I recently saw the remarkable Mikhail Baryshnikov in performances of three largely mimed roles in Beckett Shorts, downtown at the innovative New York Theater Workshop. This artist continues to reinvent himself, and his talent, intelligence, curiosity, and drive are always astonishing. He has left audiences with memories of him at his peak in various dance forms and moved on to other areas of his art in which he can still be effective, and usually riveting. He was quoted by Frank Rizzo, a staff writer for the Hartford Courant, in an interview published in that paper on June 26, 2007:
"My grandmother was an absolutely adorable little woman, whom I remember very well.... She was a very true peasant from a small village of the Volga River. But she wasn't at all like [a fictitious, older, dance-mad woman portrayed in a book]. But I do know grandmothers and aunts and other older women like that character, and sometimes I even take open dance class with them at the Steps studio. They're all there, and they're dance nuts."
These "older women," and some men as well, may in many cases be former professional dancers who are reluctant to give up the grace and discipline of classical ballet or other dance forms for the more mundane attractions of the gym. Some, of course, do both, and more. Others, including yours truly, have been lifelong, reasonably accomplished amateurs who were either not quite good enough or afraid to face the risks of attempting a professional career. Still others, although they may have little or no native ability—lacking even a sense of rhythm in some cases—show up in class several times a week for the sheer love of it. Thus, an open class at Steps or another studio is likely to contain a wide-ranging mélange of skill levels and ages.
You can make the case that the unnatural turnout of the hip joint can be harmful, especially if study of the classical technique begins later in life. Ideally, it should start at around age eight. But it can also be argued that proper training in ballet can shape the body as no other form of exercise can. And it certainly is addictive, especially with a good teacher and accompanist. I used to be silently contemptuous of some of the truly unsuitable ages and bodies who appeared in class, but I now realize that everyone who can try it should dance. There's nothing like it. And those of us who, like me, have mildly obsessive-compulsive tendencies, truly enjoy the codified, repetitive aspect of a genuinely classical class. In general, with some exceptions, it's also one of the last bastions of good manners in 21st-century America. You have to behave properly in class, although the days of the teacher whacking you on the calf with a stick have gone. Ballet can teach lessons in life as well as in art.