With long limbs and lean torsos, dancers’ bodies are much-coveted as an aspirational physique. So no surprise that former ballerinas have capitalized on their knowledge of the human body and transitioned into fitness entrepreneurs with ballet-inspired studios and classes.
Barre is one of the most popular dance-inspired workouts to come center stage, and as a former dancer and exercise-trend guinea pig for Healthland, it was time to check out the buzz.
Barre classes aren’t new to the fitness industry, but branches inspired by the original practice are continuously growing. The barre method is largely credited to former German dancer Lotte Berk, who started teaching her classes, even to non-ballerinas, in the 1970s in New York City’s Upper East Side. Since Berk brought her method to Manhattan, the city has become saturated with spin-offs–some run by former students–and spread to cities nationwide.
If you think the barre is for you, there are quite a few ballet-based classes from which to chose, each stressing a different level of true ballet skills. “Barre can be any number of different techniques. Every studio has their own flavor,” says New York City’s Pure Barre co-owner Kaitlin Vandura.
Most barre classes include the use of —you guessed it —a ballet barre where students work through a series of skills that tone arms, torso, feet and legs. The goal of each class is to strengthen, lengthen and sculpt the body with a variety of exercises that infuse Pilates and weight training into classical ballet techniques. In a typical barre exercise you might find yourself doing several reps of small, pulsing muscle contractions that target the most common problem spots: thighs, abs, glutes and the back of the arms.
To get an all-encompassing barre experience, I tried two different classes. My first was a traditional session at Pure Barre in New York City. Pure Barre is one of the most widely recognized studios with classes in over 30 states in the U.S.
“At Pure Barre, we use really tiny, isometric movements. I would liken it to the concept of using light weights and doing a lot of reps and really burning out the muscle,” says Vandura. The tiny pulses took a little getting used to. I felt (and looked) as though I was suffering from a strange twitch as I contracted specific muscles groups while keeping the rest of my body still, but I definitely felt the burn. After working each muscle to fatigue–sometimes using hand weights, straps and yoga balls–we relieved them with a few minutes of stretching before starting all over with another muscle group.
Vandura assured me shaky legs are a very normal side effect. “That’s a good thing. It means you worked the muscle to fatigue, and the science behind that is the muscle then builds itself back up stronger and leaner.” I’m counting on that.
My second class was at the Bari Studio, a hybrid barre studio run by Wharton alum Alexandra Perez and celebrity trainer Brice Hall (he’s worked with actor Matthew McConaughey). Classes are divided into six categories ranging from the high-cardio BariDRIP to the abs-targeted BariFOCUS class. Sessions are mix of barre work with exercises on suspension bands, using small weights and even jumping on trampolines.
“Our method is much more comprehensive. Out of these categories, only two of them sometimes touch the barre,” says Perez. “It’s like saying we are a weightlifting class because we sometimes incorporate weights, or a bands class because we have bands, or a trampoline method because we have trampolines. We are a well-rounded method that incorporates many different disciplines and strongly believes in and is rooted in science.”
The goal at Bari is to challenge opposing and synergistic muscles, while getting your heart rate up. At Bari Studio, I did a lot more sweating and less twitching, but felt the same individualized muscle-targeting. Instead of solely relying on small movements, I learned dance sequences that were repeated throughout the class. This way, I completed the same number of reps, but hardly realized it.
Without a doubt, my barre tour left my underworked muscle groups seriously sore. If you’re up for the challenge, I recommend starting with a beginners class to learn the correct form. The classes may attract dance enthusiasts, but anyone seeking major sculpting can participate. For those who don’t seem themselves in a tutu, don’t worry. “As long as you can hang onto a barre, you can come to class and hold your own,” says Vandura.