Dig out those legwarmers because ballet fitness classes are the hippest new way to get in shape - and they work, too
One of the most common misconceptions about ballerinas is that, being so tiny and entirely fat-free, they must also be tremendously frail. Wrong. Anyone who has watched a performance of Giselle or Swan Lake has witnessed the work of the toughest, most muscle-hewn and disciplined elite athletes around. Most of us, that is, most of us who last did ballet when we were in single figures, prancing and plié-ing around a musty school hall accompanied by the tuneless clumping of an old piano, will never achieve such levels of extraordinary elegance; not to mention flexibility or BMI.
A new breed of fitness class however has adopted the strength training, cardio, stretching and lengthening component of ballet and adapted it to those of us who are well beyond being able to rock a tutu. Like Pilates (itself a method originally used by dancers for rehabilitation), Lotte Bark’s techniques, and more recently the work of celebrity trainer Tracy Anderson, barre and ballet-based classes target the core and small muscle groups. The stretching work, the use of one’s own body weight and balance, makes for an efficient, highly sculpting workout, building lean muscle – to raise the metabolism - without the dreaded bulk.
Much of the sudden popularity of ballet fitness has to do with ex-professional ballerina, Mary Elizabeth Bowers, who trained Natalie Portman for her Oscar-winning performance in Black Swan, and who now runs Manhattan-based Ballet Beautiful classes where regulars include Alexa Chung and Zooey Deschanel and a brace of Victoria’s Secret models, including Lily Aldridge, Doutzen Kroes and Erin Heatherton. (I can’t think of a group of women I’d like least to work out next to.) Her classes – like those of Sleek Technique – are available to download online, or even participate in live from the comfort of your sitting room.
My first barre class was at Physique 57 in New York. An ex-dancer in tiny hot pants instructed a room of deadly serious women – and me - to bend and hold poses at a barre until my legs began to shake and I wanted to cry. The leg shaking, by the way, is something you have to get used to in ballet. The burn is hell on earth, and is unique - and uniquely awful – to this particular form of fitness. I’m told it gets better with time and practise. Yeah, right.
My next class was at Barrecore on the King’s Road where again, as I held a plié and pulsed up and down for a small eternity, my legs shook as if a minor but significant earthquake was taking place in my toes. (A brief note on ballet instructors – they are the most aspirational lot, toned and lean with stomachs of steel and perky ponytails, and bodies of ridiculous pliability. You can quite understand why so many men love a ballerina.)
At BodyBarre in Fulham, Italian spitfire Paola di Lanzo zipped around the room, adjusting poses and lifting my leg higher than seemed necessary or even possible, while Rihanna blared on the stereo, not entirely masking the sound of fifteen women groaning in pain. The class was more cardio-based than others, involving floor and core exercises and a pace more akin to aerobics than Pilates.
At BARREtoned in Notting Hill, in a small room of women (so far I’ve counted exactly zero male ballerinas) of mixed size, shape and ability, we used hand weights to target biceps and triceps before a series of excruciatingly effective barre exercises – including one in which I had to sit in a pretzel position and somehow lift and pulse my back leg until it was heavy as concrete and my backside was on fire: the work of pure devilry.
BARREtoned’s director, Katharina Klaus, tells me that even low impact movements like these can have a weight loss and toning effect on the body, not least because “high impact cardio like running uses up so much energy it makes you hungry and you replace the calories,” she says. “Ballet creates lean muscle which raises your metabolism and keeps you burning calories for longer.” Even Ten Pilates are going beyond their namesake discipline to launch a barre class this month.
Best of all – okay, second best, after the stomach-tightening, leg-lengthening, and bottom-lifting – is the wardrobe. Warm-down ballerina is a category of style to equal off-duty model. Cropped, pale pink, cross over cardigans, leotards worn with jogging bottoms, headbands and strict little hair buns: yes please. You might be too old for a tutu, but be assured, you’re never too old for leg warmers.