How the Align Method Redefined Classical Ballet for Adults
At Pico and La Cienega there is a glass door. Upon entering, the smell of sweat mingles with the sneer of classical piano music. In the waiting room, a handful of people are decked out in all sorts of tights, leotards and sportswear. When the door to the studio opens, earnest dancers enter, take their places at the barre, and wait patiently for their ballet class to begin.
Non-professional adult ballet has long been ignored, with the public perception that ballet lessons are only for children and professionals (or those who aspire to be on stage). But the Align Ballet method gives dancers who are neither the star. It is their sanctuary and mine too; I am also a student there. It’s a place to move, decompress and revere the 500+ year old art form, where most go to boost their well-being rather than their career.
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, even if they know a “tight” from a “loose”. Although adult ballet has been around for a long time, it is niche and has little marketing presence. It’s often an afterthought for studios whose primary focus is either kids and teens, or their journey from amateur to professional. With Cornell’s streamlined workshops, inexperienced adults can receive training that’s not only beginner-friendly, but also welcoming and precise—though it’s no surprise that they also share the barre with advanced dancers. With six locations, and Pico being their flagship, he thinks ballet belongs to everyone.
“I never found my place in the world of ballet,” says Cornell, who danced professionally at the 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 never believed in the pretentious elements being thrust upon us, that this is what should to be a ballet dancer. I always wanted to break that perception.
Susan Vishmid, a professional dancer whom Cornell calls her “secret weapon” for her attention to detail and emphasis on impeccable technique, teaches beginner, intermediate and advanced classes on Tuesday evenings at the Pico location. She studied with several acclaimed companies like Pacific Northwest Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, before dancing professionally for several years with Pennsylvania Ballet. She is currently the artistic director and choreographer of the Los Angeles-based dance company Freaks with lines, whose mission is “to produce works that disrupt the traditional norms often associated with the world of ballet”. They’re having a gala in Pasadena on Saturday.
“I love teaching adults because they’re serious about learning,” Vishmid tells me. “Aligning to focus on adult ballet is great because people feel intimidated to go to places like Westside Ballet, which is an institution and my home studio. But everyone is capable of learning ballet technique, I really believe that. And why not? There is a momentum, a class cadence. It’s procedural and logical. There are rules. Nobody becomes an artist before becoming a technician, and good technique is the greatest equalizer.
Thanks to the influx of social media, the increased visibility of icons like Misty Copeland and celebrities like Chris Pine who proudly practice ballet and extol its benefits, the grounds are more welcoming than ever. But the ballet is historically unwelcoming, especially in terms of race, age and physique. Gelsey Kirkland, who was invited by messianic choreographer George Balanchine to join the New York City Ballet in 1968 at age 15, quickly became the annals of ballet royalty, teaming up – both on and off the stage. dance – to the famous Mikhail Baryshnikov. But his meteoric rise ravaged his body and mind.
“You’ve been pushed to the limits of what your body can handle,” she told Diane Sawyer in 1986 during a tell-all “60 Minutes.” interview. In the same interview, she says Balanchine emphasized the aesthetic importance of seeing bone through skin. While she dazzled in the spotlight, industry pressures pushed her into an abyss of cocaine addiction, anorexia and bulimia, she later said. At one point, she weighed just 80 pounds. Messy and restrictive eating, as well as the slender ballerina archetype, are ubiquitous facets of ballet lore, as seen in films such as “Center Stage,” “Black Swan,” and “Dying to Dance.”
“Insecurity is a major hurdle for almost anyone who walks into the ballet studio,” Cornell says. “It’s an intimidating environment because there are all these preconceived notions. The identity of a ballerina is an ethereal concept so inaccessible.
Eventually, Cornell decided it was time for ballet to lighten up. Describing “the culture of perfectionism” as oppressive, he eventually gave up his dancing career and hit the road as a stand-up comedian, which brought him to Los Angeles. After realizing that auditions and late nights at comedy clubs only brought him anxiety, he changed his path and got certified as a personal trainer. When one of his clients, a septuagenarian named Judith, asks him to teach her ballet, he has an idea.
“Professional ballet dancers are such highly trained cutting-edge machines,” Cornell describes, “that when they teach beginner ballet, they have a hard time slowing it down. Working with non-dancers has given me great insight. You start with one-dimensional movement and build from there. You don’t pile on an entire sequence. This is the philosophy the Align Ballet method was built on – the idea of simplicity.
Joanne Whalley, 61, is a UK-born stage and screen actress who has starred in films such as ‘Willow’ and series such as ‘Daredevil’. A devotee of yoga since childhood, she decided to give ballet a try, joining Align around 2016. “Beauty is a powerful force and ballet isn’t about what’s on the surface,” Whalley shares. “Beauty comes from within. I thank my lucky stars that Align exists. I can’t imagine not having him in my life. It opened this door to a world I never knew. It changed my life and Michael is a fantastic teacher. He makes me laugh, which is a bonus, but I especially like how he can teach anyone.
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 accomplish this feat. However, when she tragically lost her husband to cancer, she discovered another benefit of ballet.
“Because it’s a form of expression, it helped me through the grief of losing my husband in a way that no one was supposed to know, but I know because I feel it,” she says. “At the same time, it’s social, forcing 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 in unnatural, yet graceful positions. But most importantly, it proves that you don’t have to fit into the young, flexible mold of a professional ballerina to feel like you’re dancing like a ballerina.
“My deepest thought,” says Cornell, “was to open up the world of ballet and make it accessible. If you want to try ballet, we’ll accept you – your shape, your height, your age, your skin tone. You can decide how fast or how fast you want to go, but you will be supported along the way and you will not be denigrated.