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Reflections On Why The Exercise Industry Looks Down on Barre Fitness, Part I

In the early 1970s, Lydia Bach, brought the Lotte Berk Method to Manhattan's Upper East Side and opened the first barre studio in the United States. Prior to that, exercise was mostly calisthenics and team sports. Participants were mostly men, and aside from elite yoga classes for celebrities in Hollywood and centers devoted to yogic studies on both coasts, there was not a place for women to go to exercise. Thus grew the nose down which the exercise industry looks at barre fitness.

My theory on how the schism began. In the early days of modern exercise, Men worked out and Women...did things like dance classes. Men wore full sweatsuits. Women wore leotards. Men did squats. Women did ballet. Men lifted weights. Women stood at the barre. Men sweated. Women perspired...but probably not even much, surmised Men, who believed that dance was "easy" because it is, in fact, a dancers job to make it look absolutely effortless. Men often grunted with the effort of working with heavier weights. And since it was frowned upon for Women to grunt, or to even use force or effort, Women's exercise was therefore deemed unworthy--certainly too simple for Men and definitely not useful for building health and a good physique.

My theory on how the schism continued. In 1969 Judi Sheppard Misset created Jazzercise. And because she was a dancer, she taught in leotard, tights and legwarmers. This uniform was quickly adopted by her followers. Around the same time, Aerobic Dance took women's exercise to new heights, and most dressed to reveal sculpted bodies and draw attention to themselves during competitions. While Men appreciated the theatrics and the thong leotards, they did not see Aerobic Dance as anything more than entertainment.

Class Division. Lotte Berk, the mother of barre fitness and a professional dancer, taught her methodology in a studio setting. She promoted the format as both sexy and sexual (claiming to improve women's bedroom experiences). Clearly this sort of atmosphere could not be achieved in a large impersonal gym setting. Nor were gyms interested in installing a ballet barre around the perimeter of the group exercise room for a class that was not widely known or done. To this day, barre fitness classes remain mostly inside boutique studios or big box franchises--there are exceptions, of course, mine (bootybarre) being one of them. This sort of separation also created exclusivity: only those who can afford the classes could attend, whereas a monthly gym membership is much more cost effective for the consumer. Gyms, having very little contact with barre fitness classes, subsequently had little hands-on knowledge of what the program actually IS, and continued to perpetuate the concept that barre fitness is some sort of ballet class...for Women.

Times Have Changed And So Has Barre Fitness. Exercise science has greatly evolved our current understanding of physical fitness. We now have calculations for optimum heart rate, exercises that details proper body mechanics, equipment to target different parts of the body, etc. Luckily, methods like bootybarre have kept up with those changes (as have some others, however, I can only speak to bootybarre). bootybarre endorses neutral pelvis for most exercises (look for my next blog on THAT), focuses in on small stabilizer muscles, includes cardio peaks, and spinal extension. In classes we work HARD. Many new students are surprised at how challenging my classes are. They sweat, they lose their positions and their balance, they sometimes even swear at me. More often than not, they return for the next class a bit sore, but eager for more.

So Why Is Barre Fitness Still So Misunderstood? The gym world, while co-ed now, is still dominated by Men and Men usually won't bother to participate in barre fitness class. Some feel it is too "feminine" for them. Most don't see the benefits that barre fitness has to offer. The rare few who do drop in, often don't come back. My student P, however, is the wonderful exception.

A True Story of A Man Who Makes Barre Class A Regular Thing. P is a man who takes his body seriously, working out an average of 2 hours per day, 6-7 times per week. Prior to coming to bootybarre, P used free weights, machines, and the cardio equipment. When his best friend broke her neck by losing her balance putting on a pair of jeans, he told himself that he needed to work on balance and made it his number one priority. When he came into class that fateful day, he didn't know what to expect. When he left, I remember him saying to me "this is the hardest class I've ever done!" I was a little taken aback--here was this man with the classic inverted V shape and well-defined muscles basically saying that his ass was thoroughly kicked. It certainly wasn't the strength components of barre class that intrigued P--it was high levels of balance, control, and flexibility that drew him in...things that he felt were missing from his workouts. Men, he explained, rarely take in other forms of fitness due to "man thinking", ie. big guns, big chest. P continued on to add that maybe "one out of a hundred (men) will look down to discover that there are legs attached to the trunk".

A Brand New Perspective. When I ask P why he thinks that not more men come to barre, his answer was one that had never, ever crossed my mind: too many beautiful women. "No matter what stature or body shape," he pointed out, "I find all women doing barre quite beautiful. What chance would a sexually binary (hetero) guy have to keep his concentration in such a class? If a guy would rise above the need to look and feel masculine at all times, I am sure they would get more out of barre than they would expect."

Enlightening One Man At A Time. Dedicated student and busy homeschooling mama, M, attends virtual class twice a week, shares this: "My husband regularly says, 'I could never do that!' when he sees what I'm doing in barre class. Barre is a great mix of flexibility, strength training, cardio, and balance work. I'm turning 40 this year and I feel stronger and more flexible than I've been in years. Most of my chronic hip pain is gone and I attribute that to regular barre classes. Now, I recognize that different kinds of exercises help accomplish different goals. Barre isn't going to prepare me for a trail-running marathon, but it might be the thing that keeps me from falling over on the trail! I look forward to our classes every week. They make a huge positive impact on my physical health and mood. It's such a FUN way to exercise!"

No Joke. Barre is one of the fitness industry's hidden gems. If you don't know about it, you might not be compelled to try it out. People, male, female, or non binary, continue to equate it to a dance class and it may not appeal to as broad an audience as CrossFit or Les Mill BodyPump. But once you've tried a well-rounded, well-structured barre fitness class, regardless of whether you get instantly hooked or decide that it doesn't float your boat, you will agree on one thing: barre fitness ain't no joke.

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