Cia Zalak of Hauppauge practices barre exercises at adult ballet...

Cia Zalak of Hauppauge practices barre exercises at adult ballet class at The Ballet Center in Ronkonkoma. Zalak had never taken any kind of dance or movement class before she started attending classes at The Ballet Center. (Feb. 9, 2011) Credit: Photo by Becky Holladay

When Natalie Portman finally achieves perfection onstage in "Black Swan," it's hard to know whether to applaud or pity her. And who could leave inspired to take up ballet after seeing the Syosset native's blisters, bleeding toes and obvious pain?

"She had to reinvent herself," says Lisa Nieves-Diaz of Ronkonkoma, who was impressed with Portman's extensive study of ballet to play the role (the actress may win an Oscar Sunday). "When you see her dedication and the level of skill she reached for the movie, you have to be inspired, despite its dark overtones."

For Nieves-Diaz, a mother of three, the movie validated her own later-in-life decision to enroll at The Ballet Center in Ronkonkoma four years ago. "I'm the oldest person in our ballet class," says Nieves-Diaz, 46. "To be able to attempt something new at my age and make headway at it gives me a sense of accomplishment."


At the American Theatre Dance Workshop in New Hyde Park - where Portman was a student in her preteens and returned to prep for her "Black Swan" role - about a dozen adults gathered for an advanced ballet class on a recent morning, tossing sweaters and towels over barres to mark their spaces.

Instructor Ali Pourfarrokh put the group through 45 minutes of regimented barre work - pliés and such - as pianist Olga Merson accompanied. Layers of clothing were shed, and dancers grabbed for water bottles. The group moved on to mastering a string of new movements - twirling, leaping and landing along a mirror-covered wall. The work was the same as when Portman took the class.

"She was very good," says Zoya Jakowlew of Flushing, who danced professionally with the New York City Ballet in the late '50s and early '60s. "She had nice turns - she looked like she had been a dancer."


At The Ballet Center in Ronkonkoma, artistic director Debra Punzi says she's seen an uptick in interest in adult beginner ballet classes this winter.

Julissa Guerrero, a college student from Central Islip, is among the new pupils.

"I took ballet for a month when I was 7 but quit because I didn't like wearing the tights," says Guerrero, 21. "I like the thought of challenging my body."

Still, she was concerned about keeping up.

"I'm afraid I won't be able to do the steps," she confided to the person next to her as instructor Kevin Miller prepared to get under way.

She needn't have worried. Miller's pace was easy and his method conversational. He raised his pant leg to give students a better look at his foot placement and stood beside Guerrero so she could shadow the movements. By the time the class was done, Guerrero was putting movements into a fluid routine.

"You put the steps together, and you've danced," Guerrero marveled. "I was really dancing."


THE BALLET CENTER: 1863 Pond Rd., Ronkonkoma, 631-737-1964,

Classes: Beginners 7:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday; returning adults 7:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday; advanced adult 7-8:30 p.m. Tuesday

Cost: $18 per class ($50 for 8 classes) or $50 a month.

 999 Herricks Rd., New Hyde Park, 516-248-6420,

Classes: 10:30 a.m.-noon Monday-Friday

Cost: $20 per class or $180 for 10 classes

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