En Point

Paul Orenstein

I came to ballet school with high expectations.

I had taken classes as a child, did well and quit too soon. But I never gave up on dancing; I just needed to find a way back. Now in my 50s, I’m learning to dance again in the joyful company of like-minded women. We’re students in a special beginner’s class at Canada’s National Ballet School (NBS), the acclaimed training centre for professional dancers, taught by Ballet Bob, a.k.a. Robert McCollum, the popular co-ordinator of the school’s adult program and one of its seven teachers.

McCollum believes there’s an inner dancer in everyone, and we’re all trying to prove him right. Professional women “of a certain age,” we’re a small group of old friends, and friends of friends, who gather weekly for one exquisite uninterrupted hour away from the stress of our everyday lives to dance in a spacious, light-filled studio in the new Celia Franca Centre on Toronto’s Jarvis Street. One exuberant ballerina calls this class “our almost perfect refuge.”

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Here, we follow McCollum’s animated direction (he has a gift for metaphor and a theatrical flair) and move to piano player Frank Zimmerman’s evocative music. A lively mazurka? Graceful polonaise? The music has a presence and power all its own and always leaves us wanting more. We each go at our own pace. Some of us have danced before, some have not. At whatever level we find ourselves, we work hard and leave the class exhilarated, revived and downright giddy by the end of the hour.

Small epiphanies abound. My knees creak and my ankles wobble, my arms are all wrong, I tend to topple over and I can’t “twirl” worth beans — and I certainly can’t reconcile that lumpy figure I see in the mirror with the 12-year-old girl in my mind’s eye. Not a problem. The physical benefits of dancing — stronger bones, muscle tone, co-ordination and flexibility — will come with time.

What’s most remarkable — and unexpected — are the childhood memories that dancing stirs up for me (from toe shoes, tights and tutus to upright pianos and little girls I lost track of long ago) and the euphoria I feel just by entering the classroom and standing at the ballet barre.

Of course, this is no ordinary classroom and no ordinary building. When the NBS opened the doors to its new complex in 2005, the Globe and Mail architecture critic Lisa Rochon described the school’s design as “pure poetry — exultant and luminous.” In this oasis of soaring space and monumental glass-walled studios would-be ballerinas of all ages come to dance. There are now more than 700 students in the adult program and a waiting list to get in. For the women who range from 18 to 76 primarily looking for new ways to relieve stress and improve fitness, dance releases happiness-inducing endorphins, and research shows it improves overall physical health and gives the brain a boost, reducing the risk of dementia.

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This is a journey I’ve been longing to take, and it’s exceeded all expectations. This extraordinary place seems worlds away from our everyday reality. We’re here to dance and as we learn, we’re becoming more attuned to our bodies.

Our inner ballerinas, we’re certain, have amazing grace and perfect posture.

We work hard, cheer each other on and laugh out loud. McCollum tells us he sees signs of improvement. If we’re diligent, he says, we may be ready to perform a proper adage — adding full développés — in the centre of the room by the end of the term.

Swan Lake may have to wait.

Photography Paul Orenstein


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