Active Aging Role Model: Lauren Kessler, Late-in-Life Ballerina
If you’ve ever had that moment you’d like to get back, a chance you wish you’d taken, or a hobby you wish you’d never given up, you can probably relate to 50-something author Lauren Kessler. Though she enjoyed a successful career with bestselling books and a happy family with three lovely children, a memory from her past haunted her and always made her wonder, “What if.” And when she faced her own minor midlife crisis, it was something she could no longer ignore.
Growing up, her dad nicknamed her “Laurisa Kesslova” because, he explained, all great dancers were Russians. “And since I was going to be a great dancer, I needed a Russian name,” Kessler explains in her new book, “Raising the Barre.” Then one day, after dance lessons at the age of 12, Kessler overheard her instructor, a famous dancer named André Eglevsky, telling Kessler’s mother that Kessler did not have the right body for ballet and should just quit. Suddenly, Kessler’s world transitioned from excited and optimistic about the limitless possibilities, to a cynical place where she questioned herself and didn’t like what she saw in the mirror.
Like many pre-teens, Kessler soldiered through to adulthood, and though the insult stayed in the shadows for the rest of her life, she enjoyed many successes and adventures. For the next 40+ years, she focused on becoming a great writer, wife, and mother. But as she found herself facing her senior years, and “midlife doldrums” inched closer, a single resounding idea kept popping into her mind. “I want to dance ballet.”
And not just any ballet. Kessler suddenly was determined to not only strap on her ballet slippers but to join a professional traveling troupe and dance “The Nutcracker” on stage. Her decision, though fueled by determination, raised many questions in the Oregon resident’s head. For example, now she was suddenly expected to fit into the costumes of a Los Angles-body-typed young ballerina. And to add to that, she had to learn to quickly apply her own stage makeup for each performance and perform in costume high-heels, rather than typical slippers. Not to mention the biggest requirements: Facing the questions and doubts of returning to dance lessons, putting in hours of practice time, and then performing in front of her loved ones.
Kessler is clear and unapologetic about her return to ballet being an answer to her own midlife crisis. However, rather than being ashamed or embarrassed, she embraces the chance to shake up her typical life and revolt against a steady advance into old age. She explains that while many people make drastic changes of take on new adventures as a result of the “four Ds” – divorce, diagnosis, downsizing, or death – she wanted to proactively and intentionally force a change just for fun, to see if she could. She believes it keeps her mind young and can benefit anyone, even if the step outside of one’s comfort zone is relatively small.
As a result of her adventure, Kessler learned countless life lessons that she details in her book. She was already “fit,” but learned to train and take her physical wellness to a whole new level. She learned that she could, in fact, depart from her makeup-less routine and apply heavy stage makeup in a variety of challenging settings during the performance’s tour on the road. She experienced a handful of moments while dancing when she truly let go and became one with the music, as a true, effortless ballerina. She forged lifelong friendships that felt, in the end, more like a family. And she found real joy in being just a little brave.
You can read more about Kessler’s adventure in her book, “Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts & My Midlife Quest to Dance the Nutcracker.“
by Megan Hammons