In the beginning I called it bad ballet -- as in, "I'm going out to do bad ballet," shouted on the run to a housemate a couple of evenings a week.

Now, two decades later, I think of what I do as "not-so-bad ballet," and I steal time for it during the day so that evenings are free for dinner and homework and chores with my husband and kids. And despite the march of time and the relentless tug of gravity, every now and then while taking class I glimpse myself in the dance studio's merciless mirrors and thrill to the possibility that maybe, before too much longer, I might realistically aspire to doing ballet that is "surprisingly good" -- for a middle-aged amateur.

Recreational ballet is full of compromised perfection, of half-measures that might seem appalling, even grotesque, to a connoisseur. Really good ballet, after all, embodies a particular ideal of beauty, one that requires years of dedicated training beginning in childhood and depends on the ability to do unnatural things -- to turn out your legs so your knees and feet face sideways, to reach for the sky with your fingertips while your shoulders and ribs remain low and relaxed, to curve your feet like crescent moons, then balance on them.

"The common denominator," writes critic Robert Greskovic in his encyclopedic and entertaining guidebook "Ballet 101," "is perfection of participant and of execution." Which may be why, he notes, for New York arts critic Clive Barnes, "the notion of amateur ballet came a little too close for comfort to the idea of amateur brain surgery."

Yet the fact is that legions of women, and fewer men, equipped with bodies that are far from ideal, take ballet class for fun and exercise, and so far it's unlikely anyone has died from it. Maryland Youth Ballet in Bethesda, in addition to training ballerinas for the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, schools some 1,000 adults a year, according to president Pat Moseley. And while our turnout may be iffy and our poses shaky, we are much the better for it: stronger, happier, more balanced both literally and figuratively.

But if Barnes thinks amateurism destroys the art, imagine what he would say to adding the encumbrance of age. Can ballet withstand so heavy a load? In fact, yes. I've found it's a pliant form, one that holds up even while it connects me with my physical self in joyous ways. How, I wonder, can I possibly be called middle-aged if at 48 I can still run on my toes, spring up a stairway?

More than it prolongs youth, midlife ballet preserves sanity, providing an escape from the dulling day-to-day routine without any of the potential downsides of, say, having an affair or impulsively hopping a plane to a remote destination. In midlife, when, if you're lucky, much of your future is apt to look fairly predictable -- mate chosen, home secured, new offspring unlikely and a career path identified if not entirely foreseeable -- ballet keeps a sense of discovery alive. One day, after weeks, months -- no, face it, years -- of repetition, I discover how to relax one particular muscle while tensing another so that my legs become a little straighter, a little more turned out. It's a surprising new sensation, and very satisfying.

Then again, ballet at this stage involves surmounting terrors that children just don't face. Like the mirror. Children studying ballet, according to Maryland Youth Ballet teacher Austin St. John, propel themselves tirelessly to the front of the studio so they can cavort with their own reflections. We older folks will do almost anything to avoid that stark reality. The result, says St. John: We tend to dance toward the side walls, skewing the line of the body that an audience would see (and that can be checked in the glass) -- the line that is an overriding goal of ballet training.

For adults belatedly taking up the art, learning to stare down those mirrors is among ballet class's most daunting challenges. It's also a metaphoric life lesson -- especially as you find yourself confronting the physical disappointments of middle age. You learn not to worry so much about how you look and focus instead on what you need to do. You accept realities -- that you are not, and never will be, a ballerina -- but enjoy going through the motions nonetheless. You accept that perfection will elude you, as it so often does, but you find the rewards in the process of pursuing it. After all, as G.K. Chesterton wrote, "anything worth doing is worth doing badly."

Form and Function

The absorbing process of training your muscles to do things they've avoided for 20, 30 or 40 years is a private, interior journey, yet one that occurs to musical accompaniment, with a genial if demanding guide and pleasant companions. At a time when we think of life as a juggling act, ballet is literally about balance. To keep from falling, we must learn to be centered, like pots on a potter's wheel.

That feeling of having found one's center -- however tentatively or briefly -- carries over into other lives where things and people pull you this way and that. Whether or not anyone else finds ballet class beautiful or useful, you learn to value it because it keeps you healthy, makes you happy, and you need it -- even if you still sometimes need to reassure yourself that a happier you also spells greater happiness for those you live and work with.

I knew none of this when I began, in my mid-twenties.

I took up ballet during a time -- freelancing in a new place, being young and single -- when I needed structure in my life. Ballet class is nothing if not structured. The centuries-old movements progress from simple to complicated, from easiest to hardest.

You warm up first at the barre -- ballet's horizontal handrail -- and the patterns practiced there become building blocks for the more challenging combinations performed later, unsupported, at center floor. You progress from slow movements -- the adagio that begins work at center -- to faster steps, to turns and jumps.

The big payoff comes near the end of class, when you get to leap and jump across the floor, from one corner of the room to the other, moving too fast to think hard about the fine points, feeling like a child set free after long confinement, in a vast field, perhaps, and full of life.

Why did I start? At first I was merely curious to try something I'd been drawn to as a child but had never had a chance to do. I became hooked a few weeks later, on the day I saw my hand. I was in the car, stopped at a light somewhere, and when I looked down there it was, resting on my lap, for the first time not just a useful extension of the rest of me, but a shape of its own, and not an ungraceful one at that. It filled space. It ended there, where space began. Resting lightly, it curved nicely from wrist to fingertips. It might even, I thought immodestly, be called balletic.

Not long after that, I noticed something new had happened to my legs. My inner thighs had a flat place between two muscles I didn't remember having seen before (adductors and hip flexors, I know now -- the ones that pull your legs in and the ones that lift them up). I loved the idea that by just showing up at ballet class and following directions, I could change my body. One day I might even look a little bit like my sleek, strong, nimble teacher.

I liked other things, too. I liked the freedom from daily cares that the ballet studio afforded. There should have been a sign: "Check your worries at the door." You can't memorize the teacher's instructions and fret about when you'll go grocery shopping. It seemed ridiculously simple. I was wrong about that.

Defying Gravity

Striving to be taller is a large part of what we do in ballet class. Feeling "lifted," pulling your sides up out of your hips, enables your legs to move freely beneath you. It's a mysterious feat, a kind of isometric torso levitation that makes the simplest-sounding movements -- stand tall, bend your knees, do a plie{acute} -- extraordinarily challenging. They make you sweat even though you haven't gone anywhere. After 20-some years, I still don't do a very good plie{acute}. I'm working hard to carry out one teacher's recent suggestion: "Push your pelvis forward through your knees."

Ranked along the barres against the walls or at free-standing barres in center studio, exercising in unison, my fellow balletic novices and I are studies in concentration, eyes fixed straight ahead, free arms stretching sideways in (we hope) a graceful curve -- energized yet relaxed. (Sometimes we forget and they droop at the elbows, or we over-tense, making them look stick-like and awkward.)

We wear simple leotards and tights, some more revealing than others, some embellished with filmy ballet skirts. The one male student in my class, a courageous professor who is also an amateur figure skater, wears climbing tights and a T-shirt, as though he plans on scaling some cliffs after class.

Buoyed by the regular rhythm of the piano, we focus entirely on the art of pointing a foot and stretching a leg, first to the front, then to the side, then back, then to the side again, tracing the same patterns that dancers have drawn since the 17th century, when ballet emerged from the rituals of the royal French court. Louis XIV himself was an accomplished ballet dancer. It's not likely that anyone called him an amateur.

Our teacher entices us with praise for small signs of progress, prods us with humor. She does a hilarious rendition of the "mommy walk" -- the way anyone who's carted babies on their hip moves ever after at a slight tilt, with hips pushed forward and a peculiar, round-shouldered lean to the rear.

Just at this moment, however, she is shouting at me. "Toes! Toes! Toes! Toes!" I press the tip of my foot floor-ward, push my heel forward, ankle out, straining to lengthen my leg without dislodging my hip, to heighten my arch.

"Stretch those toes!" she demands, crouching now in front of me. Her eyes drill into my foot. Her index finger points downward.

"Knees, ankles, TOES!" She thrusts her finger toward the floor, and I try to envision my foot as an arrow, send it flying into the ground as my torso flies upward.

"Tummies up! Ribs down!" I relax a bit. She's moved on. When the exercise ends, she rewards us. "Good work, frighteningly good! We'll breathe next week."

Art and Mortality

Perhaps ironically, it's the very unattainability of the balletic ideal that makes ballet class so continually engaging. From time to time, our earnest efforts strike me as amusing, in the same poignant vein as the dancing hippos in Walt Disney's "Fantasia," taking my mind off the work.

Then concentration and reflection take over.

I've come to embrace the realization that just as you don't have to be Rembrandt to paint or Horowitz to enjoy playing piano, you don't have to be Nureyev or Fonteyn to practice ballet. Art is about process as much as performance, and there is always a new subtlety to master. There is the joy of moving in time to live music, the comfort of familiar patterns repeated and embellished. And if you keep at it, you find one day that your body moves differently, and your mood soars. Soon -- if you're like me -- you can't stop. If we can't reverse our march toward oblivion, we can at least mark time with joy and grace.

Rachel S. Cox is a freelance writer in Washington.

Amateurs all and past their physical prime, adult students at the Maryland Youth Ballet work out at the barre.The author, practicing "not-so-bad" ballet.After the discipline of the barre, traveling leaps are the liberating, near-end-of-class reward.