Through decades of fitness trends, the “dancer’s body” has stood the test of time as one of the most admirable and enviable physiques. Professional dancers, particularly those that practice ballet, have muscles that are long and lean, with defined lines and strong cores. Ballet’s benefits are three-fold: it targets nearly every muscle group, builds cardiovascular endurance and increases flexibility. The frequency and intensity of these workouts, however, can take a damaging toll on a dancer’s body over time.
That is where ballet fitness and barre come in. These workouts, like ballet, emphasize core strength and a slim, toned physique with low-impact routines that are safer for the muscles and joints.
Madison Davis Newton, owner of Pure Barre Oxford, was introduced to bar as a former gymnast looking for a low-impact exercise.
“I was a gymnast growing up, and we have so much wear and tear on our bodies. I noticed that the older I got, the tougher it was on my body,” Newton said. “The cool thing about barre is that it builds bone density, which is so huge for women. You’re using your own body resistance instead of using heavy weights. A lot of physical therapists recommend barre. As challenging as it is, it can be modified for any skill level. We have students that are 18 and 65. The benefits are incredible.”
While ballet-inspired fitness has certainly reached peak popularity in the last several years, barre is not a new practice in the fitness world. It can be traced back to London in the 1950s. After suffering a back injury, Lotte Berk, a dancer and teacher, created the Lotte Berk method, which combined ballet barre training and rehabilitative therapy. The first Lotte Berk method studio opened in the United States in Manhattan in 1971.
Barre enthusiasts cite the workout’s efficacy as the ultimate reason for its popularity, but the environment also offers a unique experience. Classes take place in an open studio, often with mirrored walls. A wall-mounted ballet barre runs the perimeter of the room. There is no workout equipment except for light weights and resistance bands. The attendees sport bare feet or socks with grips. Motivating music plays in the background as the teacher leads the students through the basic rhythm—warm up, sculpt arms, tone thighs, lift seat, flatten abs and cool down. These steps are accomplished mostly by employing the dancer’s own body weight.
“We incorporate the barre, but it’s not dance-y at all. They are very small, isolated movements. Your muscles shake and that tapers the muscles in really tight,” Newton said. “Our foundation of class remains the same, but you will always be doing different positions so it keeps your muscles and body from hitting that plateau where you get bored with it.”
Pure Barre recommends that clients take 3-4 of its 55 minute classes each week to achieve visible results and to become part of the studio’s community.
With its combination of ballet, yoga and pilates, barre is also an effective supplemental workout for athletes and those recovering from an injury, as Lotte Berk demonstrated. Participants may also experience a decrease in high blood pressure, cholesterol and anxiety.
“It becomes 55 minutes where you have to zone out and focus on yourself. It’s you time. We have clients say, ‘yeah, the physical aspect is great, but the mental aspect is what you crave,” said Newton. “It helps a lot of people not only strengthen their bodies, but get that hour of mental therapy that they need.”