'Don't look down there," admonishes ballet teacher Tibor Horvath, hunching his shoulders and casting eyes to the floor in mock despair. "Look to New York, to Paris." He's actually in a church hall in Roseville, the vast majority of his class are strangers to the stage and I'm wearing socks and thinking New Orleans, after Katrina.
But the imagery works and we collectively lift our sweat-shiny faces ahead trying to emulate the poise and pose of the prima ballerina even as our muscles scream for rest.
Classical ballet has always been more than dance. It is, according to American dance critic Jennifer Homans, an art of high ideals and self-control in which proportion and grace stand for an inner truth. Little girls are beguiled by the soft pink tutus and ballet slippers and grow up believing the twirling ballerina in the jewellery box is an ideal of femininity.
Certainly, half-faded remembrances of elegance are what bring many of the 15 or so women to Horvath's adult beginners' class.
He proves an enthusiastic teacher, correcting and encouraging each one of his students to master the challenging techniques.
Walking along the barre, Horvath tucks in untidy bottoms, squares hips and turns wayward heels. By the time he's finished we are standing straight-backed, feet carefully splayed, with tapering, curved arms and soft fingers placed in front of our pelvis. I come to discover a lot of ballet is standing still and arranging your body so as to tackle the positions.
"No Coles chicken wings," he tells me, manipulating my elbowed arms into a more delicate pose. You have nice feet, he adds. "Tuck in the toes. You must imagine you have a cup of tea balanced on your heel."Born to Hungarian parents, Horvath began dancing when he was six and was accepted into the Royal Swedish Ballet School when he was just eight. He later danced as a soloist with companies around the world, eventually finding his way to Australia.
This is one of eight adult ballet classes he conducts weekly. Student numbers at his Saturday dance class at the Sydney Dance Company have grown from 30 in a session to 70. The Urban Dance Centre has gone from one adult ballet class a week to three.
What becomes clear as the lesson progresses is the sheer athleticism of ballet. As an exercise regimen, it is of lower intensity than, say, a gym class but each step requires a core muscular strength few possess.
Flexibility is one thing. Holding a position, rising and leaping using simply the energy and strength of inner thighs and calves is entirely another.
The ballerina's bun, I realise, is not merely for aesthetics. My hair is trickling with non-ladylike sweat. In second position, I attempt a plie, deeply bending creaking knees over toes, and get the wobbles. There are stifled groans from elsewhere, assuring me others are finding the routine as challenging.
Anna Doukas, 60, of Castlecrag, is here for her second lesson. After her first she "couldn't walk for three days". Tricia Pytches pipes in: "She said it was going to be easier than Pilates and we just laughed."
Horvath promises ballet will build long, sculpted legs, flatten the tummy and enhance back strength, giving the illusion of greater height, and we could all do with better posture: "Everybody can be taught ballet if there's a will inside you," he says.
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