Professional ballerinas offer virtual and outdoor ballet for all levels
By Bridgette M. Redman
For all the people that have been too intimidated to take a beginning ballet class as adults, Eliza Tollett has options — both online and outdoors at Dorothy Green Park in Santa Monica.
Tollett moved to Santa Monica just before the pandemic, bringing with her a ballet class model that fixed everything she found troublesome about the classes she taught in New York. She creates a judgment-free zone with classes that welcome people of all experience levels, abilities and ages.
“I was dancing professionally in New York and teaching to supplement my dancing career,” Tollett said. “I discovered I loved teaching adults, but in general there were a couple of things I felt were not exactly how they should be with adult ballet. There was a lot of judgment — people judging themselves or other people, judging themselves for not being perfect or not being up to the level of the class.”
Tollett, who is certified as a personal trainer and a ballet teacher, created a cardio ballet workout taught by professional dancers that emphasized the grace of ballet while truly making it a comfortable zone for all dancers.
When the pandemic hit, she quickly pivoted to online classes called “The Ballet Spot” that were taught by ballerinas in New York and Los Angeles.
“I’m 68 years old and had never taken a ballet class before,” said Karen Atkins, one of Tollett’s students. “I never would have stepped into a ballet studio, but The Ballet Spot gave me a chance to try ballet in a safe and supportive place. I now have been taking classes for about a year and it’s such fun.”
When Tollett was unable to sell New York studios on her ideas of how to fix adult ballet, she decided to do it on her own and began renting a studio.
“I really wanted it to be enjoyable for someone who has never done ballet before and also interesting for someone more advanced,” Tollett said. “People take it and get a workout, but they also step in and by the end of the studio class, they are dancing.”
The class was designed so people could wear whatever they wanted and was a half hour shorter than the usual 90-minute regimen.
“One of the greatest things a client has ever said to me was that she felt like everyone in the class was at the same level,” Tollett said. “That’s amazing. You’re not, but that I was able to make her feel that way was really great.”
Tollett’s husband got a job offer in Santa Monica that they couldn’t refuse, so she set up professional ballerinas to keep teaching her classes in New York and moved across the country. She left behind five professionals to teach and manage the New York studio rentals and teach the six classes a week that were ongoing.
Settling into Santa Monica, Tollett decided that LA might be a good place to continue to develop a fitness routine class. She rented space in two Santa Monica locations and began to teach using her model.
For the first two months of 2020, Tollett’s classes were full, her sales were high, interest was growing and their second location in New York was catching on. Then March arrived and attendance began to drop. Her instructors were being laid off from their professional dancing jobs and they were scared.
“I wouldn’t be able to make up for their lost income in other ways,” Tollett said, “But I didn’t want to be a part of their losses.”
On March 13 they stopped offering in-person classes. In Santa Monica, the two studios she rented space from would eventually close permanently. On March 15, Tollett launched her first Zoom class and they had more than double the normal amount that they had in live classes.
“No one did Zoom at that time,” Tollett said. “When I taught the first Zoom class, I had no idea what I was doing.”
She told her instructors she could guarantee the amount of classes in Zoom while hoping to add more. Only a few days passed before they began adding classes. People were joining from around the world including Canada, Australia, England and Germany.
Within a few months, Tollett had hired more teachers, fulfilling a dream she had always had of offering work to underemployed dancers. Now they are teaching more than 100 classes a week, reaching thousands of students between the ages of 8 to 80.
Tollett made sure that the teachers fit in with her philosophy, training each instructor how to format the classes. For more and more people, it made ballet accessible in a way it never had been before.
“The Ballet Spot’s virtual classes have given me the opportunity to try ballet for the first time without the intimidation of walking into a studio and dancing alongside experienced dancers,” said Susan Winter, another student. “The instructors at the Ballet Spot have inspired a new love and appreciation of ballet for me. I love the workout and the sense of accomplishment I feel after class. At 40, I can check ‘dance in a ballet’ (virtually) off my bucket list.”
Several students reported that they found community at a time of isolation and formed relationships and connections with the instructors and other students. They also experienced physical benefits. Kathleen McNally described herself as an uncoordinated, 50-something woman and cited how helpful the real-time attention was that each instructor paid to student form.
“My flexibility and posture have improved to a remarkable degree after having taken classes with the attentive instructors at The Ballet Spot,” McNally said. “I feel so fortunate to be instructed by real ballerinas! I was never coordinated or disciplined enough to dance for a living (or even as a hobby), but I live vicariously through the professionals at TBS who share the ‘inside’ moves that make them so graceful and professional. I can think of no other platform where a middle-aged non-dancer would have such non-judgmental — yet professional — access to such trained professionals.”
In addition to the hourly workout, students also get to participate in virtual performances such as “Giselle” or Twyla Tharp’s “In the Upper Room.”
As the weather warms up, Tollett is planning outdoor classes where people can gather at Dorothy Green Park in Santa Monica on Fridays at 7:30 a.m. It’s open to the public and costs $10 per class.
Tollett started doing outdoor classes last summer, but she was so focused on launching the virtual classes in California and New York that she wasn’t able to promote them. Now, she said, she feels like she has more bandwidth and can focus on LA.
“We do them on the grass by the beach,” Tollett said. “We don’t use a bar, we’re just on the grass and most people do it barefoot, but sneakers are fine. I simultaneously livestream it.”
Students face the ocean while they dance and she faces them with the iPad in between them recording her.
“We have some music and it is morning, so it is quiet, but it gets warm and sunny,” Tollett said.
Being between the beach and the mountains is one of the things that Tollett loves about LA, especially during the pandemic where she could easily get out and be in nature, things she incorporates into her outdoor classes.
She pointed out that for those who don’t want to do ballet, there are also ballet-based movement classes such as bar classes and Pilates classes.
“You may not learn to dance, but they are based on the principals of ballet,” Tollett said.
She encourages people of all levels—whether they have never done ballet or if they are move advanced. Everyone, she said, will find it a challenging but fun workout.
“It’s a judgment-free zone,” Tollett said. “We’re there to have fun and dance, and it really is a workout.”