How the Charlotte Ballet Open Division Made Me Fall In Love With Ballet

As a kid, I was the last to be picked for teams in PE, and the first kid to break her pinky playing kickball in 4th grade (LOL, REALLY.) I told my mom I liked staying by the cooler and handing out snacks during my first season of soccer when I was 7 and she agreed I could just stick to ballet and musical theater classes and give soccer a rest. My whole childhood I repeatedly heard how dance wasn’t a sport and I probably wasn’t strong or athletic by other kids on the playground. Any of this relatable to anyone?

I quit ballet around age 11 because a lack of focus (my mom reminding me she couldn’t drive me to singing, play practice, horseback riding and ballet every day) but somehow my unfocused mind had me running back to dance. I remembered all the repetition involved and discipline and was afraid to go back after taking years off. Every musical I performed in had me placed up front for all the dance numbers. Every scene I got to move to the music, was the scene I was enjoying most.

Fast forward to age 15, and I am back in dance classes at Charlotte Ballet. My mom convinced me to try out the Open Ballet Division. The Open Division was/is a dance program at Charlotte Ballet similar to a yoga or fitness studio. You can drop in anytime and pay per class. I started out going to the Open Adult Beginner ballet classes 3 days a week at Charlotte Ballet. I had retained more than I thought I would from my childhood training but was of course lacking physical strength and technique consecutive years of training would have given me. Getting back into dance with the Open Division changed how I felt about ballet. When I was in musicals it was so easy and carefree and just fun to me compared to the tedious technicality of Ballet when I was younger and in a stricter Academy setting. At 15 the Open Division with teacher Kati Hanlon-Mayo gave me everything my younger, immature and unfocused self couldn’t get from the structure of most ballet classes. The classes were technical but whimsical and so dance-y! I didn’t have to be the best in the room. I wanted to be my best. The teachers were all former professional dancers and I thought that would really intimidate me at first. However, they did an amazing job of supporting and inspiring a room the way they demonstrated the steps before even beginning to explain them. I think Charlotte Ballet’s Adult Open Division is where I fell in love with Ballet for the first time.

As a former ballet dancer and current certified personal trainer, getting to teach the Open Division is so special to me. I really rekindled my passion for ballet specifically in these classes. There is something so relatable watching someone new come into my adult beginner class at Charlotte Ballet. I get a pretty wide variety of women (and the occasional man!) in class. Many have never danced before in their lives and are in their 40’s and are simply over yoga. Some are 20-30 and haven’t danced since high school or college and are looking to move to a beat again. I have a few regular 70 year old women that come full leotard and inspire me to never stop moving because they never did and they still got it! Whatever the demographic of student dropping in for the first time, they all start out so tentative. The best part of teaching the Adult Beginners is watching new timer’s come out of their shells and go for it. My younger Academy students would jump off the building if I told them to, cannonballing with no fears. Somewhere in adolescence we start to worry and get so afraid of how we look and we stop diving in. New things are scary for anyone. Even more exciting is watching their wheels start to turn with a correction. Seeing people mess up, try again and sometimes by the end of class, sometimes by next week or a few they’ve connected the dots with a correction. Being apart of someone’s ability to let go and attack the step is so magical.

I realized how wrong myself and all my peers had been when I started dancing as a young adult. Dancers have an incredible core strength allowing them not only to balance on one leg for long periods of time, but to balance on their toes, sometimes with the other leg next to their ear, maybe while turning around themselves multiple times! I found the proper spinal alignment, strength, and stamina I thought I’d never have because I “wasn’t athletic.” Alix Weavel has attended Monday night classes for a year and a half now and danced her whole childhood and attended University of North Carolina School of the Arts for dance. She now works as a dental hygenist and comes to Monday night classes to unwind, moving to the music. Alix remarks, “The Open Division at Charlotte Ballet gives me a consistent weekly class where I can focus on the Ballet basics without worry after work. Sophie keeps the class engaging for all people showing up no matter the age or level of experience. I can truly say this class is the highlight of my week and a perfect way to end my Monday.”

But what to expect in class? The structure of Ballet classes is universal. Go to any country and a Ballet class will always have two parts. You start at the barre warming up with a progression of exercises for our hips (for external rotation,) our knees, feet, core. Barre allows you to strengthen and prepare your body to hold yourself up in center. Center work is where the real fun begins, moving across the floor, waltzing and jumping. Ending with exhausting and higher energy movements, jumps are always at the end of class. While dance will get you in great shape with consistency, dance classes are very different from fitness classes. We spend time talking between each combination, explaining proper alignment, the name and meaning of each step we’re executing and how to execute the step. This helps to prevent injury but also gives everyone the opportunity to practice the coordination of the steps, ask questions and then attack the exercise head on.

Whether you are brand new to dance or reigniting an old flame for it, all levels are welcome! Mary Erskine, a regular Monday night student of two years now says, “I really love the Open Division classes because I did not get to take ballet as a kid so this was really a chance for me as an adult to fulfill something I’d always dreamed of. I love how it works a different part of your brain and you just flow to the music in such a different way. The relationship with your body the music is so different than in a yoga class or strength or aerobics class. You use your body and muscles in a different way. I love it to supplement the other types of workouts I do. And I am so grateful that Charlotte has a program like this.”