In the past few years, the type of exercise called “barre” has exploded in popularity. This article explains its history, my personal history with barre, and what to expect in a class.
The first time I tried barre, I was highly confused. I thought I had decent strength from practicing yoga and running regularly, but as soon as my heels rose off the mat into first position, my legs began to violently tremble. I held onto the barre for dear life and tried to stay on beat.
You know the universe is speaking to you when you’re handed a million opportunities all at once on a silver platter. Not long after my first class, YogaWorks offered a free 2-day workshop for teachers to learn a basic sequence to sub their barre classes because they were in desperate need of coverage. I was fresh off the boat back from Vienna and had a free weekend so I decided to give it a try. Soon thereafter, every studio I worked for was also in seeking out barre teachers, and I was told there are inexpensive options to become professionally certified online. I chose a self-paced course with the International Ballet Barre Fitness Association. Soon after passing my certification exam, I auditioned at Barre & Soul and was selected to participate in their Mentorship Program. Before I knew it, I had become obsessed with this rhythmic, deceptively-difficult, and often elegant workout.
The irony is that the first career I ever desired was to become a “ballerina mommy”. From the time I was 2 years old, I remember having a vivid vision of myself teaching ballet. When I was 5, my parents decided that signing me up for a soccer league was more practical and affordable enrolling me in ballet lessons, and I learned to let this dream go. However, when I began teaching yoga, the most common question that I continue to receive aside from “Where can I find your playlist?” (On Spotify – here you go!) is “Were you a dancer/musician?” “Does cheerleading count?” Is my most frequent response. To most, it does not. I began to realize that maybe there was something to that buried vision.
When I began teaching barre, in some odd way, my vision of my first career path became re-excavated. While barre is not quite ballet, it shares its musicality and feels in many ways like a very natural bridge to cross from teaching yoga. So what is it exactly and how did the craze begin?
Barre’s popularity increased exponentially in recent years, but the method has been around in one form or another since the time of the sexual revolution. This form of movement was created by Lotte Berk, who was a German professional modern ballet dancer. It is rumored that Lotte was repulsed by the thought of becoming a dance teacher because she preferred movement that was unrestricted by rules and accessible to a wide range of abilities. Thus, she cast all fetters of dance tradition aside and began teaching a method that combined the rhythm of ballet with the toning of Pilates and the healing aspect of yoga and physical therapy. Originally, Lotte’s classes were rumored to have an overtly sexual overtone. She called her exercises names that were boldly scandalous for her time, such as “The Naughty Bottoms”, “The Peeing Dog”, “The Prostitute”, and “The Sex”. Barre, she promised, would encourage women to pursue sex for our own pleasure in addition to toning us towards a dancer’s body.
Lotte gained a cult following of former dancers, artistic performers, and celebrities when she fled Nazi rule in Germany to teach in London. Several students who adored the originality and free-loving spirit of Lotte’s method began exporting it throughout the world. Barre arrived to America in 1970 when a student of Lotte opened the first “Lotte Berk Method” studio in New York City. From here, the studio’s influence spread over time, leading to the creation of studios throughout the states.
Classes today called “barre” are sometimes informed by Lotte’s original method, but other times “barre” may simply be a generic name for exercises at a ballet barre that are tangentially related to the original form of movement. The common denominator in barre classes is that they are largely devoid of Lotte’s original sexually-suggestive influence. Instead, barre classes today are health and strength-focused practices (although some say the sexual undertone is the “elephant in the room” in barre classes). To experience the true Lotte technique, the best strategy is to go straight to the source. Lotte’s 85-year-old daughter, Esther Fairfax, continues to teach her mother’s legacy outside of London.
What to expect in class
Before going to a barre studio, take a peek at the prices ahead of time. Barre in general is more expensive than yoga because there are fewer studios and teachers around. However, like yoga, there are often newcomer price options for barre that can make the cost per class more affordable. Students rarely need to bring mats for barre as most studios provide a mat that is thicker than typical yoga mats. Some studios, such as Exhale, require students wear special socks, which can be purchased cheaper online than in-house. Barre socks are often designed to look like ballet shoes from a distance, and they have a grip-studded bottom stops students from sliding around during standing work.
Most barre classes follow a specific format that begins with a warm-up (often including marching), followed by arm work with 2-3-lb. weights, thigh work, glute work, abdominal work, “back dancing”, and a cool-down. The thigh work section is often the longest and most intense part of class. Exercises that target the thighs are derived from ballet positions and held for what can feel like an eternity.
Often in barre classes, and especially in during thigh work, you will experience or see shaking. By holding a contraction for a sustained period of time, our muscles begin to fatigue and commence a pattern of relax-contract-relax-contract to remain in the shape. Shaking should be embraced rather than feared because it means that we are building endurance in our muscles. After attending barre classes regularly, we may shake less our muscles become longer and stronger. However, having a stronger barre practice does not mean that the work becomes easier. Rather, with experience, we become more aware of how to find our edge in an exercise.
The goal of barre is to create length and strength in our major muscle groups, which I have found to be supportive of any regular yoga practice. The image of yoga these days is dominated by photographs of dancers, gymnasts, contortionists, and yes, even strippers, twisting their bodies into unbelievable positions (just look up the hashtag #yogaeverydamnday on Instagram, and you’ll understand). I often have students ask me how to attain specific shapes that are popularized by this imagery, such as arm balances and inversions. The truth? A. Attaining these shapes will not make you a better yogi. And B. To even begin thinking about safely approaching “advanced” postures, we need to first build strength. That is exactly where barre comes into play.
In short, barre is musical, strengthening, accessible to many levels of ability, and addictive. Join the craze to experience the shake.