When it comes to an intense workout, three Vancouver fitness-studio operators say that to raise the bar, you’ve got to add a bar—a ballet barre, that is. Pliés meet Pilates in ballet-inspired exercise classes. Add to the mix a few sets of biceps curls and pushups, and you’ve got a routine that would suit Mikhail Baryshnikov himself.
“When you go to the gym you get a workout, but it’s mediocre,” says Ella Jotie, cofounder with Michele Murgel of Barre Fitness, in an interview at the duo’s sleek Yaletown studio, which opened two months ago. “This workout is so amazing—it works the muscles to fatigue—that you end up exercising muscles you never knew you had.”
Ballet-inspired fitness is already a hot trend in the U.S., and now Vancouver is catching on. Another studio, the Bar Method, is opening this Saturday (October 23).
“You feel so satisfied after a workout because you feel like no part of your body was neglected,” says Carolyn Williams, owner of the Bar Method, also in Yaletown. Williams first tried this type of class while she was living in California. A marathon runner, she had no idea just how intense the hourlong workout would be.
“It was such a humbling experience,” she says. “I’ve always been active, but my legs were shaking afterward. I loved it. I walked out of there thinking, ”˜That was amazing.’ I was hooked.”
The origins of the barre-based workout go back to 1960s London. There, a former contemporary-ballet dancer named Lotte Berk, who had fled Nazi Germany, started teaching people a fitness routine she designed herself while she was recovering from a back injury. She combined her barre routines with her rehab exercises to develop a workout that focused on flexibility and strengthening.
Over the years, Berk’s style has been adapted by former students who have opened their own fitness studios. Williams’s Bar Method is part of a San Francisco–based chain that’s rapidly expanding across North America. Its founder, Burr Leonard, who took classes from some of Berk’s students and fell in love with the form, recruited a physiotherapist to help her refine the exercises so that there wouldn’t be any strain placed on the joints.
Lindsay Moore (foreground) demos floor exercises that are part of the intense barre-based workout that builds stamina, muscles, and energy.
Jotie, meanwhile, says that although the approach at Barre Fitness is firmly rooted in Berk’s technique, it has a distinct West Coast flavour. Jotie and Murgel have devised a variety of formats, such as Barre Bootcamp, which incorporates sports-conditioning drills, and Barre Flow, which spends extra time on breathing and stretching exercises.
Still, both studios offer classes based on the same key principles that Berk drew on and that fitness enthusiasts today crave: full-body conditioning and an emphasis on core strength.
Participants in barre-based classes work their muscles to exhaustion then stretch them immediately afterward.
“The goal is to lengthen and tone the muscles rather than bulk them up,” Williams explains.
Participants use the barre for balance and gently push or pull on it to do various moves. They may also use light free weights, a foam block, and small exercise balls. Some of the exercises are simply done on a mat on the floor.
Throughout the class, instructors like Jotie—who has a dance background—also incorporate isometrics, which involve muscular contractions without movement. (Holding a pushup at the midway point for 10 seconds is an example.)
The barre exercises are generally small. For instance, instead of the deep lunges done in aerobics classes, participants in a barre class might do a plié on the balls of their feet and move up and down an inch or so, keeping their quadriceps contracted the entire time. Combined with deep contractions, tiny motions have a powerful effect.
“You’ll feel the burn,” Jotie says with a laugh. “You should start to notice the effects of the workout after two weeks of doing it regularly.”
She adds that the classes emphasize posture, alignment, breathing, and proper technique. Benefits include better posture, stronger muscles, and increased energy and stamina.
The importance of working the core can’t be underestimated. Having strong abdominal, back, pelvic, and hip muscles improves balance, coordination, and athletic performance and reduces the risk of injury.
“You really learn about your body,” Williams says, adding that the technique is an ideal fit for people interested in cross-training.
There are other positive effects too, Jotie says, like stress relief.
“I guarantee that at some point in the class, you’ll be laughing,” she says. “We want to have fun in here.”
But what if you’re intimidated by the ballet barre and have about as much grace on the dance floor as Seinfeld’s Elaine?
“You don’t have to be a dancer,” Jotie says. “But you’ll feel like one.”