Updated: Aug 28
Dr Cathy Chittleborough is a busy mother and lecturer in public health and epidemiology. She’s always been a ballet dancer, but instead of the 12 hours a week she did as a teenager, she squeezes in a ballet class for adults in her 50-60 hour working week. Her goal is to keep dancing for at least another 20 years because she loves it.
Cathy tried things like pilates and barre as a way to exercise, but was disappointed because there’s nothing artistic about it. She also tried a beginner ballet class for adults at the same place, but it was too basic. She even found that classes at her old dance studio weren’t a good fit anymore. She didn’t want to work towards exams, or be the oldest in a class full of young people. She just wanted a free class where she could switch off her brain, get a good workout, and do beautiful enchaîinment and steps that were more advanced than just demi plies, rises and changements.
The level 5 (advanced) ballet class for adults at Dragonfly Dance gives Cathy an artistic and emotional outlet that she doesn’t get anywhere else in her life. The physical element of it helps her release day-to-day frustrations. It calms her busy mind which gives her a mental health boost that stops her worrying and getting down.
Cathy says her weekly ballet class for adults has a positive effect on her wellbeing throughout her week. Sometimes she doesn’t feel like going to class, but she does, and comes home on a high every time. And the top notch teachers and camaraderie in the class keeps her on track with her goal of continuing to dance.
Does Cathy’s story sound anything like yours?
Keep reading for her full story so you can decide if Dragonfly Dance could help you too.
Cathy is a rare breed. She has done ballet all her life but never pursued dance as a career. Instead, she went down an academic path for her professional life.
“I started ballet when I was 7, because the girl across the road went and I thought it sounded fun and Mum thought it would be a good thing to do on Saturday morning. I can’t remember not doing it, it’s always been there, except for the one year off when I had my daughter.”
“I used to do lots of styles did all the RAD exams, so was pretty serious for a while. I never wanted to do it professionally. I just loved it, and it was good exercise. Once you get in it you do it a lot. I’d be there four times a week and was with the SA Children’s Ballet Company for years.”
As a full time academic and a mother, the fact that Cathy puts aside an hour a week for ballet shows just how much she loves it.
“I’m a lecturer in public health and epidemiology at University of Adelaide. Work takes up an awful lot of my week. I also have a daughter who’s eight, and she’s where I want to spend the rest of my time. Time for things just about me tends to disappear pretty fast.”
“Sometimes I’m working 50-60 hour week and I can’t squeeze any more in. I feel guilty because I’m out at night and Elinor will go ‘you’re out again, I never see you’. I leave early in the morning, I’m home for tea, then go out again. In a few years when she’s older and doesn’t mind me going out so much, perhaps I can squeeze another class in. Two classes a week would be just perfect. There are loads of us who have kids at Dragonfly Dance, which is also nice. Everyone understands. It’s an escape for everyone.”
The search for just the right ballet class
It’s been a number of years since Cathy first came to Move Through Life when she performed in our 2005 season ‘one two three’. She then took a break to go overseas and complete her doctorate. When she returned, she wasn’t so much looking to perform, but wanted to do a regular class.
“I don’t enjoy performing now as much as I did when I was younger. Back then I was doing it four or five days a week for hours at a time. But with one hour class a week you can’t maintain the technique, so you know you’re not doing as well as you would before. I’m more anxious now about being onstage that I used to be. I think because I worry I’m not as good as I used to be, or perhaps I’m more realistic. When you’re younger you think you’re amazing.”
Dragonfly Dance (formerly Move Through Life) had started out as a project-based performance group, but when Cathy returned from Europe we’d added a couple of weekly classes for experienced dancers and this was a great fit for Cathy.
“I was looking for somewhere to do a nice fun class that wasn’t full of really young people. I’d really enjoyed the studio I used to go to, but the teacher I loved wasn’t teaching as many classes. Also, the classes were a lot more set work. I didn’t want to do exam classes anymore, I wanted to do open classes.”
“I did try out a couple of pilates and barre classes. At the end of last year I did about six months of those. I did the barre class, which is not really ballet at all. There is no artistic stuff in that. I just get bored. I do my 10 weeks’ worth or something and then think I don’t know if I will sign up again. I feel like I’m having a really great workout but I don’t love it. They had a beginner ballet class for adults as well but it was too basic. I feel ridiculous in a class. Everyone ends up looking at you because you can do things easily and they can’t. I just feel self-conscious. That’s another thing about MTL. Because there are different levels you can go to the one that is appropriate and with others who are similar.”
Thinking about coming back to ballet class but you’re a bit nervous?
Download our ‘Return to Ballet Guide' to discover:”
what to expect in an adult ballet class
what to wear
how to avoid injury
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How ballet is different when you’re older
Cathy admits it can be harder to keep doing ballet when you get older, but she also believes you get something completely different out of it when you’re not a teenager any more.
“My body doesn’t do the same things it did in my 20s. I’m in my 40s now. When you’re older, you have to be gentle with yourself or you do damage. But I’m sure if I did 12 hours of ballet a week I’d get right back to where I was. But life is different now. You just can’t do everything. You feel frustration, but as you get older you appreciate different things about the dance. Some days you feel stiff as a board in your legs, so you dance with the top half of your body. At this point no one cares. Whereas when you’re younger and in class and trying to prepare for exams and shows you have to push yourself a lot harder. So in some ways it’s just nicer and easier nowadays.”
A balm for body, mind and soul
It means a lot to Cathy to still be doing ballet in her 40s because it gives her both physical, mental, and emotional benefits she can’t get anywhere else.
“I love it. It’s a really mental health outlet for me. It’s not just physical. I think with ballet because I’ve done it for so long, my body doesn’t really have to think about it. So I can just completely switch off and my body dances around. I let go and just go with the music, go with the exercise, and not think about anything. It’s a form of relaxation for me, even though it’s a complete workout.”
At ballet when she switches off from her busy life, and she’s able to tap into something really deep inside her.
“Nowadays with my work I do a stack of walking because our office has moved and I have to go up and down North Terrace. But I’m working because my brain hasn’t switched off. I’m running up the road trying to prepare the lecture that I teach, so it’s quite stressful. So this is my one time a week that is relaxing for body, soul and mind.”
“I’ve gone to the point in one of Kialea’s classes, the Aimee song. I looked it up and listen to it now. It just takes me to this place. I was completely emotional. I thought ‘what am I doing? I’m doing plies and I’m about to burst into tears.’ It was wonderful. For dancing to turn on emotions like that is powerful.”
A boost that lasts the whole week
It’s not just during that hour a week that Cathy finds her life enriched by ballet and it keeps her calm and emotionally balanced.
“In that hour I let my mind relax. If my brain was going at the rate it has to operate at full time, it would just shut down and I’d die. So it affects my wellbeing through the rest of the week. I think my husband notices as well. He’s very encouraging. Sometimes I’ll get home from work and think I can’t go out the door to ballet, but he’ll encourage me to get changed, because I come home on a high every time.”
“It’s an artistic and emotional outlet that I don’t have on a day to day basis in my work. And I think a lot of us who are good at academically tend to also need an outlet for something creative. Being creative or artistic kind of feeds in, gets that side of your brain working. I think that helps with how you approach things and what your perspective is on things in the work world.”
“I need my weekly exercise. I need something really physical. I think it’s getting the mind frustrations out as well because the body needs to move. If I don’t do that regularly I get agitated. But I think the mental health is the biggest one for me, keeping that under wraps, not getting anxious or worrying too much or getting depressed about things.”
A place where you feel welcome
Cathy notes that it’s not just the teachers that make MTL a really unique place to take ballet class. There’s a lot she loves about it.
“A lot of the time there is a similar group of people there every week. Sometimes there is new people, and people who come and go.”
“I love being about to just walk in and say hello. But if you don’t want to talk you don’t have to. Everyone gets along. We’re all friends. There’s no competition. We’re not striving towards anything. I quite like having that chat at the beginning and then just go into the zone and don’t notice anyone else is there for the hour. Then we finish and have another chat. It just works.”
“Everyone is very different but we’re all there for the same reason. There’s not many places around Adelaide that you can get high level high quality teaching, same level of dancers in the class, for the same reasons, and the same sort of age group. It’s just comfortable.”
“I’m conscious when someone new starts of making them feel welcome. I think because we are all mature now. Why wouldn’t you say hello to someone who walks in? Whereas when you are 14 it’s not what you do. You have a lot more anxiety about talking to people at that age.”
It’s advanced, but it’s not hard
Cathy is quick to point out that it’s not so much about what tricks you can do now, but about your background and what your body already knows.
“It’s not like an adult beginner class. There is some high quality dancing going on in here. A professional dancer could come to these classes and they’d still have a fine class. You can really push yourself if you want to, or you can just come along and go with the flow like most of us do. You can take it as far as you want, and can individualise it, which I think is a plus. The quality is there. It’s very vibrant.”
“We are encouraged to do doubles and more turns if we want. You can choose to do cabrioles and beats. So if you’ve only gone up to grade 3 you wouldn’t know what all the steps are. You do need to have reached a certain level at some stage in your life, because you are expected to know the steps. So it is an advanced level, but you don’t have to still be at your peak. Even if you haven’t done it for years, you will know what the steps are, and you just do it to your ability.”
“There is a market for having that kind of advanced level class. I don’t want to go along and just do demi-plies and rises and changement. I want to be dancing, doing enchaînment and choreography. I’m here to do the dancing, not a boring class. It’s advanced, but it’s not hard. Lots of us have had breaks, lots of us have only done one class a week. You don’t have to have that same peak physical condition as you might once have had.”
“Maybe that’s it. This is not about being a ballerina. It’s not about getting your legs up and doing quadruple pirouettes. But you could if you wanted to.”
Even though ballet is not the main focus of her life anymore, Cathy still has aspirations.
“I want to keep dancing as long as I possibly can because I love it so much. I’d love it if I’m still going in another 20 years, or beyond. That’s a goal.”