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Jonathan Gray goes back to the barre

Posted on May 15, 2017

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It’s something I’ve been thinking about for some time now. For years, I’ve been conscious of how increasingly desk-bound a professional life spent writing and editing is, with very little opportunity for much physical activity, especially when working in a small office. A high proportion of my work takes place in a sitting position, and even attending performances to review for Dancing Times is something primarily done whilst sitting down.

I have never been unfit, and, on the whole, eaten healthily, but as middle age creeps ever closer, I have observed a thickening of my middle and a stiffening of my joints that I have not appreciated. What to do? At the back of my mind was a nagging feeling that I really should start dancing again.

Dance has been one of the greatest joys in my life. Like many people, I began attending ballet classes as a child after watching a performance on television that transported me to another world. I, too, dreamed of being that person in the spotlight at the centre of the stage, dancing the leading role in one of the great classical ballets. So, with the full support of my parents (who could, after all, have refused any notion of their son studying ballet, or any kind of dance for that matter), from the age of eight to 16 – when I became a full-time “teenager” – ballet lessons were my principal source of physical activity because I wasn’t interested in sport. Whether I was any good is a moot point, but ballet was an activity I passionately enjoyed and took a serious interest in, to such an extent that it was central to my whole existence.

Life, however, has a habit of taking over, so during the years I was studying at art school, and then working full-time, the possibilities for taking dance lessons seemed to diminish, especially when ­– I’m talking about the late 1980s and early 1990s here – there appeared to be few teachers offering ballet classes for adults. The pleasure I now took from dance was as a member of the audience, but the sensation was always there that I should really try and find another outlet for my urge to dance other than at a night club or, when on the odd occasion when I was alone at home, I could draw the curtains against the real world, turn on the music of The Sleeping Beauty, and dance for myself every role and every dance in a ballet I knew by heart!

Things finally changed for me at the end of last summer, when Dancing Times moved from its former premises in Clerkenwell Green to the office space in Battersea it rents from the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD). Within a week or two of moving in, I became aware – perhaps surprisingly for the editor of a dance magazine ­– that the RAD were in the process of enrolling people for an autumn term of evening ballet classes for adults. Ballet classes. For adults. In the same building that I was working in. It took a while for the thought process to filter through to my brain, but then I suddenly realised here was the opportunity I had been looking for. And so, from the beginning of January, I bought a new pair of ballet shoes and signed up for a beginners’ ballet class that I could take after work without the hassle of travelling all the way across London during the rush hour. All I had to do was walk upstairs.

A beginners’ class? Absolutely, because no matter how good you think you might be, after more than 30 years away from real dancing your body, and your control over it, has changed completely. I always maintained I had pretty good balance, but that first evening back at the barre proved me wrong, and although I understood the mechanics of the exercises I was attempting to accomplish, my body simply wouldn’t obey my brain and I wobbled all over the place.

However, there is nothing like determination – and a good, supportive and enthusiastic teacher, such as the one I have in the former Royal Ballet dancer Joshua Tuifa – to help you improve. I love every minute of my class, and nothing can beat ballet for a thorough workout. Even after a few weeks I could sense the improvements I was making, and also notice the weight I was losing. Best of all, the physical sensation of dancing makes me feel wonderful. Friends warned that I might find the experience exhausting; it is exhausting, but after a class I also feel great, as if my body has been reinvigorated, recharged and made alive again.

It’s made a huge difference to my life, so if any of you were contemplating taking lessons in any form of dance, don’t be put off. If you want to go back to the barre – or even go to the barre for the first time – just do it. With the right teacher on hand, and with a love of dance in your heart, you won’t regret it.

Jonathan Gray is editor of Dancing Times. He studied at The Royal Ballet School, Leicester Polytechnic, and Wimbledon School of Art where he graduated with a BA Hons in Theatre Design. For 16 years he was a member of the curatorial department of the Theatre Museum, London, assisting on a number of dance-related exhibitions, and helping with the recreation of original designs for a number of The Royal Ballet’s productions including Danses concertantes, Daphnis and Chloë, and The Sleeping Beauty. He has also contributed to the Financial Times, written programme articles for The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, and is co-author of the book Unleashing Britain: Theatre gets real 1955-64, published in 2005.

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