Boston Ballet Adult Programs teacher Kristin Beckwith has over thirty students in her drop-in ballet classes on any given weeknight. And we can see why! Her classes inspire physically and emotionally, and she genuinely cares about each and every student.
By Betsi Akerstein
Betsi Akerstein: When did you start teaching adults?
Kristin Beckwith: It has been close to thirty years. I took nine years off to raise children, then wanted to go back to dance. I started back teaching more adult oriented programs, both at Tufts University and through my own studio, DanceSpace.
Were you teaching adults and children at the same time?
Yes - I have experience teaching the full range, Children through Adults, Beginner through Advanced.
What is your favorite group to teach?
Well, I think it’s almost self-selective. I teach so many adults and I love teaching in the Adult Program for various reasons. Adults bring passion to dance later in life, sometimes as mature adults… and many of them never had a chance to do it when they were children. Others have done it ALL their lives… but their commitment and desire is so strong. Sometimes with the kids you don’t have that kind of drive. They may have beautiful instruments but they don’t necessarily have the same level of focus and commitment.
So you mentioned the body as the instrument. Do you see students who attend your class regularly change?
I do see the bodies change. There is definite improvement. It is very important to me as a teacher that I help each student maximize what they can do. I encourage my students to see class as a two-fold experience: what dance can do for their bodies and also what it can do for their soul or spirit. There is something kind of magical about the shared joy in experiencing dance.
I can’t make an adult foot that has no arch really increase very much. I can’t get someone whose body is very tight to become super flexible. But the students’ sense of their bodies and their body awareness, increases all the time. Their posture improves. Their sense of confidence improves. And you can see it. You can see it blossoming. And it’s a great joy for me. Watching the adults deal with a certain amount of adversity, physically in many cases, and then watching them transcend that, is a huge pleasure for me. It constantly feeds me and makes me love my work.
Some dancers believe that they need to stop dancing at a certain age… What would you say to that?
Well obviously I don’t think that! I am committed to teaching adults and I don’t believe that age should ever be a restriction. The adult students take so much joy and pride in their work… they may not be able to look like a professional, in fact most of them won’t, but they should not be restricted at all.
Have you ever had any students try to come back to ballet as an adult after a long period off?
Sure, all the time. And they often stay with me, which is a huge vote of confidence - that they have learned to trust me as I help them through that bumpy process of coming back with a body that may be less responsive than it once was. And it is frustrating … In some ways I went through that process myself, when I chose to have a family. So when I returned to take classes after taking ten years off to raise a family, I really understood that frustration. I still had the love for dance though… And I needed to do it, I could not live without it. For me, it is the elixir of life. And I think a lot of the adult students feel that way, both returning dancers and novice dancers… they all find that dance feeds them in some way.
What advice would you give a dancer who is intimidated to come back to class after a hiatus?
Well the fact that they are thinking about it or choose to try a class usually means that they have a need for it on some level, probably on an emotional level. And I try to help them think back to the joy, the pleasure that dance once gave them. As a teacher, I try to help them access that part first because technique is going to be a little slower coming back. The truth is that former dancers and dance students will often look good, but it doesn’t feel good inside yet. So I try to get them to access the pleasure of dance, and then to help them redevelop their technique and strength. I try to be complimentary and reassure students, “Oh don’t worry, the technique will come back. You’re here, just try to enjoy it. Relax and enjoy it.”
You have an intuitive way of individually correcting each student. How do you make it personal?
Well I have had three decades to hone my skills! I also think that there is a certain gift I have been given, and I don’t like to analyze it. But I am really, truly interested in learning about each student, and it’s a fascinating process… not only to identify each person’s personality, but also what their bodies can do. I try to learn all my student’s names which is a prodigious effort but it pays off. And I continue to move around the room and try to speak to everyone individually as well as giving general corrections.
What are some of the “side effects” of dance you’ve witnessed in your students?
Well it requires so much concentration that students often tell me that it takes them out of themselves, takes them away from the work that they have been doing all day, and they feel like they have gone into a whole different zone. Students come to class tired and stressed, and they leave class relaxed and happy. So I think it’s a combination of what we do together in class, plus biologically speaking, endorphins elevate your spirit.
Are there reasons you would advocate dance classes over other kinds of workout?
Well in ballet, students learn about the beauty of the art form… it’s not just physical exercise but it is a beautiful form of movement with a long history. And I often will throw out bits of information regarding the history when it’s appropriate. There is also a really strong sense of community among my students. They are welcoming to newcomers, and different groups within the class socialize outside of class. Also, we are so fortunate at Boston Ballet to have pianists who play for every class, there is this wonderful music, and I think that this is a huge part of why adult students keep coming. They are hearing fine music played professionally. And they can use their imagination and be in a different place for that hour and a half.
Have you ever witnessed any students’ ‘aha’ moments?
Sure – every day! One of the hardest things for adult students to do is the pirouette, particularly if they started dancing later in life… if you’re a little person and you start turning, you don’t have very far to fall, but adult students often say that they are afraid of pirouettes. When I give clues or tips to students, and they learn to put those several tips together to execute a good single pirouette or suddenly find themselves doing a double, it’s really remarkable. And that is such a hard thing to accomplish… when someone really pulls that off, they know it instantly… that “Yes, I just did a fantastic pirouette.” And sometimes with the more advanced students, they do double and triple pirouettes now, which they would not dare to do before. Often the students are astounded, I mean their faces just light up … it’s an ‘aha’ moment for them and for me too!
Thank you so much… I have really enjoyed speaking with you about your work in Boston Ballet’s Adult Program.
My pleasure – now I have to go ‘do that thing’… I have a class to teach!