A place at the barre: Amherst Ballet offers classes for adults of all ages, shapes and sizes

Last modified: Wednesday, June 10, 2015
Nicola Metcalf of Sunderland says she’s always been an active person (she describes herself as “a mover”); as a youngster she spent her winters cross-country skiing — and when she wasn’t doing that, she could often be found taking classes at a dance studio.

As an adult, Metcalf continued to ski, and took a few dance classes as a college student at Tufts University, dabbling in belly dancing, contra dancing, modern, jazz, contact improvisation and tap. But after college, she says, she left the dance studio behind.

Now, at 54, Metcalf is back at the ballet barre, taking classes twice a week that are especially designed for adults, at Amherst Ballet. And, she says, she’s reaping the rewards — both physical and mental — of returning to her former passion.

“I love the precision of ballet,” Metcalf said. “Ballet makes me both sharper and more energized. ... I’m always jazzed up after class and have to unwind before the night ends.”

An investment in health

Some 80 adults are registered for classes at Amherst Ballet, says the school’s executive director, Sueann Townsend, who also teaches at the Amherst studio. The school was founded in 1971 by Therese Brady Donohue to train children in elementary school through high school in classical ballet. It started offering adult classes in 2000.

Today, dancers in the adult classes range in age from 18 to over 70, and come with a range of experience, which the ballet school accommodates by offering adult classes at the beginner, intermediate and advanced levels.

Adult classes are held on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, with class sizes ranging from 6 to 12 people. A start time of 7 p.m. allows for the adults to fit the classes into a standard work day.

Townsend says that teaching adults is a fun and rewarding part of her job. Her classes, she says, allow adults the chance to take a risk and try something new.

“There’s a perception that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I think quite the contrary,” Townsend said.

Most adults take one class a week, and the classes draw students from the community, as well as from the Five Colleges.

“My students come in all shapes and sizes,” Townsend said. “One of my students is a construction worker with a severe back injury who said that ballet has helped him more than therapy.”

Indeed, Townsend says, many of the adult students say they notice positive changes in their bodies.

“I offer structured classes so dancers can push themselves, but to a comfortable level,” Townsend said.

And, she says, there’s never been an injury in her adult classes.

“Investment in your health is a smart decision,” Townsend said. “The risk is not in ballet, but in life itself.”

Hooked on ballet

Christopher Peterson, 22, of Worcester has been studying ballet for two years, and says he sees multiple benefits.

The University of Massachusetts Amherst junior philosophy major had been a bicycler in high school, and as a college student, found himself looking for a way to stay active. He began taking ballet classes in Boston a couple of summers ago, after happening upon a dance studio there that was offering adult classes. And he was hooked, so when he returned to UMass in the fall, he continued his study, signing up for a ballet class for non-dance majors at the university.

“Because of ballet, I am more comfortable with my body and I’ve noticed that my posture has improved,” Peterson said.

In Sept. 2014, he began taking adult classes at Amherst Ballet, where he takes classes once or twice a week.

In addition to the physical benefits, ballet trains the mind, he says, because moves must be memorized in succession.

“Dancing to classic music is really enjoyable,” he said. “Instead of going to the gym, ballet offers me exercise, which is always good. When I’m dancing, my whole body is engaged.”

While adult students come to ballet for a variety of reasons, Townsend says, they have one thing in common: They come by choice.

“Teaching adults differs from teens because they are grown-up people with life experience. They come for themselves,” Townsend said. The classes, she adds, offer her students a chance to put aside — for a short time — their everyday responsibilities .

“(Adults) go through a lot of stress, mainly because adults are busy, busy busy!” she said. “For an hour-and-a-half, the world takes a back seat and students wrestle with their bodies trying to achieve the classical form. It is good for mental health.”

Metcalf agrees: “Class at Amherst Ballet is a release from everyday problems,” she said. “I get to be a little girl again.”

And yet, she adds, it became evident quickly that she’s working with “different equipment” than when she was a young dancer. Some things that she used to do with ease are now much more of a challenge. But, she adds, Townsend does a good job of adapting the classes to fit the age group.

“Sueann helps at any skill level,” Metcalf said. “With her, ballet is for everyone.”

Amherst Ballet is at 29 Strong St. in Amherst. For information about adult classes, call 549-1555 or visit amherstballet.org.