Increasing Number of Middle-Aged, Elderly Woman Taking Ballet Classes in Japan; Performances by Adult Student Held

Photo by Staff Tes
A participant in a competition for people who started ballet in adulthood performs on stage.

More and more middle-aged and elderly women are newly learning classical ballet or returning to the lessons for the first time in decades. Ballet classes tailored for these women have emerged as well, taking into consideration that their bodies tend to be less flexible than children and young people. Ballet has become so popular among adult women, there is even a competition exclusively for adults wishing to perform on stage.

During a weekday in mid-June, 14 women gathered at a ballet class operated by dance apparel company Chacott Co. in Chuo Ward, Tokyo. The majority of the women were in their 50s or older. After instructor Mai Okabe told them to point their fingers and toes straight forward, they followed her instruction and carefully moved their bodies, stretched their arms and raised their legs.

Among the students was a 55-year-old writer from Tokyo. She was 47 when she started taking ballet lessons, which she had dreamed of doing since childhood. She is currently busy with her job and caregiving.

“When I’m dancing, I can be absorbed in it and forget everything about my daily life,” she said.

Okabe has been teaching ballet for 20 years. “There are many people who are serious about wanting to improve,” she said. “Their enthusiasm is phenomenal. They ask me about things they are curious about and take notes.”

Chacott runs nine studios across the country, and about 30% of the students taking lessons at them are in their 50s. When the company ran a campaign for new members this past spring, about 40% of the people who joined were in their 50s or older. The oldest is in her 80s.

The number of people taking ballet lessons in Japan is on a downward trend due to the population decline of children, who make up the majority of students, among other factors. According to a survey conducted in 2011, 2016 and 2021 by Showa University of Music’s ballet research center in Kawasaki, the total number of students decreased from about 400,000 in 2011 to about 250,000 in 2021.

However, when looking at the age breakdown, the percentage of classes that included students in their 60s increased from 45% in 2011 to 65% in 2021, and those with students in their 70s increased from 10% in 2011 to 36% in 2021.

In response to these highly motivated middle-aged or elderly students, there are now classes for people who start taking ballet in adulthood.

One such institution is Otona Ballet Academy, which was founded in 2018 and now runs six schools, mostly in Tokyo. Half of the approximately 800 students are women in their 50s. Since there are many beginners as well, the school has started a beginner’s class to teach students the basics of ballet, such as the main foot positions and how to flex the joints, in a kindly and attentive manner.

“I have the impression [of our students] that they have started ballet lessons, which they’ve longed to do since their childhood, because they’ve finished raising their children and have some free time and money for themselves,” said instructor Keiji Ino, who serves as the head of Otona Ballet Academy. “Perhaps they find it refreshing and enjoyable to take on a new challenge after reaching a certain age.”

Some adult students are not content with just dancing in a studio. “There are many people who have a strong wish to dance on stage,” said Shiho Yamauchi of Marty Corp., a ballet and dance wear maker in Tokyo.

In spring 2023, the company held its first competition exclusively for people who started ballet after becoming an adult. The competition in May this year had 30 participants, about 70% of whom were in their 50s or older. The competition was welcomed by adult students because they are happy to work toward a goal, Yamauchi sad.

“Age is just a number, so please try [ballet] if you’re interested,” said Kumi Oyama, the head of Showa University of Music’s ballet research center and the executive director of the Star Dancers Ballet.

However, adult students become prone to injuries if they push themselves too hard, such as leaping high, Oyama said. “I recommend to students to familiarize themselves with ballet by taking note of its essence, which is about being beautiful and expressive, rather than improving technique,” she added.