With the popularity of hit television shows like Dancing with the Stars, Glee, and So You Think You Can Dance, it's no surprise that an exercise that promises to help develop a dancer’s body — sculpted, elongated muscles without the bulk — is in demand.
They’re called barre workouts, where devotees use a ballet barre, mirrored walls, and their own bodies to stretch their muscles, work their core and posture and strengthen their arms and legs.
Julie Jacko, a former professor of public health at the University of Minnesota, recently opened Barre Motion in South Beach. In the “Signature Motion” class, she and fellow instructor, Michelle Abreu, 20, walked 15 students through a Demi Plié, a French ballet term meaning “small knee bend,” strengthening thigh and core muscles through small, up-and-down movements.
Holding the barre with one hand, students slightly bend their knees, aligning them over their toes while keeping their spines straight. They press their shoulders down, lifting their chests.
“There is strength in grace,” affirms Jacko, 47.
Next came the Grand Plié – a big bend. You've seen Natalie Portman do these moves in Black Swan but in this room, barre aficionados and first-timers are going through the motions in what Jacko says, “is a life-changing routine that will sculpt, define and elongate your body and will ultimately make you more body aware.”
“I've never sweated so much in a class without running or jumping,” says Veronica Shawnego, a 26-year-old California native, after finishing Jacko's one-hour class.
“Barre classes” or a derivative of the name, were known as the “Lotte Berk Method” in the late 1950s. Berk was a German-Jewish dancer who escaped the Nazis by fleeing to England with her husband in the late 1930s. As a modern dancer with a back injury, Berk combined her ballet background with her rehabilitative therapy workouts and opened The Lotte Berk Method Studio in London's West End in 1959. The classes were open to women only and were the first of their kind, using pelvic tilts and targeting specific muscle groups to gain flexibility, strength and body shaping without adding bulk.
The “method” is described as a fusion between ballet, Pilates and sculpting. The technique arrived in the U.S. in 1971, when an American named Lydia Bach opened the first studio in Manhattan's Upper East Side after studying with Berk in London for a year. She purchased the rights to use her name and technique.
It was at the New York studio where a woman named Burr Leonard, who would become the founder of The Bar Method, took her first class. Over the years, she franchised her method and enlisted the help of a physical therapist to fine-tune the exercises, as students were complaining of strained knees, backs and shoulders. Other entrepreneurs soon began opening their own studios. Today, a multitude of barre classes can be found, including at studios in Coral Gables, Fort Lauderdale, South Beach, South Miami — even your local Y.
Florida is home to six of The Bar Method's 79 franchises, including one on Sunset Drive in South Miami. Sherri DiMarco, who trained with Leonard, opened the studio in November 2010. She thinks the recent interest in barre classes comes from people wanting better posture and having bodies like dancers they see on TV and in movies.
There’s also a safety issue.
“People are more conscious about injury prevention,” DiMarco says. “Clients who have been injured actually come to us because we offer safe strength training.”
She points out that even the Dallas Cowboys use ballet barres for stretching, to improve flexibility to prevent injuries.
“Barre classes are a combination of ballet, Pilates and yoga — on crack!” says Dorothea Lantz, 34, of South Miami, who has been a member at Bar Method Miami for more than a year. She says she lost 20 pounds and dropped three dress sizes through a change in her eating habits and through the classes, which she attends four times a week.
Though barre classes are low impact — no jumping or running involved — the classes “work muscles to exhaustion,” DiMarco says. “It's a sneaky workout.”
Eight instructors teach more than 50 classes a week at the Sunset Drive location, with 90 percent of the participants being female. A toned Darlene Legorburu, 41, says that barre classes help her sleep. She's been taking classes there for three months.
“It's tough because it's resistance training but when I go home I feel great, I have more energy and I definitely rest better,” she said.
At South Beach’s Barre Motion, instructor Abreu, a student and dancer at New World School of the Arts, has been teaching there since the beginning of June.
“I'm looking forward to seeing people's bodies change — the transformation — the metamorphosis.”