After years of emotional eating, Ateh Jewel longed to feel the lightness and delight that she saw in her daughters when they danced. She searched 'classical ballet for adults' and this is her journey
As I sink into my demi plié, I look out onto a Balearic orange grove. Roosters cackle and call out and the classical music sweeps through my body and I feel happy and peaceful. At the barre with me is an eclectic mix of men and women, a married couple – retired doctors who are climbing mountains and touring the world sampling different types of dance, a nurse and her husband who is a pastry chef from France with great arches and a lady who flew all the way from Australia to join us on this very special En Avant ballet retreat.
At 40, I’m the baby of the group and it’s amazing to see what my 50s and 60s might hold. If I’m anything like this lot, I won’t be knitting booties and watching Corrie but pirouetting around the world in five-star resorts, fit, toned and with a jeté in my step. Adult ballet has exploded over the last few years and I’m not talking about Barre (frowned on by purists for being hard on joints and its potential, they say, to cause injuries) I’m talking about the classical ballet of your childhood: good toes, naughty toes and the Sugar Plum Fairy type of ballet.
As a child, I loved ballet and wanted to go all the way. I was good at it, strong, and the music swelled my heart and soul. As my massive boobs and African body started to take shape at 10, it was clear – and I was told as much – that the ballet world wasn't a place for me. So, I packed up on my ballet shoes for the next 30 years.
It wasn't until two years ago after I had broken my body with my sugar addiction, gained 10 stone and given myself type 2 diabetes, that I knew I had to make drastic changes to my lifestyle. I was told by a great yoga teacher that I should chase positive pleasure instead of my quick fix of packets of biscuits, chocolate and tubs of Ben and Jerry’s, which stemmed from my toxic relationship with food and sugar in particular.
The soaring classical music and slow control, the ability to get out of my head and into my body and soul in a positive way was addictive. But this addiction was OK to feed
One day, in a cold church hall, I watched my five-year-old twin daughters at their ballet class giggling and twirling with glee, dressed in the exact same blue uniform I used to wear. I remembered how much I loved to dance. As parents, we sit for hours watching our children playing and being happy; I wanted that feeling back. So, the next day, I looked up 'classical ballet for adults' and booked myself into a class run by Royal Ballet School-trained ex-ballerina Karis Scarlette.
From that first class, I knew I had found my exercise soulmate. The soaring classical music and slow control, the ability to get out of my head and into my body and soul in a positive and loving way was addictive. But this addiction was OK to feed. Dancing made me feel free, like a kid again and had a transcendent quality that is easy to fall in love with. As a workout, I was shocked how quickly the definition in my legs came back and how I felt tired and sweaty without jumping around getting breathless and as though I was going to have a heart attack.
“Anyone who steps into the studio is one of the bravest people,” says Karis, who broke her spine at 19. The injury ended her career and saw her having to learn to walk again.
So many people are put off coming to the barre for fear that they will be mocked or expected to dance next to people who are ex-professionals or people who clearly know what they are doing. The opposite is true here; absolutely no dance experience is needed. You can dance in socks if you like; equally, you can invest in ballet shoes and let your inner Darcey Bussell shine. Karis is a healer and creates a safe, warm and encouraging space for her students. There’s no body shaming, screaming or stick waving like Miss Lydia Grant from Fame (even though I do secretly wish someone would say to me, “If you want fame, well fame costs and this is where you start paying…in SWEAT”).
Karis runs En Avant Ballet ('en avant', fittingly, is the term in ballet for move forward). She teaches regular classes, masterclasses and mini ballet retreats around the world in places such as Maldives, Croatia and Ibiza.
I started going to her classes twice a week, combined with cutting out sugar and one yoga class a week, and after four months I’d lost four stone and had almost reversed my type 2 diabetes. Now, I’m a couple of stone off from waving goodbye to it forever. Not only has ballet been great for tackling my condition but has given me core strength, flexibility, coordination – it can even improve your memory. The old adage a dancer’s memory has truth to it, as learning all the dance steps can keep your mind agile. Many studies have also shown that ballet can help people who suffer from dizziness and cognitive function. Most of all it’s made me joyful and is spiritually grounding. The possibility of escaping to Ibiza to the super luxurious and glamourous Atzaro Agroturismo Hotel to do ballet every day was too exciting and decadent an idea to pass up.
I was a little daunted though. Would I be able to dance for two-and-a-half hours every day? But, as I discovered, the classes run at your pace and you can opt in and out of any move without pressure or judgment. My dodgy knee meant I only did demi pliés (a rather elegant squat) rather than grand pliés, in which you sink all the way to the ground. Or as one of my fellow dancers, who didn't start ballet until 47, said, “Ateh’s retired from grand pliés,” which was rather fabulous.
These days the self-care revolution means we’re discovering what works for our wellbeing in all sorts of places. Thankfully, we’ve parked the Thatcherite thinking of ‘lunch is for wimps’ and that four hours’ of sleep are enough to run a country on, firmly in the 80s. Now taking a week to yourself to be in nature, to dance and meet stimulating new people makes total sense. Karis explains: “In terms of wellness, ballet retreats are the future. Anything that encourages you to move your body and embrace who you are on a human level is incredibly healing.”
Like millions of working women with children, I’m on the hamster wheel of the school run, washing copious items of school uniform, trying to cook healthy organic meals from scratch while juggling work deadlines. I believe that being away for a couple of days is a necessary recharge, to enable me to give even more to my family on my return.
Atzaro itself is a fabulous retreat in every sense of the word. Rihanna, Goldie Hawn and Kate Hudson have all chilled here. My room is nestled in the private hillside part of the hotel estate and I feel like I’m in my own pop video, all white muslin, floor-to-ceiling sliding French windows, looking out onto my own decked veranda and huge day bed. As I lie in my four-poster, I can see lush green vegetation and tree-covered mountains in the distance, which makes me feel like I’m in the tropics rather than the Med. The hotel is in the north-east of the island, between San Lorenzo and Santa Eularia. The airport is about half an hour away and Ibiza town, 20 minutes away. Although it is inland, it's only a 10-minute drive from Cala Llenya, Cala Nova and the other glam beaches on the north-east coast of the island.
Atzaro oozes laid-back cool and a slice of grown-up, authentic Ibiza. It’s the corner of the island where artists and hippies escaped to, far from the ‘go large or go home’ party crowd. This is a place to rest and nurture your body and soul.
All the vegetables served here are home-grown and organic; you can go as healthy as you like or order fries with no one tutting. You won’t starve here or want to raid the minibar when you get back to your room. It’s not a pious detox or cleanse, just good food and wine and laughs. No one even batted an eyelid at my boring gluten intolerance (they served up the best gluten free bread I’ve ever had) and my soya/ almond milk requests.
A ballet retreat is firmly part of my healing process and ticks all the boxes of chasing positive pleasure. So many of us seek solace and pleasure in negative places such as alcohol, food, sex, bad relationships, drugs. I’m an addictive, OCD, highly-ritualised personality type. Ballet gives me all the things I like, but in a healthy outlet.
It’s a mass of contradictions just like me. It’s very structured – there are rules and techniques that are set in stone – but the artistry and self-expression within that structure make me feel free and safe. I had a turbulent childhood and have an innate disrespect for authority and rules; ballet has helped me relearn my boundaries. As Karis says, “when you’re connected with the music and the body…it very spiritual there is meditation in the movement.”
Ballet has been a very spiritual journey for me. I have learned not to push the destruct button on my body, to respect it and my health. I have learned that some rules are fun and don’t need to be kicked against, especially in a dance sequence. It brings home that eating what I wanted and when I wanted downing a pint of ice cream a night – was a weird type of rebellion that brings consequences you can’t ignore. Ballet has been a powerful but gentle force in helping me rewire my brain and reset my core beliefs about my body, my passion and my life. I hope to see you at the barre soon.
The next En Avant Ballet retreat at the Atzaro Hotel, Ibiza runs from 16-21 March 2019.
Cost: £1100 for 5 nights at Atzaro
Includes: 3 hours of daily dance, a private 60-minute lesson with Karis, breakfast, access to the 5-star spa, island walks
To book contact Karis Scarlette at www.enavantballet.co.uk
For more details for Atzaro go to www.atzaro.com