In a sprawling warehouse space in St. Paul that houses a boxing gym, a pilates studio and a Brazilian jiu-jitsu center, there's an exercise class for older adults that offers something besides improving strength, flexibility and balance.
It's the chance to create something beautiful.
Boomer Ballet, a new program started by a longtime local dance company, St. Paul Ballet, is designed for ages 55 and older.
The class is touted for providing the many health benefits that you get from dance — including increased aerobic capacity, improved posture, strength and coordination and even bolstered cognition. But for many of the students, it's also a chance to re-experience an art form that they practiced decades ago or to finally try something they didn't have a chance to learn when they were younger.
And even though they may not have aspirations to perform onstage, the students find that despite gray hair and creaking joints, aging bodies can still form the aesthetic movements of the classical technique.
Bev Powell, a 71-year-old student from Lauderdale, said taking up ballet again after giving it up about 30 years ago gives her a "warm shiver of joy."
"It's just very uplifting," she said. "When you're as old as I am and your beauty is fading, fading, fading, it's fun to do something that makes you feel beautiful again."
Matthew LaVoie, a 59-year-old St. Paul resident, has done ballroom dancing, salsa dancing, country western two-step and cardio dancing. But he was still intimidated when he signed up for the Boomer Ballet class after seeing it in the St. Paul Community Education catalog.
"I was so nervous," he said. "I felt a little bit like an impostor."
But he found himself tearing up when he started learning the traditional ballet positions and felt like an ugly duckling transformed.
"I looked at myself in the mirror and I saw the beautiful shape I was creating with my body and I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, that's me!' That was so powerful," he said.
St. Paul Ballet has long offered adult ballet classes, but they typically are attended by people in their 20s through their 40s, according to Lori Gleason, executive director.
But as those students aged, the nonprofit organization saw the need to offer gentler classes with smaller jumps and less challenging stretches.
The Boomer Ballet class was created last year by longtime ballet instructor Jill Lile, an assistant professor in the theater and dance department at Macalester College. Lile received certification to teach older adults through the Royal Academy of Dance's Silver Swans program.
Lile thought Silver Swans "sounded like old ladies," so she came up with a different name for her class. "I thought Boomer Ballet was a little more hip," she said.
As many as 40 people are taking the two Boomer Ballet classes offered on Tuesday and Thursday mornings and the organization is getting requests to add evening and weekend classes.
"People are coming out of the woodwork," Gleason said. "It has really exploded."
She said many of the boomer students are undeterred by not having any previous ballet experience. You don't need to wear a leotard. You can dance in your socks if you want.
"Post-pandemic, people who are older are thinking of their lives differently: 'What are we waiting for? If I don't do this now, when am I going to start?' " said Gleason, who is 67.
Deb Pleasants, a 62-year-old St. Paul resident, is ballet dancing for the first time. "When I've seen ballet, I've thought, 'Here's something I'll never be able to do,' and here I am doing it," she said.
Most of the Boomer Ballet students are women, but there are a few men in every class.
Frank Paraday, a 70-year-old St. Paul resident, said he was intrigued when he saw the class in the community ed catalog.
"My wife said, 'Oh, just do it,' " Paraday said. "I just thought it would be interesting to try something entirely different."
"I don't have any problem being surrounded by women. I kind of like it. But it's a little awkward at first," said Ed Jirak, a 77-year-old student from St. Paul.
One of the attractions of the class is dancing to live piano music.
At a recent class, pianist Martha Brown played pop, jazz, show tunes and classical pieces, ranging from "Ain't Misbehavin'" to Holst's "Thaxted" to accompany about two dozen older dancers as they did exercises at the barre and moved across the floor in time to the music.
"I think she's maybe half the reason people come," Lile said of Brown.
During the class, Lile, who is 66, might have the students get on the floor to work on flexibility or foot exercises. She'll remind them that being able to get up from the floor without using their hands can be a marker for good health as they age.
As the students dance, Lile frequently reminds students to pay attention to their posture, to stretch their backs and lengthen their necks.
Lile, who is also a chiropractor and an acupuncturist, sometimes will refer to a skeleton she keeps in the classroom to illustrate what she wants the dancers' bodies to be doing.
"She's constantly reminding us to stand tall," said Cheryl Starr, a theater professor from Osceola, Wis., who gave herself the Boomer Ballet class as a 72nd birthday present.
Starr said moving like a ballet dancer might be the antidote to the rounded back posture some people get when they age.
"There will be times when I'm walking across the parking lot and I'll think about that," she said.
"Ballet can be used as a tool to help the body age more slowly and more gracefully," LaVoie said.
But it's more than just an exercise class.
As she guided the students through a series of dance movements, Lile asked them to imagine a curtain going up or turning to face an audience. She taught them how ballet dancers bow and curtsy at the end of a performance.
During one exercise in "port de bras," or carriage of the arms, she reminded students that "dance is a language."
As they lift their arms, they should be thinking of "the biggest, most expansive place you've been," Lile said. "Describe that with your arms."
"When we start doing it together in sync, it's just lovely to look at," Starr said. "It's a wonderful feeling like you're creating something beautiful right there in the room."