Choreographing fitness - Ballet workouts find an active audience in the Bay Area

by Laura Thomas, SF Chronicle staff sriter

February 16, 2003 - The music from the ballet "Coppelia" filters through the high - ceilinged Alameda dance studio as a dozen mostly middle-aged women in sweats struggle to hold their balance while executing a backward tendu. Next come degages to the side and three steps forward and a skip. "You have to sink a bit," directs the teacher, Abra Rudisill, a former prima ballerina for the Oakland Ballet.

"This is the beginning of a step called the mazurka." Her voice drops an octave as she sweeps across the floor, skipping and tossing her arm back in one grandiose motion and chortling, "Ha, ha, ha!

"You have to get your body into it."

The women laugh and try to follow. But they are beginning to realize that the point of Rudisill's New York City Ballet Workout class is to enjoy movement and become comfortable with their bodies as much as to build muscle tone and flexibility.

Few people think of ballet, a highly structured dance form developed in Europe, as a viable exercise alternative, probably because it has evolved as a performance art that required dedication and early training to achieve mastery.

"There are a lot of people out there who want to dance," Rudisill said. "But they're being told they should be fit. So they go to the gym for one hour and go home. They don't realize you can have all of the aerobics, abdominal work, stretching and strengthening and get it all in ballet."

"Ballet training has been like triage in the body. Those that can handle it keep taking class and survive, the others drop out," said Peter Brown, co- director of Orches, an Oakland dance program.

For 10 years, Brown and partner Vicki Gunter have taught ballet as both an art form and as a way of healing and developing the body. Brown and Gunter, who say ballet positions are based on the body's natural movement, insist that ballet can be learned without forcing the body to defy its structure. They cite studies of veteran professional dancers who rarely have injuries.

The once-exclusive world of ballet has opened up to receive nonprofessional students of all ages and body types, and the public is responding.

Spurred by the needs both to promote his company and to build audiences, Peter Martins, director of the New York City Ballet, decided in 1996 to market the company's workout. It went from book to video to a pioneering class at the New York Sports Club for the past two years, where coordinator Kate Solmssen has taught students from their 20s to their 60s.

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