Like the ultimate flapper she was, Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald danced the racy Charleston, swam in flesh-colored swimsuits, and wooed boys, mainly the Great Gatsby giant himself, her future husband F. Scott. She sought to defy the pedestrian, and one of her most disquieting ploys happened relatively late in her youth, when, at age 27, she began studying to be a professional ballerina.
Though eight-hour practices prompted “nervous exhaustion,” her mania stemmed, in part, from the fate she already knew: well beyond her prime for the era, the Alabama-born debutante would never procure the success of Nemtchinova or star in Ballets Russes. By age 30, she was resigned to the backdrop in both the dance world and in F. Scott’s literary milieu, incapable of garnering the spotlight she had so long craved.
Present-day Western North Carolina may be worlds apart from early-20th-century Paris, where Zelda sought out her dance dreams — but the stigma surrounding seasoned ballerinas endures, says Casey Kristofferson, Beginnings and Wellness Director at River Arts Ballet in Fletcher.
“There is a prejudice after 25,” notes the mother of three, who’s 42. “You’re not welcomed with open arms.”
She assumes fifth position nonetheless, her feet two parallel lines on the mat. Age is irrelevant on the Sunday morning Bold Life attends Late Bloomers Ballet, a quirky class offering in a school that also trains young dancers in the classical manner. Delivered by Kristofferson, the 90-minute session caters to those attempting pliés and pirouettes later in life.
Like Zelda, an Asheville resident at the time of her death, attendees break the traditional mold set for would-be aspiring professional ballerinas — ideally teens with a thin physique and high insteps. But those attending Late Bloomers are not aspiring for fame or anything close to it. They come for the exercise, for the novelty, or just to keep busy. Nat Cohen of North Asheville first attended the class to spark conversation with a distant niece who danced. “I am a tomboy — a girl that mucked out the stalls in Western Pennsylvania,” says Cohen. “I am uncoordinated and not all that interested in The Nutcracker.” But “Ms. Nat,” a 62-year-old with bad knees, took to the barre on that sultry morning nevertheless, her posture and form prompted by Kristofferson.
“Ball and point, keep hips stable and squeeze back,” says Kristofferson, her own body manipulated into a modish demi pointe. Her parents are celebrity singer/songwriter Rita Coolidge — who’s appeared at River Arts Ballet fundraisers — and roots legend Kris Kristofferson (Country Music Hall of Fame member and the man who penned “Me and Bobby McGee”). This daughter of ’70s/’80s musical heroes found dance early, but took a long break from practicing the classical Italian form Cecchetti to raise her own daughters and study homeopathy. She then practiced martial arts, only to tear the meniscus and ACL joints in her knee while sparring.
The injury was devastating. “I didn’t walk for an entire year,” she says. “I didn’t jump for two. I couldn’t even put shoes on my feet.”
Ballet helped Kristofferson’s rehabilitation, allowing for the return of mobility and grace. But the multi-talented Old Fort resident, who’s also an actor and a singer/songwriter, could sense unease as she reentered the dance community. Most ballerinas, she explains, burn out in their 20s. Demanding training contributes to this — but societal expectations and unspoken competitiveness play their parts, too.
Thus, as Kristofferson trains the “itty-bittys,” the grandmothers, and all ages in between, she’s sure to reinforce concepts of nutrition and emotional wellness, turning classes into a sort of support group.
Christina Schreivogel, artistic director and founder of River Arts Ballet (with her husband Ben), was a professional member of the Sacramento Ballet for ten years, and afterward danced in the UK. She notes her Fletcher studio’s consistently different approach.Besides Late Bloomers and the school’s standard, intensive pre-professional curriculum for young dancers, she offers a new program called “Protege III” — audition-based, performance-goal adult ballet classes for dancers 24 and up who’ve had experience but dropped out due to injuries or other hurdles.
“It gives a unique platform to once-forgotten artists,” says Schreivogel. Dancers who fell short of careers are welcomed into what she calls a formerly “elite and exclusive environment,” where they have a chance to offer “their own seasoned voice through the medium of ballet.”
Soon, in another branch of outreach, River Arts will even host classes for Parkinson’s patients. “It’s dance for all,” says Schreivogel, who says she created the budding Protege III program with Kristofferson in mind.
For now, Kristofferson moves about the floor, evaluating form and quietly offering compliments to the Late Bloomers — a group of ladies for whom the art is just about happiness and healing. This particular Sunday centers on the “articulation of feet.”
“Good, Andi,” she says in regards to student Andi Locke-Mears’ footwork. “Beautiful.”
Locke-Mears began attending in February, and though her time has been punctuated by trials — the death of her mother, then a muscle injury in early summer — she’s always there with tights on.
“As you get older, things tend to go south,” she says. Literally and perhaps even emotionally, for some, “ballet helps things go north.”
Late Bloomers Ballet happens every Sunday morning at 10am at River Arts Ballet (218 Old Airport Road, in Fletcher). The first 90-minute class is free, and $24 a class after. For more information about the studio and its classes, call 828-474-1739 or check out riverartsballet.com.