Like most little girls, I dreamt of becoming a ballerina. I was four years old when I got my first jewellery box and I was so taken with the tiny, twirling dancer swathed in a pink tutu and satin shoes that I ripped her from the box at once so I could take her with me everywhere. Fast forward 22 years and that childhood infatuation developed into more of a romantic fantasy when I watched my first live performance of The Nutcracker. Looking down from the balcony, I imagined myself amongst the army of dancers on stage – poised and athletic with an ethereal elegance. But little did I know that it wasn’t magic stardust that propelled the sugar plum fairies into the arms of the prince, it was a strong core, powerful quads and robust back muscles. Since the Oscar-winning film Black Swan was released in 2010, our fascination with ballet has reached fever pitch. Although many of us don’t have the time, discipline or (ahem) grace to pursue a new career as a full-time ballerina, we wouldn’t say no to achieving the body of one. And thanks to Natalie Portman’s spectacular transformation, barre classes have been popping up all over the UK ever since to make that possible – without the scary fasting and blistered toes. Win-win!
Feet don’t fail me now If you thought that ballet wasn’t as demanding on the body as running or weight training, you’ll soon change your mind after a Barrecore class. As one of the first to offer ballet-focused fitness classes, Barrecore founder Niki Rein (barrecore.co.uk) wanted to create a space that would hone a woman’s physique and create a lean silhouette. “Think high repetition exercises in a deep isometric contraction until those muscles fatigue and start to quiver and shake – that’s a barre class,” says Lisa Todd, a Barrecore instructor. “We then lengthen out the muscles with a deep stretch. It’s high intensity, but low impact meaning you get a great resistance and cardiovascular workout that will blast fat and increase your metabolism throughout the day.” Torching calories long after your workout is a benefit of many high intensity interval workouts, but Vicki Anstey, founder of ballet fitness fusion studio Barreworks (barreworks.co.uk), stresses that ballet offers something very different. “Many sports and high impact workouts focus on dynamic, powerful movements, neglecting the all-important postural muscles that keep our bodies held together, functioning in a well-balanced state,” she says. “By setting the foundations of strong bio-mechanics, ballet lifts bottoms, creates chiselled abs, trims thighs and defines arms, giving you perfect posture and a sculpted physique.” But thanks to the combination of small, controlled movements there’s no danger of bulking up – a ballet dancer’s biggest fear. “The beauty of working in turn-out (pointing your toes outwards) is that it will lengthen and define your muscles rather than bulking them,” says ballet instructor Aaron Dwyer (thethirdspace.com). “Ballet is one of the few sports that requires physical endurance, stability, physical strength, stamina and flexibility, making it a full body workout.”
All barre none A sculpted figure, strong limbs and the posture of a swan without a dumbbell in sight? Surely we have to have some past experience under our belts. “Absolutely not,” Lisa says. “Barre classes are for all age groups and fitness levels – from the injured to the pregnant. It can even help strengthen muscles that have become weak from a trauma or some time off.” Although trained gym instructors are adequate enough to take barre classes, Vicki admits that a qualified dancer has added benefits. “While you’re certainly not expected to be a prima ballerina, our teachers include Royal Ballet School and English National Ballet trained dancers, so you know you’re learning from the very best,” she says. “They know how to work the body in a particular way and know how you’re feeling from first-hand experience. While you may not be flexible during your first class, stick with it and you’ll soon be amazed by what your body can do!” Still wondering if it’s for you? “I have an 82 year old lady who attends my class so you can never say you’re too old to dance!” Aaron tells us.
Ballet beautiful As much as we’d like to put in the full-time hours of a professional ballerina, there’s no need to give up your day job just yet. “You don’t need to train as hard as a pro to see the results – you’ll be able to see a big difference after just a few sessions,” Lisa says. “After four classes a week you will see a flatter stomach, defined arms and a perkier derrière! The key to getting through a class is to give everything a try and know that each time it will challenge you in a different way.” However Vicki is confident that you’ll see a difference a lot sooner. “After just one class, you’ll see your posture change – you can instantly add inches from your waist to your height, just by adopting the correct posture,” she says. “Once you have got to grips with some of the terminology you’ll be able to start putting combinations together quickly.” So now that we’re bonda fide ballerinas, what else do we need to know? “Let yourself go and don’t worry about anyone else in the room – each of our bodies are different, some things you will be able to do that others won’t and vice versa,” Aaron says. But before you invest in a tutu (we know you’re dying to!), Vicki suggest something a little more modest to begin with.”Workout clothing and bare feet is fine for first-timers. But once you’re hooked, it helps to have a pair of soft-soled ballet shoes so that feet are protected. Then the world is your oyster invest in super-soft leggings and layer up in true ballet-style with leg warmers, crossover cardigans and a back-enhancing leotard if you dare,” she says.
Ballet by numbers
1500 The year ballet began in Italy
4 The amount of barre classes it’s recommended to do per week
450 Calories burned in an average class
400 Ballet classes in the UK
52 Barre classes in the UK
1959 The year the first barre class taken by Lotte Berk, a German dancer living in London
60 Minutes is the average ballet class
2009 The year barrecore started
2010 The year Black Swan was released
3 The pain threshold of ballerinas is three times higher than that of non-ballerinas
40 hours a week is the amount professional ballet dancers train
12 The age at which most girls are considered old enough to go on pointe
35 The average age of retirement for a professional ballerina
67 The number of employed ballet dancers in the English National Ballet
5 Core muscles used during a barre class
2 Pelvic floor muscles used during a barre class