Beginning Ballet (Again)

by Sage Goellner, French Instructor, Continuing Studies

“And….a-one-and-two-and-three-and-four,” counts a voice in a lyrical South African accent. Piano music fills the room and bodies begin to move.

A graceful gentleman with chestnut curls circulates through the room, his eyes carefully trained on the dancers. Spines straight, legs and feet turned out, we ease into warm-up pliés, leaving behind daily life and focusing on musicality, grace, and the pursuit of beauty in the body.

It’s Monday evening in ballet class. By day we are accountants, parents, teachers, lawyers, singers. In class, though, we are all Vivian Tomlinson’s dancers. It’s something we look forward to all week..

I began studying ballet 17 years ago in a credit course at UW-Madison with Vivian as my instructor. A shy undergraduate looking for an elective, I was brand new to the movements, positions, and routines. Vivian was demanding; I learned a lot. Then life got busier and I stopped dancing.

Last year, I signed up for Ballet 1 once again after almost 20 years away from it and lots of miles (and padding) under my belt: school, travel, jobs, marriage, and children. I didn’t know Vivian would be my teacher, but walking into his noncredit Continuing Studies class, I felt like I was completing a circle. So many years later, I was delighted to find that ballet’s grace and strength were still in my muscle memory.

“Dancers! Dancers! Why such sad faces, dancers?” Vivian cajoles as we practice our tendus and jetés, our brows furrowed in concentration. “Why do you all look so serious? You all look like Herman Munster!” Our faces break into smiles and we relax and breathe a bit. Vivian knows to poke fun when it’s most needed.

I count myself very fortunate to have begun, and begun ballet again, with Vivian. Originally from South Africa, he’s had a long teaching career at the UW-Madison. A master teacher, he is wise, funny, demanding, encouraging, correcting, and always working during class. He expects no less from us.

Ballet is serious work. A discipline begun over 400 years ago in Italy (“not in France,” as Vivian is quick to remind us) is certainly not easy. It is a studied defiance of gravity, constantly pulling up and pushing down at the same time. As anyone who has seen a performance knows, ballet dancers are some of the most magnificent athletes in the world.

But Vivian makes it a fun challenge. He continually reminds his adult learners to take care of ourselves. His refrain is “make ballet work for your body, don’t make your body work for ballet.”

In Vivian’s class, we learn a lot more than just dance. An excellent interpreter of ballet steps and technique, his diverse references range from the Italian statue of flying Mercury to the cartoon character, Road Runner, and from arabesques in Islamic architecture to that memorable workout “Buns of Steel.” And when he tells us that our dancing fills the universe, it really does.

Continuing Studies dance and movement classes start soon. Check out the subject areas, dates and times online.