Like many little girls, I once dreamed of dancing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in "The Nutcracker." I would watch the videotape endlessly on my family's clunky VCR (even then, I had an inkling that Baryshnikov was a fox), pirouetting along with the on-screen dancers. As I narrowly avoided knocking over Mom's best crystal vase with a thrashing arm, I felt beautiful, weightless and graceful.
Now I'm a career woman in pumps, not satin slippers -- but I haven't abandoned my prima ballerina dreams. Dancing is a great exercise option for gym-aphobes like me. Better posture, toned muscles (especially in the derriere) and increased flexibility are ballet boons. Plus, the discipline and mental focus needed to get through a 90-minute class put real-world cares at bay: just try mentally constructing a grocery list while whipping off a series of grand battements (high kicks).
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Many adults who loved ballet as youngsters shy away as adults, complaining that they're not as flexible, not as thin, not as quick on their feet as they were when they last donned a leotard. Okay, so maybe I don't have the noodle-like flexibility of that kid dancing with Misha. But once in a great while, amid the sweat and effort of a ballet class, I feel like her for a second.
What to Expect: Call ahead to determine what level you're ready for -- studios often have very different ideas about what "beginner" means. Classes begin at the barre (long horizontal rails, usually affixed to the walls) as students follow the teacher through a series of arm-and-leg movements. After muscles have warmed up, class moves to the center. The first set of steps, or a "combination" in ballet lingo, is usually slow. Center work gets increasingly fast-paced, moving to quicker footwork and ending with big jumps or leaps. In the right class, you should be able to keep up with the instruction and the other students without feeling lost. Expect sore muscles after almost every class -- especially if you're taking up ballet for the first time or after a long absence.
What to Bring: Although it's tempting to hide from the floor-to-ceiling mirrors under baggy sweats, form-fitting clothes allow teachers to see and correct mistakes like bent knees or sloping posture. Long hair should be tucked back, and ballet slippers are a must.
The Cost: About $10 to $15 per class, with a discount given if you pre-pay for a multiple set. Emily Heil
PLACEs TO PIROUETTE
Arlington Center for Dance. 3808 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-522-2414. www.arldance.com. True beginners may want to opt for an enrollment class here -- meaning the same group of students meets regularly, progressively building on skills and dance steps -- instead of the "drop-in" variety offered at most other studios. Top-flight teachers set this school apart from many other Northern Virginia venues.
Joy of Motion. Three area locations; two in DC, one in Md. www.joyofmotion.org. Known for its modern, hip-hop and jazz classes, community-centered JOM also offers a small number of adult ballet classes. Classes here tend to be more diverse and laid-back than at other local studios -- many people taking ballet are also students of other dance forms, too. Beginners recommend Margaret Townsend's classes for learning the basics, while Miya Hisaka's instruction helps adults take their dancing to the next level.
Maryland Youth Ballet. 7702 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda. 301-652-2232. www.marylandyouthballet.org. Despite its name, MYB offers one of the biggest selections of adult ballet instruction in the area. There are dozens of classes every week for dancers of all skills (including three beginning levels) at the school's convenient Metro-accessible location. Lucy Bowen McCauley's stretch classes -- great for loosening the "ballet muscles" used to turn out legs -- are legendary.
The Washington School of Ballet. 3515 Wisconsin Ave., NW. 202-362-3606. www.washingtonballet.org. Classes at the official school of the Washington Ballet boast touches usually reserved for the pros, like "sprung" floors (metal coils deep under the boards, providing an imperceptible spring that helps avoid injuries) and accompaniment by a piano player. Plus, there's the stargazing: You just might spy your favorite member of the company's corps de ballet rushing off to rehearsal.