The Phenomenal Barre Class
Originally appeared in Holistic Resource, April 2013.
If you haven’t heard of a “barre workout” yet, you will, and soon. Barre classes are the newest trend in fitness. Gyms are scrambling to get them on their schedule and barre-only franchises are racing to be the first facility in the next area. But, what is it, really?
A barre class is an aerobic, non-impact workout that focuses on strengthening and stretching the body for an all-over trim and toned appearance. The class is known for the small, controlled moves that push the muscles to fatigue accompanied by stretching to shape and lengthen the muscles. The original barre class was developed by the dancer Lotte Berk, in the late 1950’s and was simply known as the Lotte Berk Method. The Lotte Berk method is a combination of ballet, yoga, and therapeutic exercises. Barre classes have evolved quite a bit since the 1950’s. A modern barre class is a blend of Lotte Berk, Pilates, yoga, and orthopedic stretches. Barre classes typically use small weights, ballet barres, and an exercise mat. Some classes additionally use playground balls, resistance bands, or the Pilates “Magic Circle”.
In a barre class you can expect to your sculpt arms, abdominals, seat, and legs. All major muscle groups will get toned and stretched. The workout begins with an aerobic step segment to get you warm and alert. You stand up tall and begin lifting your knees into your chest focusing on posture and balance. Arms are extended out and are swung in opposition to the legs. Classes can vary these standing lifts quite a bit. For instance, you might lift your arms to waist height and try to hit your hands with your knees. Or you could lift one leg as you simply hold your arms overhead while holding in your stomach. The purpose of this first segment is to get the heart-rate elevated to place you in the aerobic, fat-burning zone for the duration of class.
The upper body is next. Classes that use small dumbbells, in many exercises, hold the weight away from the body and squeeze the muscle to create a burn or “over-load”. This kind of static hold is also known as isometric exercise. Isometric exercise is the static contraction of a muscle without any visible movement. This static contraction or “still hold” is reflected in the word isometric itself. The Greek prefixe "iso" (same) is combined with "metric" (distance). Essentially, you are using the free weight combined with gravity to create resistance. With your weight extended an arm’s length away from the rest of your body, this resistance requires your arm muscles and your core muscles to contract and thus stabilize the body. Some classes do not use weights at all but opt for using only the participant’s body weight in classic exercises such as planks, push-ups, and reverse push-ups known as “tricep dips”. After the arm segment you stretch to give length back to the muscle and to ease up the burn.
The workout proceeds to its namesake, the barre. The barre can either be attached to the wall or a free-standing unit. This is where the workout really gets fun and when it helps to have some up-beat music playing. Expect releves, demi and grande plies, arabesques, tendus, and passes. These ballet moves tone the calves, thighs (quadriceps), and seat (gluteals). Since your quadriceps and gluteals are the two largest muscle groups in your body when you work on the barre you are burning a lot of calories. Other moves include jogging in place up and down on your toes, circling and lifting your leg, and shaking your hips side to side. The phrase, “move up and inch an down an inch”, is heard often as well as “get low”. Remember, it’s designed to overload the muscles. Many people experience thigh shaking and most first timers cannot get through the whole barre segment without a break here and there. But when you stick with it and are consistent you will build muscle, get stronger, and succeed in progressing through the entire leg and seat segment.
Finally, a tough abdominal segment concludes the barre class. Again these exercises are characterized by small moves and lots of burn. The choreography can vary greatly from class to class but overall you should expect to target upper, lower, and side abdominals. While lying on your back you might lower and lift your legs while beating or crossing your ankles, or dart your legs in and out, or squeeze a “Magic Circle” or playground ball to sculpt the inner thighs. You could do some old-fashioned crunches, sit-ups, and oblique twists. At some point in the ab segment any good barre class will have you lie on your back on your mat and tilt your pelvis backwards to contract the abdominals in. This pelvic tilting, where you hollow out your belly, is also known as “scooping” in Pilates. These pelvic tilts are orthopedic stretches for the low back and are fantastic at getting the abdominals flat.
As you might expect, there are many benefits to a barre class. The reason these classes are so popular is because they deliver amazing results in a very short amount of time. Consistent participation in these classes produces strong, slim muscles. It creates elongated thighs and calves, toned upper arms and shoulders, a lifted seat and strong, flat abdominals. Other benefits include improved balance and posture, coordination and body awareness, and increased flexibility. Much of the class is done standing so you are building bone density in your thighs and hips. A common experience is less aches and pains in the joints and increased stamina and energy. Additionally, many people lose weight with regular attendance. Classes can burn up to 650 calories in 55 minutes. It’s not just the calories you burn in class but also the calories you burn after and in between classes. When you build muscle in a strength class like barre, you burn more calories around the clock, your resting metabolism is higher because that new muscle is eating your fat.
How will you know if you would like a barre class? Well, if you like Pilates or yoga, chances are you will also like barre classes. All three workouts emphasis body awareness, mind-body connection, posture, positioning and increasing flexibility. However, there are some key differences.
Much of the Pilates method is the apparatus work on the reformer, trapeze table, and chair. These Pilates apparatuses, or machines, use spring tension to provide resistance and to guide the participant into the proper positions. Barre work has no equipment other than the barre, a mat, and light weights. In much of the barre class participants use their own body weight as resistance. The exercises and choreography are different as well. Barre classes use an isometric (holding and squeezing) approach. Pilates uses a dynamic (full range of motion) approach to toning and shaping the muscles. Barre classes contain ballet moves such as plies, releves, tondues, and passes. Pilates is an original exercise method developed by Joseph Hubertus Pilates. All the choreography in Pilates comes from his original design. Yoga focuses more on the spiritual aspects of mind-body fitness with emphasis on breathing and relaxation. A barre workout is fast-paced, aerobic, and gives the muscles an intense burn. Deep breathing and relaxation only occurs at the end of class.
A modern barre class will have elements of both yoga and pilates, but, most importantly, a good barre class stems from and reflects the principles of the original Lotte Berk technique. Who is Lotte Berk and why is she important? Lotte Berk was born January 13, 1913 and lived to be 90 years old. She was a Jewish German ballet dancer who fled the rise of Nazism in the 1930‘s and went to London. While in London she worked as a model and dancer. However, she found more success teaching her own method of exercise that she developed from her training as a dancer, her study of yoga, and the rehabilitative therapy she underwent for a back injury. She began teaching her original technique in the basement of her townhouse where she discreetly trained many celebrity clients and was infamous for her bawdy humor. She became so popular that she eventually opened her own Lotte Berk studio in 1959 in the West End. The West End studio became a phenomenon in the swinging 60’s London scene.
One of these clients, Lydia Bach (a descendant of the composer, Johann Sebastian Bach), was so impressed with Lotte’s technique that she bought the rights to Lotte’s name and opened The Lotte Berk Exercise Method Studio on East 67th Street in Manhattan in 1971. At it’s height The Lotte Berk Method Studio had two locations, one on 67th Street and one in Bridgehampton with a client roster of over five thousand of New York City’s wealthiest, influential, and famous persons. The author Tom Wolfe, Barbra Streisand, Brooke Shields, and Joan Collins were among the dedicated followers to name a few. A Lotte Berk class was exclusive and expensive. In the 1970’s, a class ran $30 a pop!
After three decades of discreetly sculpting the derrieres of New York’s upper crust there was a schism at Lotte Berk. Lydia Bach’s two chosen disciples, a married couple, Fred DeVito and Elisabeth Halfpapp, broke away from Ms. Bach and partnered with the spa ‘exhale’ ten blocks from the 67th street studio. At ‘exhale’ they revised the Lotte Berk technique, adding more meditation and yoga elements, and called their new version Core Fusion. Next, Burr Leonard and her sister, Mimi Fleishman, who had been operating Lotte Berk studios in Connecticut decided not to renew their license of the Lotte Berk technique. They reopened a flagship studio in San Francisco calling their version of Lotte Berk, The Bar Method. In 2005, with the loss of so many clients and teachers, the Lotte Berk Method studio folded. After the studio closed, Tanya Becker, another former Lotte Berk teacher, developed her own version with more upper-body focus and added a playground ball as a prop and founded Physique 57 on 57th street. Now there are many versions of the original Lotte Berk technique being taught all over the country.
I named my own version Pilates Barre. I combine elements of ballet, yoga, pilates, Lotte Berk, Bar Method, and Physique 57. One of my regular students was good enough to write a testimonial for this article. This is what she said: “Marjorie’s pilates barre class is a great workout. You feel the burn! For a lot of exercises she shows beginner, intermediate, and advanced variations so you can customize your workout for your level, which I absolutely love! There has been a major improvement in my posture and an overall enhancement to my muscle tone. Being new to pilates, I really like the personalized attention that I get to help me achieve the correct form. Marjorie is truly an amazing instructor…this class would not be as good anywhere else!”