People sometimes think ballet training is like classical music training (meaning, starting early, and young, can be a tremendous boost) and they might inadvertently dissuade a niece or a young family friend, who longs to dance, but is already in middle school. I answered this question over at my Q&A page, and thought the information would be good here as well. What I didn’t address in the response, was the fact that, for males, the start age goes way, way up. There are successful professional male ballet dancers who didn’t take their first class until college (yes!). Granted, this late start is the exception. But a seventeen-year-old male who’s been doing something athletic already, say, Tae Kwon Do or tennis, might be pleasantly surprised by how well they do in a dance class. As I stress below, if the innate talent and musicality is there, along with the determination, great things can happen.
Now onto the original question and my response…
Q: My niece is twelve and she’s saying she really wants to be a ballet dancer, but she’s convinced it’s too late to begin classes. (Her friends all started when they were five and six.)
You know, the truth is, those classes for five and six year olds aren’t really ballet, as we know it. I may be stepping out on a limb saying that, but I’ll do it anyway. Those early years, it’s about having fun with movement. After age ten, it gets more serious as the girls begin to ponder what it really means, sacrifice-wise, to be a ballet dancer. By twelve, it can get competitive, but there is still plenty of opportunity for a new student (particularly one with innate talent and the right body type) to come aboard and thrive. The lovely Misty Copeland, soloist with the American Ballet Theater, didn’t start ballet until she was thirteen. (Check out her Wiki here, if you don’t know who she is. She’s a true inspiration to all aspiring (and otherwise) dancers. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misty_Copeland )
Interesting to note that Russia’s ultra-prestigious Vaganova Academy, which trains dancers for the Mariinksy (also known as the Kirov) Ballet holds auditions for students at age ten. Period. Whether the child has previous training is irrelevant to them. What they’re judging, mostly, is body type, flexibility, feet, potential. Further, many a professional ballet school would choose an untrained twelve-year-old with no experience over a trained one with bad habits or poor, ingrained technique. In truth, more challenging for the aspiring professional ballerina to combat than age, is body type. Not just good turnout, long limbs, short waist, narrow chest, long neck, but feet. It floors me how some untrained dancers can point their toe so incredibly (my son), almost prehensile, while others will have to work and work on it (me).
There’s musicality. It’s innate. There’s the hunger to excel. Again, not something that can be taught. Most of the girls in the younger student classes will move on from ballet, come middle school, because they’ve grown a little bored with it, or their social lives have gotten busier. The ones who start later (I myself started at age ten) will have the drive to carry it through those teen years, which is the time it’s most important to be taking it all seriously.
In short, tell your niece to go for it, and give it her all. But tell her to remember to dance for dance’s sake, not for where it might get her in ten years’ time. Ballet is soooooo competitive if you want to make dancing professionally your goal. The journey should be as rewarding as perceived destination.