How ballet helped us beat the blues: When author ERIN KELLY suffered a breakdown in lockdown, taking up ballet at home was her salvation. And she's not alone - with scores of stressed midlife women learning how to dance their troubles away
The swell of a Tchaikovsky piano score fills the room as I take position and Russian ballerina Maria Khoreva purrs her instructions.
‘Front, back, front, back. Plié, tendu, plié, tendu.’ My calves burn as I rise on to my toes, my arms are still jelly from yesterday’s class, and when I sink into a bend, my thighs ache in long-forgotten places.
Sadly, I’m not in a tutu on stage at the Bolshoi Theatre. I’m a 44-year-old woman standing in my kitchen in North London, wearing the T-shirt I slept in and holey socks.
My barre is my kitchen chair, my mirror is the patio door and my instructor is on a screen.
I will never hear the roar of an appreciative crowd, or be showered in roses: my ‘audience’, if they rise unexpectedly early, consists of my husband Michael and daughters Marnie, 12, and Sadie, eight, who might wander in and cast a curious glance my way.
But this is more than a nostalgic, lockdown dipping of the toe into the ballet classes of my youth. Ballet has saved me.
I took classes as a little girl. I wasn’t a natural, and aged eight decided the best place for me was in the audience. But this time last year, something inside me broke.
Looking back, the breakdown I had in the first lockdown had been brewing for a couple of years. For ages I had been struggling to do simple tasks such as fill in forms, write shopping lists or keep appointments.
I had a book to write — a thriller about two rival ballerinas, based on Swan Lake — and plotting it was beyond me.
Writing is about making connections and decisions, but I was paralysed in front of the blank page. Lockdown made everything worse. We were safe, but the world outside my house was sad and scary.
Things came to a head a few months in. We’d booked a gold-dust, socially distanced swimming slot at our local pool. All I needed to pack were towels and shampoo — but I just couldn’t do it. My girls watched me walk in and out of their rooms, having forgotten why I was there. It took me so long, we missed our session.
My daughters were disappointed but, worse than that, they were scared. I was unravelling in front of them. That night, I told my husband I thought I had early-onset dementia. Gently he told me to call the doctor.
After a long chat, my GP diagnosed clinical depression. I was stunned. I thought of depression as low mood, not this loss of function. But I agreed to try the antidepressant drug sertraline, and I found a private psychotherapist.
Medication and talking helped, but I still wasn’t ‘me’.
I came across the idea of online ballet while researching my book. I had been due to visit ballet companies, go backstage and watch rehearsals, but with all the theatres closed that wasn’t possible.
I discovered that ballet companies were broadcasting their daily warm-up classes online. As I watched rows of graceful sylphs at the barre, my curiosity was piqued and I decided to give it a go.
I’m fit — I run and lift weights — but this class was tough. Lactic acid quickly coursed through my limbs.
Barre is not about pirouettes and flying leaps. It’s precise, repeated movements which form the backbone of ballet. It is about control, concentration and focus.
After one class, I noticed my focus was totally on my movement, not my problems: and that’s the magic of it. You need to connect with something deep in your core.
It’s something increasing numbers of women have discovered over the past year, with a tenfold rise in the number of online dancers since the pandemic.
Many are older dancers — like me — who have discovered the therapeutic and mental benefits of dance, and ballet in particular.
Its benefits have been long documented. The intense physical workout releases endorphins, giving participants a real feel-good factor during and after class. Additionally, classical music has been shown to have positive, calming influences on the brain and aids focus and concentration, all helping to create happy ballet dancers.
I quickly progressed to more challenging classes, following instructions from YouTube or Facebook before my family were awake. In my kitchen, I took classes all over the world.
My instructors included Dancio’s Caitlin Trainor, former Royal Ballet star Claudia Dean and Tiler Peck of the New York City Ballet. I got an insight into the pain and discipline of the characters in my book, and once had a plot breakthrough when my leg was at shoulder height and my head was resting on my knee.
Physically, I didn’t change — I will never be that lithe young cygnet in the chorus line of Swan Lake — but that is not the point. Within a fortnight, my slouch disappeared, my fog cleared — and with it my writer’s block.
I’m still taking antidepressants — it doesn’t feel like the right time to stop — and I’m still seeing a therapist. And I take barre once or twice a week.
Many people swear by meditation to clear headspace, and that is what this did for me. One plié, one pointed toe at a time, ballet brought me back to myself.
Erin Kelly’s latest book Watch Her Fall is published by Hodder & Stoughton.
Dance was the key to dealing with my grief
Sally Brockway, 56, is a company director and lives in Kingston, Surrey, with husband Gavin, 59. They have three children, George, 21, Alice, 18, and Sarah, 14. Sally says:
Like many little girls, I wanted to be a ballerina. I had ballet annuals and my grandmother made me a tutu. But even by the age of three, my mother thought I was too fat and clumsy, so I never had lessons. However, around five years ago my daughter Sarah took up ballet and she’s so good at it.
While buying shoes at the dance shop one day, I mentioned to the owner how I would love to try ballet but I was too old at 51. She encouraged me to ring Meryl Moreth at Dance Direction who taught adult classes.
I decided to give it a go. I began weekly lessons and was the oldest in the class by several years and absolutely rubbish — clumsy and unsupple. But I loved it.
It was incredibly difficult. I would look around at my classmates who all seemed to know the dances better than me. Then I realised they were doing two classes a week. So I started doing two classes a week too, and during lockdown I became obsessed — having four classes a week over Zoom.
Ballet has helped me in so many ways. I had a really awful three years from 2017, when my father broke his neck and almost died. I maintained going to ballet classes because you can’t focus on anything other than dancing for that hour, so I used it as a release from all the anxiety and stress.
My father died a couple of years later — of cancer — and it was the worst point in my life. But ballet saved me. I’d get lost in the mindfulness and the moment and leave the class on a real high.
Fantastic workout for both body and brain
Marilyn Devonish, 52, is a therapist and coach known as The NeuroSuccess™ Coach. She lives in Watford, Hertfordshire. She says:
Pulling myself up from the sofa, I realised I was making the kind of noises that old people sometimes make when they move positions.
I was oohing and aahing — yet I was only 45! I realised I needed to do something to give me more flexibility.
I didn’t want to return to the gym. I wanted something different. Then I remembered that a woman from one of my fitness classes was always so flexible and graceful, and that she had done ballet as a child, so I started Googling. I found an eight-week course, and fell in love.
At first, I could barely remember my left from my right — but it was brilliant. I wanted an activity that would challenge me and keep my brain moving. The ballet moves are in French, and you are listening to instructions, the timing of the music, and focusing on doing the moves correctly all at the same time.
My flexibility has improved and I’m no longer making those ‘old people noises’ when I stand up.
Perhaps one of the other challenges as a black woman doing ballet is finding clothes and shoes that suit our skin tone.
When you think of ballet, you tend to think of white dancers and pinks and pale colours. But that’s gradually changing.
There is the wonderful black ballet dancer Misty Copeland, and shops such as Freed Of London sell ballet tights and ballet shoes in darker tones. I used to be the only black woman in my class, but now there are a few more.
I’d thoroughly recommend that women in their 40s and beyond try ballet. It’s a fantastic full body and brain workout.
Two false hips - but it's made me stronger
Gilly Waddell, 60, lives in London and has four grown-up children and one grandchild on the way. She says:
Four years ago, I lost three friends in the space of just nine months and I was distraught. For 18 months, I couldn’t stop crying. I lost weight, could hardly breathe and didn’t know what to do.
Friends were kind and I tried many therapies, but some days I would wander around the streets and people would pick me up off the ground and take me home because I was in such a state.
I was heading for my 60th birthday, and I realised that if I wanted to get back on track, I needed to do something drastic.
I have no idea what inspired me to try ballet. I know nothing about it and, because I have two false hips, I really didn’t think I’d be very good at it. But if it made my children — and me — laugh again, it would be worth it.
A wonderful ballet mistress, Elizabeth, taught me in person and online. I was so ungraceful when I started but ballet is calm and contemplative. You have to concentrate on such small movements, how to breathe and hold your stomach. I fell in love with it.
I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing, but for my 60th birthday in November I planned a performance of the Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy for my friends and family. Elizabeth taught me a routine and I got a friend to make a large metal hoop that would be suspended from the trees and I would be lowered down on to a small stage.
On the day I dashed off to change into a tutu and ballet shoes that had cost me a fortune and stepped into the hoop. I was lowered down on to the stage and then — in the pouring rain — I did the routine.
My children were astonished. Friends and family were also watching on Zoom and the video has been shared far and wide. I have had hundreds of messages saying my performance cheered them up.
Ballet has given me —and so many others — such joy in this challenging year.
Interviews: Jill Foster