45-year-old Toronto mom unexpectedly gets into National Ballet School but there's a hitch
The chances of becoming a professional ballet dancer are slim for anyone, including the many girls and boys who start taking lessons as tykes and progress through more than a decade of RAD exams only to retire as teens.
For a 45-year-old woman with just eight years of dance experience, regular adult responsibilities and a son with special needs, the odds of being selected for Canada's prestigious National Ballet School seem almost impossible.
But Patricia Pyrka is no ordinary dancer — and her story is one for the books (or blog, as it may be in this case)
Pyrka first discovered the joy of dancing ballet in her native Germany at the age of 37, when "by pure chance" she took her first class without any prior experience in what is undoubtedly the most physically-demanding art form in existence.
"I have been taking full-time care of my amazing disabled son for the past years, which is one of the most beautiful gifts that life has given me, and his dedication to learning has inspired me more than anything," said Pyrka, who moved to Toronto five years ago so that her son could get the best treatment available for his disability.
"But as you can imagine, single-parenting him comes with high demands and many battles. I repeatedly struggled with burnout and other health issues and had to step away from my previous career."
Out of sheer curiosity, in need of some balance in her hectic life, she stepped into a ballet studio.
"It wasn't a childhood dream, but more coincidence and genuine curiosity," she said. "I got hooked immediately."
Soon after that, she was doing ballet almost every day, studying and practicing the sometimes tedious (my words, not hers) exercises, positions and terminology of the classical dance form.
"It made me feel at home in my body, even though I was the opposite of the petite-pretty ballerina type. I was too tall for ballet, and I had just quit playing ice hockey (which I had also started late, in my twenties)," she said of her new (at the time) hobby.
"A few years in, I started a blog for other adults who had discovered ballet late in life. I started offering online ballet classes. I started performing — not just on stages but also on the streets."
It was after moving to Toronto, which happens to boast one of the best ballet schools in the world, that Pyrka started thinking seriously about turning her passion into a profession.
"I felt a deeper calling. I wanted to radically uplevel my teaching to serve my students even better," she said, pointing to the world-renowned ballet teacher training at Canada's National Ballet School.
"The entry barrier was almost unattainably high, and yet, three years ago, in a courageous moment, I decided to sign up for the audition."
After a "demanding audition" for the teacher training program, where Pyrka says "the typical applicant is in their early 20s and has trained in ballet since childhood," the 45-year-old dance was cut in the first round.
"I wasn't sure if there was a point to ever trying again. It seemed too ridiculous for me, as a late starter, to try to get into a ballet teaching program at such a professional level," she said.
And yet, throughout the pandemic, she kept on training. At the beginning of 2022, she signed up to audition again. This time, she made it through to a round of seminars, lectures, written and practical assessments with just 20 other candidates vying for ten available spots.
She wasn't necessarily expecting to get an acceptance letter when she opened an email and saw that she had, in fact, been chosen to enter a program so exclusive that even very experienced dancers are afraid to dream about.
"I am sitting at my desk opening a PDF file, and suddenly I am swept away by a feeling of life-changing intensity, as if a new chapter of my life had just begun, as cliche as it may sound," she tells blogTO.
"I don't know if I am the oldest student ever to attend the NBS Teacher Training Program, but it's quite likely that I am the first one who got accepted at 45 after having started ballet from scratch at 37!"
Getting into the school was a monumental achievement by any measure, but at this point, Pyrka won't be able to actually attend classes.
First and foremost, as a German citizen, she is considered an international student, for whom post-secondary education costs are notoriously high (at least double the tuition for someone from Canada.)
Between the roughly $22,000 NBS tuition fee and support costs associated with her 15-year-old son (who, by the way, is very proud of his cool mom's skills,) Pyrka estimates that she'll need about $37,000 to complete the one-year program.
"My son has a disability and I am a single parent and his main caregiver, which means I help him with school work, his daily therapeutic exercises and all other needs," she explained to blogTO.
"I won't be able to do that to the same extent during the program, as I will be in classes full-time. It also means I won't have any time left to work during that one year. So I am trying to build a reserve and hopefully hire caregiving, physio, and tutoring help to support my son while I am in classes."
So, with hope and with grace, she turned to GoFundMe and told her story. She has raised just over $6,000 to date from generous donors, but it's not enough.
"After what it took to get to this point, not attending doesn't feel like a true option," she said when asked about what would happen if she didn't raise enough cash.
"I know that I have to dedicate a lot of work to this crowdfunding campaign over the summer and so that will be my priority for now. If it becomes necessary to think about other funding sources, then that will be the next step. Seeing how many people have kindly and generously supported me in the early days of this campaign gives me faith that I will be able to make this happen one way or the other."
With just a few months before the school year begins, she's hopeful that others will help out in some way, and she's not asking for a handout; all donors will get access to cool rewards for contributing, similar to a Kickstarter campaign.
All donors will be invited to attend monthly Zoom meetings with Pyrka throughout the duration of her schooling, in which they can chat and ask questions about "late starts, midlife changes, and creating a life that works for you. Participants will be encouraged to share their own goals for practical advice and encouragement.
The prodigious ballerina will also host a monthly Zoom ballet class, followed by a Q&A where participants can get personalized guidance on improving technique, getting in the right mindset and succeeding as a late starter in the art.
Whether or not the funds come through, Pyrka can be confident that her story has inspired many, many people who might be thinking about pursuing a new hobby, sport or career in adulthood.
"Don't downplay or postpone your passions and creative aspirations. I know it’s hard to juggle work and family responsibilities and it can often feel there is no time or money to 'play' or pursue something out-of-the-box. But if we neglect those things, all the work and family responsibilities will deplete us at some point and make life feel meaningless," she said when asked what advice she'd give to someone in that boat.
"Our brains crave learning, our bodies crave movement, our souls crave expression lifelong — it's not negotiable. Be brave, have faith, and start small. Even if it feels crazy and impossible and painful at times, things have a way of figuring themselves out. Life is too short to wait too long."
When asked about what challenges one might face when taking up dance in particular past the age of 40, Pyrka warned that the hardest hurdle to overcome is in our minds.
"The real challenge is to break through the self doubts .. break free from the people and environments who think that your aspirations are not worth pursuing seriously."
That said, all dancers need to take care of their bodies, especially when their bodies have been on earth for longer than the average ballet student; ""t requires a lot to learn something like ballet and an older body needs more attention to details when it comes to building and maintaining fitness and health," says Pyrka.
While it remains to be seen if she'll meet her goal, Pyrka is simply happy to be living in Toronto with her teenaged son at the moment. Their initial plan was to come to Canada for treatments as necessary, but something spoke to them.
"Toronto was honestly love at first sight... at some point it started feeling like a true home," she says of the city.
"To me, Toronto is unique in many ways and different from other large cities: The individual neighbourhoods have a peaceful and almost village-like feeling. I love that there are gardens everywhere. I appreciate the quick access to amazing beaches — all that while still having the infrastructure and opportunities of a big city."
"We also appreciate the diversity and kindness towards people who are 'different' in any way," says Pyrka of Toronto. "My son feels really accepted and welcome here."
Rolly Astrom for Patricia Pyrka
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