An Alternative to Health Spa: Age Is No Barre in Ballet

Approaching 50, Chele Graham worried that without a fitness program, her joints would be “rusted shut” and her arteries “clogged with sediment.”

Graham, a secretary for the Los Angeles County Medical Assn., was “leery of the frantic sessions offered in the health spas I’ve tried.

“The gyrations those energetic but obviously untrained youngsters screamingly demand (that) we in the over-50 set perform are downright hazardous to one’s health,” she said in a recent letter to The Times. “Besides, I can’t stand the music. ( . . . ‘Do you want my body?’ Indeed!)


” . . . So here’s what I did,” she continued. “I decided to take ballet classes. The music is far more palatable, and the end results that I had observed--the shape of the bodies of ballet dancers, swimmers, and/or gymnasts being far more attractive . . . than, say, body builders--suited my taste.

” . . . Ah, but where can a 49-year-old woman, weighing in at 140 (on a 5-foot-4 frame), stand in front of a mirror in a leotard, for heaven’s sake, and not feel an utter fool?

“I couldn’t afford any $50-an-hour ‘house call,’ and haven’t the room at home, anyway.”

Graham found the class she needed, one of many area classes for adults, with instructor Joan Facciobene in Hollywood.

Each Wednesday at 6:30 p.m., in the Cullip Hollywood Dance Center on Highland Avenue, Graham and other relatively new adult ballet students work 90 minutes “correcting the damage our jobs do to our bodies each day.”

With each meeting, Graham says she grows more comfortable standing in front of the mirror. At a recent class, her weight, 140 when she started lessons a year ago, had dropped to 120.

When Facciobene arrived on a recent evening, students wearing maroon, pink and gray shirts and leotards and black, white and red tights lined up along the barre .

‘Original Music’

Plugging in a portable phonograph, Facciobene put on a record of “Original Music for the Ballet Class.”

Wearing a white cotton men’s dress shirt and loose black pants, the 5-foot-3 instructor demonstrated plies , fondus and ronde de jambes during drills that became progressively more difficult.

Under fluorescent lights, the students kicked and dipped and lifted on a scuffed wood floor. Ballroom dance music occasionally broke through a partition separating the dancers from another class.

Facciobene started the class slightly late and hurried to make up time. The students, who pay $6.50 a class or $6 each for four classes or more, didn’t mind that she only partially succeeded.

“I wouldn’t pass this up for anything,” said Nancy Shaffer, 29, an upholstery buyer for a downtown department store.

“Certainly we’re never going to perform on stage. But it’s good exercise and we have quite a sense of camaraderie. It also gives me a sense of my body; I’m more conscious of how I move outside of class.

“And it’s not as hard on my body as aerobics,” she added. “I have a hyperextended knee. I tried aerobics and found it very painful.”

Time for Discipline

“It’s a kind of discipline I don’t apply anywhere else in my life,” said Ella Kaumeyer, 53, a school secretary. “I feel my body needs exercise and it feels good.”

Kaumeyer and other class members began studying with Facciobene at Los Angeles City College when she started teaching five years ago. They followed when she began teaching privately last October after her LACC course was eliminated.

Facciobene undertook the study of ballet in Youngstown, Ohio, when her mother decided that her tomboy daughter lacked grace. She later was trained at the Stanley Holden Dance Center in Rancho Park, where she still studies.

Teaching only one class, she works as a waitress “so I can afford my ballet habit.”

‘Down the Road’

Beginners in the class find ballet difficult because “the language is all in French. So they’ve got to go from a foreign language to English to body language and transfer that message from their brain down to their muscles,” Facciobene said. “It’s a long way down the road until it gets to their hips.” The movement originates with the hips and is “totally foreign to the untrained body,” she said. " . . . It’s a hard set of muscles to get in touch with. All you can do is put the bones in the right place and trick your body into functioning.

“They find out it’s not as easy as it was at 5 years of age. Their bodies are not as flexible. Their minds are not as flexible.”

Most students, often including male writers and architects, “are not striving for the ideal anyway,” she said. “They’re here for a little exercise, a little fun and a little challenge--and challenge they get.

“You use all your muscles equally. It gives you flexibility.

“It will give you the streamlined look if it’s done right.”