Man Walks into a Barre: Sam Beckwith Tries Ballet

Opus Osm

Veronika Iblová instructs Sam in Body Form. Her method starts literally from the ground up to build a dancer's posture and muscles.

Another in the Opus Osm series “Man Walks into a Barre,” in which an ordinary, untrained, and thoroughly unsuspecting person agrees to take a one-hour lesson in classical music or dance.

Sam Beckwith Tries Ballet

I am not, it has to be said, an obvious candidate for ballet class.

Beyond leisurely walks, a weekly swim, and the occasional tennis match, I live a basically sedentary life, commuting from one computer to another.

If I dance at all, it’s usually in a drunken wedding-reception frenzy: spasmodic from the waist down, largely immobile from the waist up.

Not only can I not touch my toes, I can’t even get close.

Opus OsmBut while I may not be physically flexible, I’m willing to try new things.

So when my editor mentions she’s looking for someone to write a first-hand account of a ballet lesson, I impulsively agree to give it a go.

Lessons with – Yikes! — a Former Prima Ballerina!

So now it’s Saturday morning at the First International Ballet School in Prague, on Liliová street, and I’m getting a one-on-one lesson from Veronika Iblová. She’s the former ballerina, assistant choreographer, and National Theatre ballet master who founded and runs this ballet school.

Going against Hollywood stereotype, Veronika proves to be a pleasant and extremely patient instructor, which, given what she’s got to work with, can only be a good thing.

What can a newbie find in a ballet performance?

I’m also hugely relieved that I’m allowed to take the class in a T-shirt, socks, and jogging pants. The thought of old schoolmates stumbling across photos of me in tights and a leotard has been keeping me awake at night.

Tip: Start at Four … Years of Age, That Is

In case I’m under any illusions, Veronika begins by emphasizing how little she can teach a complete novice in the space of an hour.Opus Osm

Many ballet dancers start taking classes when they’re four or five years old, she says, and it takes at least eight years of intensive training to become a professional.

By then, I figure, I’ll be 48, and I suspect job opportunities would be thin on the ground. I mentally cross “ballet dancer” off my list of possible career paths.

Unnatural Acts, in Unnatural Positions

Opus Osm

Don't give up yet, Sam!

Caveats out of the way, the training begins.

Veronika gives me a quick run-through of the various exercises and positions a ballet dancer will go through as their training progresses, and I struggle manfully to match them.

As the situation requires, I arch my back, point my toes, and struggle to move my feet and legs into the frankly unnatural positions my teacher is adopting.

What looks natural and graceful on her, looks distinctly Chaplinesque on me.

Straining and trembling, I realize how much physical strength ballet requires, and idly wonder whether Veronika could beat me in a fight.

(I suspect she would.)

Opus Osm

"What looks graceful on her looks distinctly Chaplinesque on me ..."

As the class continues, however, it gets better — not a lot better, I admit, but my movements become a tiny bit more natural and a tiny bit less self-conscious.

As we practice the correct way to position your fingers, I’m aware that I’m being photographed and realize how ridiculous I must look.

Strangely, though, I don’t care.

A Zen-like calm has descended.

I feel almost graceful.

Insiders’ Secret Revealed! — Spinning without Getting Dizzy

Getting more ambitious, we try a series of jumps, which aren’t quite the comedy of errors I was expecting. One or two even look like ballet.

Finally, I’m taught how to spin through 360 degrees without getting dizzy, which seems like a useful skill. (The secret is, as much as possible, to keep your eyes focused on the same point on the wall.)

Watch Sam taking himself for a spin

By the time the hour is up, I feel pretty good. Frankly, I’m amazed I can still walk at this point.

In particular, my ankles have never felt better — a result of stretching foot muscles that have gone unused for decades.

I also have a new-found respect for the sheer physicality of the form — the endless hours of effort that go into making something look so effortless.

To be honest, I probably won’t try ballet again, but I’m encouraged to try some other (easier) form of dance class.

As I head out into the tourist hordes, there’s a spring in my step.

I stop short of a pirouette, though. –oo

Sam Beckwith is a Northern English writer, editor, and journalist living and working in Prague since 1996. His latest project is, an English-language website covering tabloid culture in the Czech Republic.
Veronika Iblová teaches children and adults at the First International ballet school; its annual recital is June 23 at The New Stage. Mrs Iblová will also teach her Body Form conditioning, and advanced ballet, at the International Contemporary Dance Workshop July 15-20 at the National Theatre ballet studio.

Photo Credits: Photos and videos by Miroslav Setnička

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