There is a glass door at Pico and La Cienega. Upon entering, the smell of sweat mingles with the giggles of classical piano music. In the waiting room, a few people are decked out in all kinds of tights, leotards, and gym clothes. As the studio door swings open, earnest dancers line up, take their places at the barre, and patiently await their ballet class to begin.
Adult non-professional ballet has long been ignored as the public perception is that ballet classes are reserved only for children and professionals (or those who wish to be on stage). But the Align Ballet method gives to the dancers who are neither in the limelight nor in the limelight. This is their sanctuary and mine too; I’m a student there too. It’s a place to move, decompress and honor the 500+ year old art form that most visit to bolster their well-being rather than their careers.
Founded in Los Angeles in 2011 by Michael Cornell, the Align Ballet Method was born out of a desire to make ballet accessible to adults, regardless of whether they distinguish a “tendu” from a “dégagé”. Although adult ballet has been around for a long time, it is niche and has little marketing exposure. It’s often an afterthought for studios whose primary focus is either on kids and teens or their journey from amateur to professional. Through Cornell’s streamlined workshops, inexperienced adults can receive training that’s not only beginner-friendly, but inviting and precise—although it’s not surprising to share the barre with more advanced dancers as well. With six locations and Pico as their flagship venue, he believes ballet belongs to everyone.
“I never fitted into the ballet world,” says Cornell, who danced professionally with BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio for a decade. “It was never a place where I felt fully accepted because my feet were bad. I always had to hide that. I have never believed in the pretentious elements that are forced upon us that a ballet dancer should be like this. I’ve always wanted to destroy that perception.”
Susan Vishmid, a professional dancer whom Cornell calls his “secret weapon” due to her attention to detail and emphasis on impeccable technique, teaches beginner, intermediate, and advanced classes Tuesday nights at the Pico location. She studied with several prestigious companies such as the Pacific Northwest Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet and danced professionally with the Pennsylvania Ballet for several years. She is currently the artistic director and choreographer of the LA-based dance company Geeks with lineswhose mission is to “produce work that subverts traditional norms often associated with the ballet world.” They are hosting a gala performance in Pasadena on Saturday.
“I like teaching adults because they are serious about learning,” Vishmid tells me. “Align’s focus on adult ballet is great because people feel intimidated going to places like Westside Ballet, which is an institution and my home studio. But ballet technique can be learned by anyone, I am convinced of that. And why not? There is a momentum, a cadence to the lesson. It’s procedural and logical. There are rules. No one becomes an artist before becoming a technician, and proper technique is the greatest leveler.”
Thanks to the influx of social media, the increased visibility of icons like Misty Copeland and celebrities like Chris Kiefer who proudly practice ballet and extol its benefits, the field is more welcoming than ever. But ballet is historically uninviting, especially in terms of race, age, and build. Invited by messianic choreographer George Balanchine to join the New York City Ballet in 1968 at the age of 15, Gelsey Kirkland quickly entered the annals of ballet royalty, collaborating with famed Mikhail Baryshnikov – both on and off the dance floor. But her meteoric rise devastated her body and mind.
“You’ve been pushed to the limits of what your body can handle,” she told Diane Sawyer in a revealing 1986 “60 Minutes.” Interview. In the same interview, she says that Balanchine emphasized the aesthetic importance of seeing bone through skin. While she dazzled in the spotlight, industry pressures plunged her into an abyss of cocaine addiction, anorexia and bulimia, she later said. At one point, she weighed just 80 pounds. Disorderly and restrictive eating and the wafer-thin ballerina archetype are ubiquitous facets of ballet history, as portrayed in films like Center Stage, Black Swan, and Dying to Dance.
“Insecurity is a major obstacle for almost everyone who enters the ballet studio,” says Cornell. “It’s an intimidating environment because there are all these preconceived notions. A ballerina’s identity is such an unattainable ethereal concept.”
Finally, Cornell decided it was time to lighten up ballet. Describing “the culture of perfectionism” as oppressive, he eventually gave up his dance career and made his way as a stand-up comedian, which brought him to Los Angeles. After realizing that auditions and late nights in comedy clubs scared him, he changed careers and became a certified personal trainer. When one of his clients, a seventy-year-old named Judith, asked him to teach her ballet, he had an idea.
“Professional ballet dancers are such highly skilled pieces of advanced machinery,” Cornell describes, “that when they teach ballet beginners, they have trouble slowing it down. Working with non-dancers gave me a great insight. You start with a one-dimensional movement and build on it. They don’t stack up an entire sequence. That’s the philosophy the Align Ballet method was built on – the idea of simplicity.”
Joanne Whalley, 61, is a British-born stage and screen actress who has acted in films like ‘Willow’ and series like ‘Daredevil’. She has been passionate about yoga since childhood and decided to try ballet. She joined Align around 2016. “Beauty is a powerful force, and ballet isn’t about what’s on the surface,” says Whalley. “Beauty comes from within. Thank my lucky stars that Align exists. I can’t imagine not having it in my life. It opened that door to a world I never knew. It was an absolute life changer and Michael is a fantastic teacher. He makes me laugh, which is a bonus, but I love how he can teach everyone.”
Another student, Shareen Ross, is 64 and decided to take her first ballet class at 60. She dreamed of dancing on pointe – an opportunity she thought was long gone – and thanks to Align, she was able to pull off the feat. However, when she tragically lost her husband to cancer, she discovered another benefit of ballet.
“Because it’s a form of expression, it’s helped me through the grief of losing my husband in ways that no one needed to know, but I know because I feel it,” she says. “At the same time, it’s social and forces you to make new friends. Now I feel strong – physically, emotionally – and my posture is great.”
The Align Ballet Method has created a sanctuary of art, expression and movement. It opens its doors and floors to anyone willing to sweat and stretch their bodies into unnatural but graceful positions. But most of all, it proves that you don’t have to fit into the young, lithe form of a professional ballerina to feel like you’re dancing like one.
“My deeper thought,” explains Cornell, “was to open up the world of ballet and make it accessible. If you want to try ballet, we accept you – your shape, height, age, skin. You can decide how fast or slow you want to go, but you’ll be supported all the way, not put down.”
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2022-09-28/align-method-dance-story How the Align Method has redefined classical adult ballet