The Down and Dirty History of Barre Fitness
“It is true that everything worthwhile in life is worth working hard for, and surely it is worth a little hard work to achieve a super shapely body that works well, a body full of vitality that makes you feel happy to be alive.” -Lottie Berk
Barre fitness is hot!
These ballet-inspired workouts can be seen in small boutique studios, corporate gyms, and franchise facilities all over the country. People flock to these classes for their promises of “long-lean muscles”, “a dancers body”, and “improved strength, balance, and flexibility”. But they stay because it’s a fun and challenging workout for people of all ages and abilities.
Classes are typically 60-minutes, and include a 5-10 minute warm up, followed by a 10-15 minute upper body workout using light hand weights, 20-30 minutes spent at the barre working the legs and “seat” (aka. the butt), a 10 minute abdominal section, and finished with a short cooldown/final stretch. However, classes can take many different forms, and this is just an example of one of the ways barre classes can be structured.
Why is it so popular?
When chatting with Lauren George, Co-Founder of Enhanced Barre Above, about the boom in barre classes she stated, “I believe barre took off because it offers a low impact yet high intensity workout that makes people FEEL GOOD. It works your body in a unique way without putting a lot of impact on your joints. Additionally, barre classes tend to be held in small fitness studios that promote community. People in today's society want more than just a workout, they want a fantastic experience that lifts them up physically, and mentally, while allowing them to socialize with others, and that is precisely what barre gives them.”
But did you know that barre has been around since the 1950’s!?
The Early Days: Lotte Berk
Barre fitness first took shape in 1959 in London (England) when Lotte Berk, a German born modern ballet dancer, injured her back while stretching a client (so says her daughter, Esther Fairfax). She worked with an osteopath to teach her to “curve her lower back during her exercises so it wouldn't irritate the injury”. He taught her functional strength exercises using light weights and her body, all with the goal of enhancing her functional strength. Through this work, she saw an opportunity to combine her new knowledge with her dance background; ultimately creating the first barre fitness class.
The original Lotte Berk Technique was a combination of modern ballet moves, yoga, and rehabilitative exercises. The goal of class was to improve strength and flexibility in women. Using a combination of barre work and floor exercises, the workout was designed specifically for non-dancers to achieve a dancers body. As described on lotte-berk.com, she “believed that the class emphasis should be on fun, having a laugh. Exercise she says can be so boring…”
But it wasn’t all about fitness…
Unlike many fitness programs of that time, the Lotte Berk Method, and subsequent studio space, was exclusive to women, barring men from entering. Why? Because Lottie was an overtly sexual women and promoted her technique as a way for women to “improve their sex life”. She was known to talk about sex during class, live a bisexual lifestyle that included an open marriage, and promote sexual liberation for women through her movements.
She named exercises things like: “The Prostitute”, “Naughty Bottoms”, and “The Sex.” She developed the now popular pelvic-tilt exercise, which she referred to as “the lovemaking position”. It is said that if a student struggled with this move, she would look at them in wide-eyed wonder, and ask “how is your sex life?” But perhaps most famously, she is rumored to have told clients, “If you can’t tuck, you can’t fuck.” (It's important to note here, that while the pelvic-tilt was part of the original technique, it is now known that this movement can exasperate lower back injuries as it is not part of the natural curves in the spine. Read More from Leslee Bender, C0-Founder of Enhanced Barre Above.)
Her technique, sharp wit, and vivacious personality attracted women and celebrities (such as Yasmin le Bon, Shirley Conran, Edna O’Brien, Joan Collins and Barbra Streisand) to her London based studio apartment. Her classes made these women feel empowered, strong, and sensual.
As Danielle Friedman of TheCut.com said “over time, she found that her special combination of ballet moves, yoga, and rehabilitative exercises helped her not only to heal and hold onto her dancer’s figure, but also to get more pleasure from sex.”
Yup, that’s right. Barre was first developed as a way for women to get in touch with their bodies and feel more confident in bed (either by themselves or with a man/women). As TheCut.com states: “What today has become a mass commercial fitness trend — a straitlaced subculture in which butts are called “seats” — was once a radical, decidedly erotic practice.”
This brings a whole new meaning to the commonly used “pulse it” cues given in classes!
Coming to America
In the early 1970s, Lydia Bach, one of Berk’s devotees, brought the method to the U.S. by opening a studio in New York City. Bach saw the opportunity to create the same excitement and feelings of liberation to American women. She was able to secure the franchising rights to The Lotte Berk Method through a deal with Lottie herself – a move that would ultimately leave Lottie without the ability to use her own name for studios, books, or publishing deals.
At its inception, it was important to Bach to maintain Lottie’s promiscuous style and hold on to the sexual frankness of the workout. In fact, in 1972 Bach was quoted in a New York Times article, stating that the workout is a “a combination of modern ballet, yoga, orthopedic exercise and sex.”
At this time, America was deep in the throes of the sexual revolution and feminism was taking on a new wave of change. Thus, the notion that a workout could enhance one’s sex life was exciting. Magazines and newspapers published many articles about the sexual side of barre workouts, including a headline by Cosmopolitan - “Exercise Your Way to a Better Sex Life!”. Bach even went on to publish a book – Awake! Aware! Alive! - in which the last chapter was dedicated to exercises for improving sex.
A shift in thinking
As the sexual revolution died down in the 1980s, so did the focus of the barre workouts to be one of improving sex lives. Men and women alike were both now attending these classes with the goal of improving strength and flexibility. The erotic undertones gave way to discussions of technique, and exercises were renamed to better reflect their physical benefits.
Around this time, the Women’s Liberation Movement launched, with women seeking empowerment and independence from the idea that they were simply sexual objects for a man’s pleasure. Exercise now brought them strength, physically and mentally, to take control over their own lives. In an 80’s Vogue article, Bach showed her enlightened stance about the nature of exercise and said “women want to regain power and control over their lives. Exercise is the first step towards regaining that control.”
The following decades allowed Lydia Bach to train nearly all of the women (and men) who have gone on to develop today’s biggest barre franchises, including Exhale, Physique 57, Pure Barre and Bar Method. Today these programs focus on developing the “long lean lines of a dancer” while improving strength and flexibility in participants. Gone are the sexual innuendos and explorations that once were dominant in the program.
But there is still one franchise that wants to hold onto the original, sexual, intent that Lottie Berk and Lydia Bach built within barre classes. Pop Physique founder Jennifer Williams, a dancer, “discovered the Lotte Berk system and was so impressed with the results that she wanted to bring the methodology to more people and channel the original artistic environment of its creator” (as described on the company’s About page). Today that transcends into an ad campaign based on photos from Bach’s book, and statements on their website like, “Pop Physique’s concept is simple: the sexiest, most efficient, coolest workout at the best price.”
While barre may have originally been a sexual revolution, today it is a strong and powerful class for individuals of all ages and abilities. People flock to independent studios, franchise locations, or big-box gym classes to benefit from the low-impact, high-intensity, muscle toning workout. Each class has its own take on the original program, but all include a combination of ballet technique (barre work), strength training exercises, and pilates/yoga moves.
Typically, classes include the use of the ballet barre, however there are “barre-less barre” classes that allow people to reap the benefits of the workout without the need for a barre. Instructors may use light hand weights, small squishy balls, resistance bands, or pilates rings to challenge the body and increase the muscular strength demands.
Lauren George describes barre today as a means to “improve muscular endurance, cardiovascular endurance (if it is a more cardio based barre program), and flexibility. It allows people to strengthen the often-underutilized muscles such as the gluteus medius and minimus, abductors, and adductors. We spend a lot of time moving in the sagittal plane in our every day lives with movements such as walking, running, cycling, and even sitting. Barre makes us move through all three planes of motion (frontal, sagittal, and transverse) which helps our bodies move in a much more functional and efficient way. Additionally, barre classes help bust stress both by the endorphins the workouts help us release and by the uplifting community that many participants find in a barre class.”
The biggest difference between barre workouts and traditional strength training is the focus on isometric movements and the use of pulsing techniques to increase muscular overload. However, Leslee Bender states, “this pulsing action should only be performed for 10 seconds, not 7 minutes. There are many injuries coming out of this method of training due to it over usage at a joint”. So consider how much you really want to “pulse it out” in classes.
Barre continues to grow and evolve. A 2018 report of top fitness trends, stated that a new style of barre has been born. This Barre + Cardio Fusion class amps up the traditional ballet-inspired workout by adding a major cardio component. These classes will get participants heart rate up with the inclusion of high intensity moves followed by brief moments of active recovery.
With the vast array of studio franchise options, private boutique barre studios, and the 50+ instructor certification courses, it doesn’t look like barre is going anywhere. But before you jump on the barre bandwagon, make sure you are educated into the different components of the classes and ensure that they are using safe and effective coaching principles. Check out these three articles from the GXunited blog archives to ensure you’re experiencing the safest, most effective barre workout possible.
- Let’s Challenge 3 Common Barre Fitness Class Beliefs by Leslee Bender
- Stop Compromising The Feet In Barre Fitness Classes! by Leslee Bender
- “What The Tuck” – Fix That Anatomy In Barre Fitness Classes by Leslee Bender
- Barre (exercise). (2018, March 8). Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barre_(exercise)#History
- Friedman, D. (n.d.). The Secret Sexual History of the Barre Workout. Retrieved from https://www.thecut.com/2018/01/barre-workout-sexual-history.html
- History of Ballet Barre Pilates | Yoga Core Fit Vacaville CA. (2016, December 20). Retrieved from https://yogacorefit.com/history-ballet-barre-pilates/
- The history of barre classes | Studios Etc. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://studiosetc.com/history-barre-classes/
- How barre was created: Injured dancer's 'love-making position' regime. (2018, January 30). Retrieved from https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5331085/Lotte-Berk-fled-nazis-created-barre-love-making-position.html
- Lotte Berk: one of the strangest and most ruthless characters of the 20th century. (2010, July 20). Retrieved from https://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/mother-tongue/familyhistory/7899161/Lotte-Berk-one-of-the-strangest-and-most-ruthless-characters-of-the-20th-century.html
- The Next Big Fitness Trends. (2015, December 10). Retrieved from https://www.shape.com/fitness/trends/15-next-big-fitness-trends
- Obituary: Lotte Berk. (2003, November 10). Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/news/2003/nov/08/guardianobituaries.artsobituaries
- A Pop Story | Pop Physique. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.popphysique.com/pop-story/
- Sex and The Bar Method, Part 2 - Bar Method. (2017, December 1). Retrieved from https://barmethod.com/sex-and-the-bar-method-part-2/
- WTF Are Barre Workouts and Are They Actually Worth Doing? (26, February). Retrieved from https://greatist.com/move/benefits-of-barre-workout