of-the-pack status discourage you. Make it drive you. Popeleski, who was accepted at the School of American Ballet just three years into her training, found that being the underdog pushed her to work harder. "I always felt like I had to catch up," she remembers, "and that's a great motivator." Roper feels the same way. "I've been blessed, but the reason I did well is because I wanted this so badly," she says. "I had to want it even more than other people."

A version of this story appeared in the March 2018 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "Fashionably Late."

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