The closest I’ve come to a ballet barre since I was eight years old has been escorting my three-year-old daughter to dance classes. But the recent explosion of barre workout classes piqued my interest. Could the fundamentals of dance really help tone muscles, build core strength and improve posture—as devotees of the cutting-edge classes claim?
At Exhale Spa in Bridgehampton the pilates fusion movement is not just a passing fad. Owners Lis Halfpapp and Fred DeVito have seen fitness trends come and go for the twenty years they’ve taught their own brand of pilates, yoga and dance-inspired classes.
“I’ve been watching the bodies change over the years,” Lis explained after a recent Saturday morning class at the plush, second-story studio on Main Street. “When yoga got popular, everyone was long and lean. Now that indoor cycling is big, I see students who aren’t as flexible and are bulkier.” The class was attended by twenty lean female Hamptonites who ranged in age from young twenties to late middle age, but Lis assured me that they’ve made an effort to become more gender neutral. “Lots of men come in who really need the flexibility, the core strength and the balance between upper and lower body. We’ve added more strength work.”
Married couple Lis and Fred have largely stuck with their tried-and-true method for building what they call “long, lean, dancer muscles” in their well-heeled clientele. Core Fusion Barre is the signature class at the exercise and spa combo space, incorporating Lis’ background as a dancer and Fred’s as a gymnast. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I showed up at 10:30am for my third-ever pilates class, but I had a growing suspicion that beneath the genteel exterior there might be pain.
I was right. Using mainly a barre, a mat, a small exercise ball, stretching straps and two or three-pound weights, I got a full-body workout that started to feel like a very pleasant torture session. We did a series of movements at the barre with soothing instructions on form from Lis after a brief upper body workout with weights. Fred and another assistant moved around the room making subtle adjustments that made the poses even harder. “I can tell who does Core Fusion when I see you walking around town,” joked Lis. “It’s all about being properly aligned and having an internal body awareness.”
The studio lacks mirrors in order to help encourage that awareness, forcing students to learn how the correct movement feels. Lis and Fred adopted this core principle from the Lotte Berk method—the pioneering ballet-inspired workout that was all the rage in 1980s New York and Beverly Hills—which they taught for years before striking out on their own.
Many of the second-generation barre workout classes are now getting makeovers of their own, with new twists on the trend popping up across Long Island. At The Pilates Absession in Rockville Centre, owner Karen Riccio created a pilates-barre hybrid with her Ballet Barre Booty Camp class, a faster-paced, boot camp-style workout. “All our classes are kick-butt,” explained Karen. “Combining the principles of pilates with the barre and with a full-body workout has a fresh appeal.”
The same pilates basics apply: Long sets of seemingly easy bodyweight exercises that become extremely challenging after many repetitions. We focused on our core muscles and posture throughout the hour-long workout, which maintained a quick, fun pace. The small class size allowed for individual attention, and the instructor’s obvious concern for how the students were feeling seemed part of the personal, cozy vibe of the airy, spotless, second-floor studio. “We call our space semi-private,” Karen said. “A lot of our customers want that intimate feel and don’t want to join a regular gym.”
The studio also offers cardiolates classes, which incorporate a more aerobic element. The class I took started with upper body work using those light weights again, and we did squats and lunges before moving to the barre, which was the hardest part of the class. As someone who enjoys a tough session with free weights, the three-pound dumbbells didn’t quite feel like enough of a strength workout, but the leg and core components were more than enough to make me sore the next day.
Good news for those who are interested in barre workouts but aren’t particularly flexible: I’m not that limber and can’t get close to a full split, but I was able to get into all the positions.