Ballet is the new jazzercise

From left, Alyssa Adams, Reina Offutt Pratt and Mary Farber demonstrate ballet moves used in a barre fitness class at Potomac Pilates in Potomac, Md. Adams is doing a plie, which tones calves, and the resistance band around her ankles works the outer thighs. Pratt is modifying the teaser Pilates move by holding the barre. Farber’s tendu position strengthens the leg and builds flexibility.
Mark Gail | The Washington Post
From left, Alyssa Adams, Reina Offutt Pratt and Mary Farber demonstrate ballet moves used in a barre fitness class at Potomac Pilates in Potomac, Md. Adams is doing a plie, which tones calves, and the resistance band around her ankles works the outer thighs. Pratt is modifying the teaser Pilates move by holding the barre. Farber’s tendu position strengthens the leg and builds flexibility.
Posted Nov. 10, 2011, at 6:20 a.m.

WASHINGTON — Ever heard the one about the woman who walks into a barre? If not, that’s about to change as fitness programs nationwide make room for ballet-inspired exercise classes.

That doesn’t mean it’s time to dust off your old tutu. These lessons aren’t designed to land you a starring role in “The Nutcracker,” but rather to help you look like you could by borrowing dancers’ strengthening and stretching techniques – while using their favorite prop.

The idea was originally developed 60 years ago in London by Lotte Berk. A student brought her method to New York in the 1970s, and it’s taken off over the past decade as more than a dozen barre fitness systems have been developed and marketed across the country. Barre3 Fitness, founded by celebrity trainer Sadie Lincoln in Oregon, is expanding to six states and the District of Columbia.

“There’s so much barre buzz now,” says Linda Bachrack, who brought the format to Washington in the summer of 2006, when she started teaching Pure Barre at a yoga studio. She’d been a fan of a Pure Barre studio when she lived in Michigan, and thought there’d be a demand for it in the nation’s capital.

If you’re wondering what it is about pulsing up and down in a plie that creates such an addiction, it seems to be that it works. “I can’t get anything else to tone my butt, but I’ve noticed a difference since doing this,” says Katie Schrier, 36, a regular at Xtend Barre classes at Fuel Pilates in Washington.

Fuel owner Kelly Griffith started the program a year ago as a complement to Pilates training. It’s similarly focused on strengthening the core, but there’s more of a cardio component thanks to a constant flow from one move to the next and exercises that work multiple muscles simultaneously. When she’s cueing, “Down an inch, up an inch,” that doesn’t sound particularly challenging, but just watch the sweat dripping down students’ faces. “You’re getting at these tiny muscles you don’t with anything else,” she says. “When’s the last time you lifted your leg by squeezing your butt?”

And when was the last time your legs shook uncontrollably as you tried to hold a particular position? That quake sensation happens in just about every barre class — one of the many common denominators. Each style has its own hallmarks. Some are on wood floors, others are on padded carpeting. Some require students to wear socks, others demand bare feet. Most claim to be better than the competition because they focus more on safety. But the exercises are fairly consistent.

Usually you’ll start with marching leg lifts to warm up the body. Then it’s time to grab light weights (typically three pounds or less) for a series of arm exercises that require keeping your limbs up for an extended period without a break. You’ll move to the barre to work thighs and “seat” (the barre word for butt) with movements that often involve standing on one leg, being on your toes or both. From there, you’ll likely sit on the ground and hold the barre above your head to attack those abs by lifting your legs. Between each section, you stretch.

Not that every class is the same. Within this framework, there are endless variations, particularly when you bring in props other than the barre. Slightly squishy balls that often get squeezed between students’ thighs are common. One that’s not is the glide board, a slippery surface designed to let users do a side-to-side ice skating motion.

Reina Offutt Pratt, owner of Potomac (Md.) Pilates, has been amazed by the range of ages her new BeyondBarre program attracts. It brings in the typical 25- to 45-year-old crowd, but also students who are much older.

You’ll often find 40-year-old Molly Hamilton taking BeyondBarre classes with her mom, who’s in her 70s. That’s because this kind of exercise doesn’t require running, jumping or other jarring movements that often limit seniors in fitness classes. But being kinder to your body can end up being a more effective workout, says another instructor who’s had clients into their 80s.

There’s no better advertisement for the benefits of barre as you mature than Bachrack. The 59-year-old grandmother of six has a better body than most women a third of her age.

Talk about raising the barre.

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