Source: Web exclusive, June 2010
When you think about a ballet dancer, what comes to mind? Talent? Grace? How about a long, lean physique? It’s no accident that ballet dancers have amazing bodies. But thanks to the growing popularity of ballet-inspired workouts, you can sculpt the tight abs and lean muscles of a dancer even if you’ve never danced a single step.
Ballet workout: The Extension Method
‘I have a lot of people who walk into my studio and have never taken a dance class in their life,’ says Jennifer Nichols, professional dancer and founder of The Extension Method in Toronto. ‘This is about making ballet for everyone.’
The Extension Method began with Nichols’ personal workouts at the gym. ‘I would always throw elements of ballet into my workout,’ she says. "People started to notice and would ask about it." The gym sessions evolved into a group class, which is now taught all over the city.
But you won’t find a single tutu or any Swan Lake in Nichols’ classes. Think sweats, Jay-Z and a wide range of ages and body types. ‘I think people have the wrong image when they think about ballet; it can seem intimidating,’ she says. ‘But I really wanted to rip that apart. It’s not so much about the look; it’s about the exercise and breaking down the ballet discipline in a way that strengthens and tones the body.’
Ballet workout: The Bar Method
Proving that you don’t need to be a pro dancer to benefit from a ballet workout, Carolyn Williams’a retail buyer turned fitness instructor’will be opening the first Canadian Bar Method studio this fall in Vancouver.
The Bar Method is the creation of American Burr Leonard, who developed the idea after years of teaching The Lotte Berk Method’named for its founder, German dancer Lotte Berk, who combined ballet bar moves with elements of physical therapy after injuring her back. The Bar Method has already garnered a cult-like following in the United States, with celebrities like Drew Barrymore and Kelly Osbourne singing its praises.
Originally from California, Williams became hooked on The Bar Method after attending class with her mother, a breast cancer survivor who had gained weight while undergoing cancer treatment. An avid runner, Williams admits that her first Bar Method experience was a humbling one. ‘As a runner, I was completely un-flexible,’ she says. ‘And it was amazing to see all the muscles in my body that I didn’t work. The changes I’ve seen in my body are incredible.‘
The benefits of a ballet workout
Without a doubt, this is a workout for your core. From standing exercises to crunch-free mat work, your core is constantly engaged. ‘You’re really developing that postural strength that will carry through with you later in life,’ says Nichols. But ballet isn’t just an ab workout‘it’s about total-body conditioning, too. ‘The weight work [in the Extension Method] moves through a long range of motion, so you develop strength while maintaining flexibility,’ explains Nichols. ‘And by working with lighter weights, you end up cutting and sculpting smaller muscles.’ With all that sculpting, of course, comes weight loss.
In addition to the physical benefits, a ballet workout can also give you a mental boost. ‘There are some great psychological benefits,’ says Williams. ‘You feel much more confident with your body. And it’s almost addicting how good you feel when you leave class’you feel like you did something good for your body.’
A workout for everyone
"When my mother tried The Bar Method for the first time, she was 61," says Williams. “From someone who’s just had a baby, to someone who is going through menopause, it’s really a workout for everybody." The emphasis on small, controlled movements helps to protect the joints, making this an ideal workout for individuals who may have previous knee or shoulder injuries. "A dancer’s body is adaptable and supportive," says Nichols. "Ballet not only improves agility and flexibility, but it’s great for balance and even rehabilitation.”
Ballet isn’t just for the ladies, though. ‘I would encourage men to come and take a class,’ says Nichols, who also works with athletes and sports teams. ‘If you look past the exterior of ballet, what’s underneath is athleticism.’ Nichols points out that athletes from professional football players to boxers like Evander Holyfield have benefited from dance training. ‘It’s all about breaking down stereotypes,’ she says.
Ballet at home
There is a lot of distance to cover between Vancouver and Toronto, and while both Nichols and Williams hope that their favourite ballet fitness methods will expand across the country, in the meantime, there are ballet-inspired moves you can try in the comfort of your own home.
‘If you have a DVD, aim to do it three to four days a week,’ says Williams. (Bar Method DVDs are currently available, and Nichols will be releasing a DVD in the fall.) ‘If possible, do your workout in front of a mirror so you can focus on your form. Engage your core, pull in your abs and tighten your glutes.’ No DVD? No problem. ‘You can also focus on working the same muscles in your everyday life,’ says Williams. ‘Think of your posture and engage your abs and glutes while you’re doing dishes, brushing your teeth or preparing food. But most of all, be aware of your body. See your body and what its doing. The more aware you are, the stronger you’ll become.’