“Adult ballet helped me learn how to meditate”

Posted by for Strong Women

Writer Rebecca Reid has tried to meditate umpteen times to no avail – until she discovered ballet. Amid the pirouettes and pliés, she finally found a method for coping with anxiety. 

If you’re no good at mindfulness or meditation, you may be looking for your zen in the wrong place. After years of trying to focus, I found that all I had to do to stay grounded and calm was to slip on a pair of ballet shoes.  

The change came in the form of a tendu. It’s a movement where you take your foot forward along the floor in ballet. It looks like the easiest thing in the world, but it’s the foundation upon which everything else is built and doing it perfectly means contracting every single muscle in your leg, supporting from your core and squeezing your butt. Think of it a bit like the ballet version of a squat – if you’re doing your tendus properly, you’re probably going to be sweating. I learnt almost immediately that when you’re doing ballet – even if you are astronomically good at it – it is nigh on impossible to concentrate on what your feet and arms are supposed to be doing and think about anything else at the same time.

Technically, I took up ballet by accident. I had missed the whole ballerina thing as a child, probably because I was plump and dyspraxic and had therefore absorbed the message that dance was Not For Me. But years later, I found myself without evening plans and discovered that there was a ballet studio down the road from my office. From the very first moment I got there, I was hooked – ballerinas of all ages milled around in the foyer. There were tutus and pointe shoes strewn around the changing rooms. Noise, shouting, adults, teenagers, people everywhere, music from every room. It was like coming home. At the time, I was living in a semi-derelict mansion with a group of friends, living off Oyster Bay, Diet Coke, packet noodles and Marlboro Lights and, unsurprisingly, suffering the consequences. The low-level anxiety I had always struggled with was becoming unmanageable and, for the first time in my life, I was having panic attacks. In my more “woo” moments, I call it fate, otherwise a happy coincidence; whatever the term, the truth was that I needed a change.

I have always had anxiety tinged with some OCD tendencies and, as such, am used to wrestling with my brain, trying to prevent it from spiralling into worst-case scenarios at every juncture. But it was during that first ballet class that my brain finally learnt how to switch off the “but what if” reflex to focus on moving my body in precise ways. I realise now that the razor-like focus ballet required taught me how to meditate – something that I had attempted many, many times and always failed at. 

In fact, a 2016 study by the University of Chicago found that ballet is effectively a form of meditation, akin to yoga. It’s not just a form of meditation though; ballet can help soothe anxiety specifically because it’s a repetitive activity. According to the Philadelphia Center for Growth, repetitive activities are brilliant when it comes to relieving anxiety: “When we engage in the repeated actions, after a short while our minds slip easily from the conscious, active, aggravated state to a subconscious, passive, calming state” – something confirmed by a 2011 study from the American Friends of Tel Aviv University who also found that a “healthy dose of repetitive behaviour reduces anxiety.” So it’s not ballet per se that helps to soothe stressed minds – it’s any kind of repetitive exercise, whether that’s doing 30 minutes of deadlifts and squats, a 5k run or an hour of arabesques.

No matter where I am, ballet has always been a comfort
No matter where I am, ballet has always been a comfort

Anecdotally, it can work for other mental health issues too. For Sophia*, 31, ballet was a helpful tool for coping while recovering from an eating disorder. “When I wanted to take up ballet as an adult, people were suspicious of it. There’s such a link between disordered eating and dance, and my family couldn’t understand how staring at myself in a mirror could help. But I loved having this unchanging place to be every single week. I’ve learned to focus on what my body can do and how it can move. There is a right and a wrong in ballet, and being able to see my body doing something objectively ‘right’ has helped me to start healing my relationship with it.”

Of course, there are no miracle cures when it comes to mental health. Ballet didn’t “fix” me. As the steps became more familiar, the total concentration required to complete them lessened and sometimes the intrusive thoughts would slip back in. When that happened, it felt like my safest space was being violated. Sometimes I would have a “bad” class and find myself in tears on the way home. But I learned to contextualise it, to say “I’m not going to think about that while I’m here,” and once I could control my thoughts for 90 minutes, doing it for longer became easier.

Eventually, my life outside of ballet changed – I got into a relationship, got a new job, moved house – and going every single week wasn’t practical anymore. But the magical thing about ballet is that you can always go back. Last year, during a period of mental illness following the loss of my job, I found myself at my lowest ever ebb, in New York, having multiple panic attacks a day. I did the only practical thing I could think of. I googled for the nearest ballet studio. By some divine providence, it was a few blocks away. I bought shoes and a leotard and arrived practically twitching with anxious energy. I left feeling calmer and grounded in my body. That’s another glorious thing about ballet – pretty much wherever you are in the world, there will be a studio and give or take a few details, the movements will fundamentally be the same.

Last year, when the world closed down and all of our lives changed unrecognisably, ballet was there for me yet again – this time through a screen. Whether it’s a studio in New York, a dance school in London, or a Zoom screen in my kitchen, I know that ballet will always be there for me, and the comfort I get from that knowledge is invaluable.

It doesn’t have to be ballet. For one friend of mine, it’s the loudest, darkest possible HIIT class where she can lose herself to the thudding music and the joyful ache of lifting heavy weights. For another friend it’s the rhythmic pounding of her feet on the pavement as she runs alone after work with no music, no company, no distractions. Maybe for you, it’s moving your limbs through icy water or speeding past stationary cars on your bike. There is no right or wrong way to find healing through movement and we all need different things from our workouts. But I firmly, completely believe that there is some form of exercise that will form a safe space for each and every person out there, and for me, finding out what that was was a small, but very real, miracle.  

FOUR WAYS TO START BALLET

If you’d like to give ballet a go, there are all sorts of ways to do it online:

  1. David Kierce, one of the best teachers in the business, runs online classes and teaches in central London during non-Covid times. Classes are live, which makes them feel much more like a real ballet studio experience. Sign up here.
  2. The Ballet Retreat runs retreats (as you might have guessed from the title). It also currently offers online virtual retreats . Join one here.
  3. It’s certainly not a beginners class, but the Royal Opera House shared its morning class online, and you’re more than welcome to follow along at home (though be sensible – if something hurts, stop, and it should go without saying that you should never attempt to dance en pointe for the first time unless you’ve got the supervision of a teacher).
  4. Kathryn Morgan is a vlogger and ballerina who has talked about her mental and physical health, as well as dance. She’s got a prerecorded barre class for beginnerswhich is a perfect place to start.

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Image: Getty

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