You might have seen some variation of the following post on Instagram, featuring a lithe-looking woman in an arabesque with the hashtag #barre:
The photos posted there look like a mix of yoga, ballet, and fitness content all rolled into one. So what, exactly, is barre?
A barre is what ballerinas use to practice their moves in the dance studio — and it’s also a workout style that incorporates that same apparatus. With its fluid movements and promises of long, lean muscles, barre is basically the new-and-improved Pilates, and it’s taking the fitness world by storm.
But as it turns out, barre has actually been around for a while.
Barre as we know it got its start in the 1950s when German ballerina Lotte Berk decided to retire her toe shoes and turn her favourite ballet conditioning moves into a workout. Then known as the Lotte Berk Method, it included a mix of floor and barre exercises with oddly named moves like “the Peeing Dog” and “the French Lavatory” coined by its eccentric founder, according to a Guardian obituary of Berk.
The Lotte Berk Method caught on and endured for several decades — YouTube videos from the ’80s and ’90s show how it evolved from a series of fluid motions to a slightly more rigorous workout involving quicker repetitions.
Here’s an excerpt from an early Lotte Berk video with an artistic, conceptual, and ballet-oriented opening sequence:
Here’s one that looks like it’s from the late ’90s and seems more influenced by the then-booming aerobics culture. It’s from a video called “The Lotte Berk Method: Muscle Eats Fat.”
By Berk’s death in the early 2000s, her devotees were splintering off and creating their own workout studios dedicated to ballet-inspired barre workouts. These included Physique 57, Core Fusion, and Pure Barre, according to Shape magazine.
It just goes to show how obsessive barre fans become. Jennifer Vaughn Maanavi and Tonya Becker founded Physique 57 in 2005 as a direct reaction to the Lotte Berk Method’s New York City studio shuttering.
“When it closed, I was so upset I quit my job at Morgan Stanley and started this,” Maanavi told the Observer in 2008. “I couldn’t exist without it.”
Now, Physique 57 is the most star-studded of the barre studios. Hilaria Baldwin, Zooey Deschanel, Kelly Ripa, and Parker Posey are all devotees, according to Us Weekly.
But being a celeb favourite, Physique 57 gets pricey — a single class at one of its eight international studios will run you up to $US36. Pure Barre costs $US33 per class in New York City. Many gyms offer barre-inspired classes, too, which could be a cheaper option if you want to try it out.
When taking a barre class, expect to feel some pain. Even if you’re in shape from other workouts, the tiny, repeated movements that are key in barre classes will be unlike anything you’re accustomed to. But barre studios promise ridiculous results — Physique 57 says you’ll see a difference after just eight classes.
This is due to barre’s tiny isometric movements, according to Greatist, like squatting and then moving your torso up and down only an inch over and over. This helps isolate certain muscles and bring them to fatigue more quickly, which leads them to grow stronger over time.
Here’s what you can expect for the basic structure, according to Greatist:
You’ll start with a mat-based warm-up full of planks and push-ups, do a series of arm exercises, and continue at the bar with a lower-body section to work your thighs and glutes. Finally, you’ll finish with a series of core-focused moves at the bar or a short session on the mat.
Depending on where you take the class, you might also use small barbells, a bouncy playground ball, bands, and grippy socks to keep from sliding around. Here’s an example of what a class might look like:
People tend to either love or hate barre workouts — as noted by writer Wednesday Martin, who wrote in her book “Primates of Park Avenue” that most women on the Upper East Side are fans of either barre classes at Physique 57 or spinning at SoulCycle, and they never, ever like both.
Either way, though, you have to admit that barre classes make for some especially double-tap-worthy Instagram posts.
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