Barre Fitness Classes – Legit or the Next Sham?

It seems everywhere I look lately, barre fitness classes are springing up all over town. They are pretty much an outcropping of yoga and Pilates studios, which makes sense as there is plenty of anatomical cross-over between moves done in yoga, Pilates and ballet. But I can’t help feeling a large bit of skepticism and maybe even resentment toward these classes.

If you want a “dancer’s body” as so many of these fitness classes promise, you need to do more than an hour a week of fitness moves very loosely based on ballet. If you want to look and move just like a dancer, you need to live just like a dancer. And that means hours of physical training every day and a meticulously planned diet based much more on fuel than flavor. Even professional dancers lose their dancer’s body if they slack on their routine. So my first issue is that, like many other fitness programs, there’s just no way the promise can be delivered.

Fitness Plie

This, my friends, is not a plie.

Next, there’s the issue of not actually teaching ballet. Look at this photo above. That’s what I call a Fitness Plie. Many magazines are guilty of putting “plies” in their workout spreads. They are not plies. They are modified squats. To the uninitiated, a plie and a squat may appear to be the same thing – knees bending, person moving up and down, etc. The gal in this photo looks like her knees are together. This would never happen in ballet. Ever.

plie1

Properly executed demi-plie (male dancer) and grand plie (female dancer). Notice the hips opening as wide as possible.

In ballet, the knees open out. In fact, getting legs that turn out for wide straddles and splits start with warming and opening the hips in plie. Fitness gal above is probably feeling the burn in her quads and calves, the same as any other kind of squat. You may feel it there in plies as well, but plies are actually a stretch. That’s right, I said stretch. You are stretching everything around the knees as well as the Achilles tendons. The strengthening of your quads and calves is just the bonus; it’s not the purpose of the exercise. Notice the ballet dancers in the photo. In plies, you go as low as you can keeping heels on the ground. In the deeper grand plie, you lift the heels as little as possible. It makes for a pretty intense stretch if you’ve never tried it.

Fitness instructors rubbed me the wrong way when they started making fitness versions of yoga a few years back. Yes, their classes are accessible to the average gym-goer, but they lose a lot of the heart of yoga. They are simply stretching and toning classes called “yoga.” Why not just own that fact and call it a stretching & toning class? Cashing in on a yoga fad – pretending to be something it’s really not. I fear that is the case now with ballet fitness. You can get certified to teach some of these ballet fitness classes without ever having taken an actual ballet class. That seems ridiculous to me, and disrespectful to practitioners of the art.

If you take a ballet fitness class or follow along with the numerous videos available, I have no doubt you’ll get a good workout complete with sweat and sore muscles the next day. But please do not be fooled into thinking you’ve learned anything that would be transferable to an actual ballet studio or that you will look like Polina Semionova by going to a ballet fitness class a couple even a couple times a week no matter how intense it is.

This is Polina Semionova - arguably the greatest ballerina of the 21st century. And she has great calves.

This is Polina Semionova – arguably the greatest ballerina of the 21st century. And she has great calves.

4 comments

  1. Anjee says:

    I have never taken one of these classes but I definitely agree. Anything pumped as “ballet” related better include and be taught by people trained in ballet. Hell, I’ve taken over 20 years of ballet and still wouldn’t feel completely comfortable teaching it. All of these cross-over classes make me nervous because, like you said, it dupes people into thinking they are getting something they are not. If you want a ballet workout, at least take a ballet class first or buy the NYC Ballet’s DVD.

    • hahakseth@gmail.com says:

      Exactly. That NYC Ballet Workout is still one of the best workouts, and has a lot of legit ballet to it. Just doing gym class and using a wall rail for balance is not “barre.” Oy.

  2. Katie Ramos says:

    Love this, Heidi! I’m a fan of these classes because they’re usually shorter that proper ballet classes and I’m still working on getting my body to a happier place—but as an experienced dancer, I place how to take care of myself in these classes. Other students might not.

    Funny side note: When I read the bit about the woman in the picture performing basically a modified squat, I hadn’t noticed that pic. So I was focused on the black and white one and was thinking, “Their technique looks outstanding. Heidi wouldn’t get this wrong!” And then I went back and found the proper picture. 🙂

    I do disagree with the idea that a plie is a stretch with strength as a nice plus. To perform one correctly, you need to engage multiple muscle groups WHILE stretching the limbs. I’ve always remembered the “string trick.” You imagine someone is holding a string attached to your head and another is holding a string from the sits bones. As you bend your knees, your torso and pelvis pull away from each other. That tension creates a stretch and requires enormous strength in the legs and mostly abs to execute.

    • hahakseth@gmail.com says:

      I know what you’re saying, and I probably overstated my case about the stretch. I don’t mean to suggest plie is only a stretch, or a stretch on par with, say, putting your leg on the barre and actively stretching. But there is a stretch element in plie, particularly in the Achilles tendons, that never seems to be taken into account or mentioned at all in fitness magazines that publish “ballet workout” moves. And there’s the sense of stretching the spine to elongate up even as you plie (which you indicated as well with the string imagery), as opposed to having your torso be just so much dead weight for your legs to lower and lift via squats. Maybe what I mean to say is, I want to students to think of plies as a stretch instead of a squat because I find that my students execute plies more correctly when they’re focused on stretching the spine up and pulling the knees away from each other. When they’re just focused on going down and back up, form falls apart almost instantly. Does that make sense?

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