Beyond the Bar: The Mind-Body Connection of Ballet and Why It Might Be the Best Exercise for Midlife

by Amy Phariss | Photography by Diana Matthews

A year ago, I dropped my 12-year-old daughter off for her evening ballet class and watched her climb the stairs to her studio, her calf muscles flexed with each step, outlined in pale pink tights. As I watched her climb, I thought about how often I’d wanted to take ballet classes as a kid, how many times I’d envisioned myself gliding smoothly across a freshly polished wood floor. Back in the ‘70s, though, money was tight and extracurricular activities were, well, extra. So I dropped any dreams of a proper plié and figured ballet was an opportunity I’d missed in life, assuming ballet was an art learned while very young, when one’s body was nimble enough to stretch a lean leg across a ballet barre without fear of injury or regret. As I watched my daughter prepare for her class, I wondered: are there any adult ballet classes in town? Then, I smirked and blessed my own heart for even considering the idea. Who would teach an adult ballet class? Did that even exist? I told myself I couldn’t possibly learn ballet, in my 40s, without the flexibility of either body or mind, let alone any foundation in the classic art of dance.

A week later, after hearing of a mythical adult ballet class in town, I arrived at Carolina Dance Works. Alongside the rapid beating of my heart and shaking hands, I showed up in a pair of yoga pants and asked, “Can I join the class?” The adult ballet instructor, Rosalind Wirsing, replied in a British lilt, “Of course you may.” With those four words, I embarked on what has become a weekly journey, and what was initially a pursuit of a childhood dream became much more. I’ve been humbled by legs that don’t actually want to be flung through the air and toes that resist stretching just an inch further. Each Tuesday morning, alongside a handful of women, many of us women of a certain age (and occasionally alongside men), the wood floor dappled in sunlight, I stand at a barre and bend at my knees, keep my arms held fifth en bas and repeat the patterns Ms. Wirsing has thoughtfully prepared and recites in French, to engage not only our bodies but our minds as well.

Through Ms. Wirsing, who is trained in using ballet for Parkinson’s Disease and who is a member of the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science, I’ve learned the beauty of ballet for our brains, our bodies and, dare I say, our souls. I’ve come to appreciate balletic movement not only for what it might do for my muscles but for the fact that it keeps me thinking, focused and, oddly enough, social.

It turns out, my experience with ballet isn’t unique at all. Adult ballet classes are not only becoming all-the-rage across the world, but science is backing up (with data) that ballet can be beneficial not just for those of us who want leaner legs and graceful swan arms, but for all sorts of physical and mental issues like strengthening balance and posture, warding off dementia, helping soothe the effects of Parkinson’s Disease and strengthening the one area of life that sometimes seems the most difficult to maintain as we move into our second act: connecting with each other.

The physical benefits of ballet extend far beyond lean legs. Ballet engages the entire body throughout all of its movement, from the tip of one’s head to, literally, one’s toes – and beyond. In order to maintain proper alignment and position, ballet requires students to engage our core, stretch our necks, lengthen our limbs and hold tiny little muscles we forgot (or likely never knew) we had. There isn’t one position in which the entire body is not present, working and held. Ballet, therefore, is an efficient and balanced form of exercise, engaging the body’s enormous range of muscles rather than using the same few muscles over and over again, a complaint many find with exercises like running or cycling. Ballet not only strengthens muscles, but it stretches them as well. Many of the exercises and positions practiced in ballet are a form of stretching and preparing muscles for still more exercise. A plié prepares a dancer for jumping. A tendu stretches the arch of the foot. Throughout the entire workout, ballet is a reciprocal motion of stretching and strengthening, of achieving a balance of fluidity and strength in all parts of the body. In Ms. Wirsing’s words, “Dance isn’t exercise; dance includes exercise.”

Our physical muscles are not, however, the only parts of the body ballet engages. Perhaps the most overlooked and surprising aspect of studying ballet is the mental challenge it presents with each hour of practice. The mental affects of dancing are so pronounced: recent scientific research suggests it can help reduce the signs of both dementia and Alzheimer’s. A 2003 study in the New England Journal of Medicine by researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine examined the effects of 11 physical activities on the development of dementia including tennis or golf, swimming, bicycling, walking, group exercise classes, babysitting, climbing stairs, housework, team sports such as bowling and dancing. According to researchers, “Dancing was the only physical activity associated with a lower risk of dementia.” Researchers conclude the combination of physical movement, mental stimulation and socialization is key in reducing the risk of developing dementia.

For people with Parkinson’s Disease, the effects of ballet are similar. Ballet and other forms of dance therapy are now used to address many of the symptoms of Parkinson’s including tremors, rigidity and social isolation. At a southwest London studio, a weekly Parkinson’s Can Dance class is held for men living with the disease, and the results have been inspiring. Haroon Siddique, in his 2016 article in The Guardian titled “They Come In To Dance and Leave Their Parkinson’s Behind,” quotes one of the class participants in saying, “It’s fantastic what they can get people to achieve. They can literally get people out of wheelchairs.” Beyond the physical benefits, the ballet classes enable people living with Parkinson’s to socialize, to forget for a short time about their disease and spend time moving their bodies, listening to music and being with others. As ballet instructor Annie Breckell notes, “They come in and leave their Parkinson’s behind.”

From focusing on the actual form of balletic movement to remembering specific combinations and instruction, ballet is much more mentally stimulating than any other form of exercise I’ve engaged in. As I move through the barre work, I must remember not only what the exact exercise is but also how to complete the exercise with proper form, where to shift my balance, how to use my arms, how many repetitions to complete and, perhaps most difficult of all, how to time my movements with the music. While it can sometimes be overwhelming, it is the exact mental challenge I need to keep my brain learning, sharp and flexed, which doesn’t always happen in my day-to-day life as I get older and life has become, to some extent, a series of habits requiring little learning or forethought. I drive to the same places, buy and prepare the same foods and often have variations of the same conversations. While this is sometimes comforting and likely normal, it does feel nice to spend time studying a new way to move, to think and to behave, my body and brain working in unison.

Each week, as I approach the barre in now-worn ballet slippers, my hands no longer shake. I close my eyes and remember what Rosalind told me the first day: “It doesn’t matter how much or how little you can do; you can always do something. You do a movement to music just like everyone else.” An hour later, I am stretched, in every sense of the word. I am still a neophyte in the world of ballet, which is fine with me. I spend an hour each week forgetting about my to-do list as I listen to beautiful music, gently move my entire body and share the experience with a group of friends, all of us well beyond our teenage years.

Many of the myths I had about ballet have been dispelled. It is not just for women; I’ve stretched with men at my barre. It’s not only for people in peak physical shape. Several of us have physical limitations, and Ms. Wirsing helps each of us modify appropriately, keeping us safe but challenged. Perhaps most of all, I’ve learned that ballet is not an external art form. It’s not about mile-long legs or perfect pirouettes. Ballet is a connection between movement, form, music and the soul. With each movement there is meaning and intention, two of the things I value most as I move into the second half of my life.