Health & Beauty: On your toes

Move the mats and bring on the barre—ballet follows hot on the heels of yoga and Pilates as the latest graceful way to work out. Anouska S. Willson gets to the point.

Tutus and toe shoes are in as ballet takes center stage in the fitness world, its popularity sparked by the recent focus on relaxing flexibility routines, an exercise video released by the famed New York City Ballet, and movies like Billy Elliot and Save the Last Dance. Beginning in the royal courts of 17th-century France, ballet has developed from being solely a form of entertainment into a low-sweat, joint-friendly workout in gyms and recreational facilities across the globe.

In Tokyo, ballet has long prevailed as a favored pursuit among urbanites of all ages on a quest for supple gracefulness. Yet while the smooth moves ballet offers are in stark contrast to the energetic choreography of an aerobics class or the intense pace of cardio machines, they nevertheless elevate your heart rate and torch a moderate amount of calories. In addition, a ballet body comprises the best of last year's fitness favorites by combining the bendiness of yoga with the long and lean look of Pilates.

Poise, posture and pirouettes
Walking taller is one incentive for most adults who take up classical dance, as the fluidity of the movements encourages proper body alignment. "Ballet will improve your posture even in daily life," asserts Hiromi Uchikawa, assistant dance teacher at the International Dance School in Hiroo. But Tokyo-based Canadian ballet instructor and director of the Actus Ballet Studio in Kawasaki, Helen Price, feels there's more to the classic dance form. "Posture and grace are benefits of taking ballet classes, but I think these are simply a result of the increased physical awareness which one gains from a carefully taught course in classical ballet technique," she says. This "technique" encompasses strengthening the muscles of the lower body, defining the arms, and tightening the abs, as well as better coordination and balance. And let's not forget flexibility, which is an integral part of every ballet lesson. "We stretch before the class and in the middle of class after the muscles have been warmed up," says Uchikawa. Of course, new exercise fads are weight loss-driven, and ballet is no exception. But like any workout program, consistency is key. "If you keep taking classes, it will make you slim," she explains. The reward for these stretch-and-sweat sessions: a toned physique with elongated lines and a no-slouch stance.

Yet the payoffs go beyond the physical, according to Jenny Hosmer, a 20-year veteran on the Tokyo ballet instructor circuit. "Through ballet one can learn mime, expression, and quality in movement. The students will develop an appreciation for a form of dance that began over 400 years ago but continues to evolve to this day," she says. And taking up ballet can abet the study of other dance styles. "If one has accomplished the correct technique, which can only really be learned in ballet, one will find any other form of dance—jazz, modern, or flamenco, for example—very easy to do," she adds.

Although ballet has garnered a reputation as a pastime suited to the under-12 age bracket, grown-ups are increasingly discovering they can play too. "It's not a problem for adult students to join, as we have a lot of beginner classes," Uchikawa insists. Hosmer claims her adult students also come to fulfill childhood dreams and unwind after a hard day at work. "They say it makes them feel young," says Homer. Price holds dance recitals every two years, which adult students may opt to take part in. "Last year about half of the class chose to participate and enjoyed the challenge of learning a full-length group dance, performing on a stage, and experiencing the use of costume and stage make-up. These are all quite different experiences than one can have in just a weekly dance class."

Twirling in Tokyo
Don't know a plie from a pas de deux? The city's dance studios will help you learn the difference:

The International Dance School has two studios in Hiroo and Roppongi, with four 90-minute beginner classes for adults at the Hiroo branch. Entrance fee: ¥15,000; monthly fee: ¥12,000 if you attend four times a month, ¥20,000 for eight times, and ¥25,000 for unlimited monthly attendance; ticket system: ¥35,000 for ten tickets—no entrance fee required. Tel: 03-3444-2180.

Actus Ballet Studio is located five minutes from JR Shin-Kawasaki station and offers a weekly two-hour class. Entrance fee: ¥10,000 plus an annual insurance fee of ¥1,000; monthly lesson fee: ¥9,000; ticket system: ¥20,000 for eight tickets. Prospective students may watch a class or take a free trial lesson, and beginner ballerinas may have an extra 30 minutes of free coaching for the first three months. Tel: 0422-47-4664.

Jenny Hosmer Ballet School
Entrance fee: ¥10,000; monthly fee: ¥10,500 for a weekly class and ¥17,850 for a twice-weekly class; ticket system: ¥30,000 for ten tickets. Tel: 03-3927-2772;

The ballet school at Aoyama Bell Commons offers a variety of classes every day of the week taught by an array of instructors. Regular membership: ¥25,000 for two years with an annual renewal charge of ¥6,000; six-month membership: ¥12,000; ticket system: ¥3,100 for a visitor ticket; ¥2,400 for a single-class ticket; ¥13,000 for a six-class ticket; ¥25,000 for a 13-class ticket; ¥30,000 for a 20-class ticket. Tel: 03-3475-8188.

Photo credit: stock or pr?

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