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Artice syndicated in Australian newspapers, 26 September 2004.

Want a toned, strong and seriously straight bod? Try ballet and dance your way to bliss. By Linda Drummond.

Classical ballet is no longer just for little ladies in pink tutus - with Sarah Jessica Parker and Kylie Minogue's lithe frames being helped along by dance, ballet's hit the mainstream as an adult workout. But it's not just for girls - after all you don't get much more macho than the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team - and they use ballet moves as part of their exercise regime.

Whether you're after a taut, subtly muscled physique, perfect posture or the ability to leap higher and faster on the field, you may find that ballet gives you the results you're seeking.

The dancer's physique is pretty difficult to miss. The long, lean muscles reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn and the head held high signal to the world that a dancer's striding by. And you don't have to take up dance when you're a toddler, adults love the art too.

Jim Pickles, 58, a researcher at the University of Queensland from Manly West, on Queensland's Coast, took up dance at the age of 52. Looking for a challenge and something that took him beyond pilates and yoga, Pickles headed to the yellow pages and found an adult class in a nearby hall and now dances every week. "I was the world's most unfit person when I was younger because I had eye problems. I took up yoga at 46 but found it a bit static. Then I found some articles by an engineer called Tom Parsons, a guy well into his 70s and still doing ballet, which inspired me."

Since taking up ballet six years ago Pickles has found the benefits of ballet are seriously praiseworthy. "You need develop a certain sort of flexibility with ballet and if you're able to persist it's great for poise and core strength," Pickles says.

Heidi McKenzie from Heidi's School of Dance in Cooks Hill, NSW has been dancing ever since she was three and now shares her love of the art with students from pre-schoolers to adulthood. What she loves most about ballet is the challenge. "No matter how much you dance you can never be perfect - there's always something else to strive for. Once you've mastered one leap then it's time to try for two," she says.

Pickles agrees, "With ballet you're pushing your body to the limits. You don't worry what you look like while you're dancing because you're doing it for yourself," he says. "Nobody's looking at you because they're concentrating on themselves."

Adults take up ballet for all sorts of reasons, whether it's women harbouring secret tutu fantasies, athletes who want to add a spring to their step or syncronised swimmers who wish to refine their movements. As McKenzie says, "Classical dance uses more muscles than any other form of physical activity. I really notice it when I take a break. Even if I've been exercising on my holiday, when I come back to dance I really feel muscles that I'd forgotten all about."

And that's the beauty of ballet. While it's not an activity that'll get your heart pumping a la aerobics circa 1980, you'll love the way your flexibility improves and the long, lean muscles that appear.

Although it's possible to start ballet from around three years of age, there's nothing stopping teens and adults lining up to limber up at the barre. The Adult Ballet Studio in Darlington in Sydney's inner west offers classes exclusively to adults. What brings them to the door and keeps them coming back week after week is a desire they've held tightly onto since childhood - to dance.

For eight years now people have been coming to the Seymour Centre Theatre and learning to balance at the barre and do an arabesque with other like-minded adults.

And they love it, "People say it's life changing," says Olivia Kennett, co-owner and teacher at the school. At each two hour class adults learn the steps, the moves and the grace and poise of the ballet dancer, without feeling intimidated by being surrounded by kids who've been dancing since they were in nappies. And it doesn't take long to see the results either, "The most amazing thing is the flexibility they can achieve and they carry it with them in their daily life," says Kennett.

Ballet's never boring because it's constantly evolving - with each class you're striving to bring something additional to each move.

Kate Solmssen is a professional ballerina and her video, Raising the Barre, has people worldwide leaping into ballet. She says that the appeal of ballet comes about because, with regular practice, "You'll improve your flexibility, posture, balance, strength and muscle tone in your entire body."

Dancing to music also has the benefit of soothing the mind, and it can prove quite meditative to be concentrating on perfecting the movements of your body accompanied by beautiful tunes. Lifting your torso up high and tall helps you focus on lengthening your body. The basic positions and placement of your feet and your arms really allow you to truly sense every part of your body.

Ballet dancers are strong too. Let's not kid ourselves, while they look delicate and graceful there's some serious muscle happening in those bodies - particularly the legs. The ability to leap high and land gracefully is one of the dancer's most admired attributes - and one which many athletes would love to emulate.

So pack up your tracksuit and slip on a tutu, and swap your trainers for slippers, because before you know it you'll be walking tall and feeling positively gorgeous. After all, as my four-year-old daughter says, "I love ballet because it is just sooooo beautiful."

All the Right Moves

* posture is by far the most important part. When standing a dancer should feel alert, yet poised. The torso must be directly over the legs with the pelvis strictly centred. The abdomen is drawn in and the shoulders are down with the head held straight - eyes straight forward. Once the posture is correct it's time to dance.

* plie involves bending the knees - either a demi plie (half bending) or grand plie which is a full bend. This action helps to strengthen the Achilles tendon and is essential for all ballet's jumping movements.

* positions of the feet there are five basic positions of the feet and from these positions all movements begin and end. When standing the dancer should balance their weight evenly between both feet and the muscles in the thighs and buttocks should be tightened. The thighs are turned outwards and the knees should be straight, in a direct line with the feet.

* the turn out is how far you can turn your feet out and is something that's achieved gradually until an angle of 180 degrees can be attained. However, an angle of around 100 degrees is what's expected of the average beginner.

* arabesque is a position where you need to balance on one foot with the other leg extended behind your body at a right angle. The aim is to create a long, slanted line between your fingertips and toes.

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