It’s 5 p.m. on a Wednesday, and the exercise studio is starting to fill up. Participants are filtering in, each of them claiming a place at the ballet barres that are bolted to floor-to-ceiling mirrors along every wall. There’s not a leotard or a pair of tights in sight; everyone’s wearing running leggings and t-shirts. Their hair is in ponytails, not stiff ballet buns. And the music that soon starts pumping through the speakers is not classical piano, but pulsating EDM and Rihanna remixes. This looks like a ballet studio, but there’ll be no ballet happening here today. Welcome to barre class.
Ballet is having a cultural moment right now. From Misty Copeland’s crossover into mainstream celebrity to the proliferation of barre classes and the use of ballerinas as models for athleisure and fashion lines, ballet is once again fashionable and aspirational.
As a fashion influence, ballet has come and gone for decades: legwarmers cycle in and out of style, and American Apparel spent years trying to convince hipsters everywhere that leotards are comfortable. Ballerinas from New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theater are currently serving as models for luxe clothing brands like Wolford, Thakoon and Negative Underwear. But ballet’s current mainstream moment goes beyond fashion, crossing over into fitness culture and serving as a revealing reminder of the kind of female athleticism ― the kind of female bodies ― that American culture deems acceptable and admirable.
This is not surprising. After all, the ballerina is the perfect emblem of our anxieties and aspirations around female athleticism: she’s fit and physically strong, but she also bears a striking resemblance to a catwalk model. The ballerina, as most of us envision her, is everything women are encouraged to aspire to be: thin, ultra-feminine, wealthy and white.
Let’s start with barre classes, the blend of pilates, yoga and basic dance moves, some of them done while holding on to the same kind of barre that ballerinas use while warming up and strengthening their bodies at the start of every ballet class.
Barre has spiked in popularity in the last several years, with Pure Barre and Barre3 franchise studios popping up all over the country. Barre was “the breakout trend for 2016,” said Ashley Hennings, the Head of PR at Class Pass, in an email to The Huffington Post. Hennings says that last year, barre accounted for 17 percent of all classes booked through the subscription program, and saw the highest yearly increase in bookings of any fitness category.
Barre bears little resemblance to what ballerinas do in a ballet studio: It’s a lot of squats, there are exercises that require free weights and inflatable balls, and the music is for getting you pumped, not for dancing.
Promotional copy for Pure Barre promises “a full-body workout concentrating on the areas women struggle with the most: hips, thighs, seat, abdominals and arms,” and reassures that “each strength section of the workout is followed by a stretching section in order to create long, lean muscles without bulk.” Barre3’s copy says the workout “mixes athleticism, grace, and the latest innovations designed to balance the body,” and promises that it will “tone and lengthen all major muscle groups,” resulting in “proportion in the body that is shapely and attractive.” It purports to improve your posture, too, presumably to help you to stand tall and regal, like an elegant ballerina. The words “long” and “length” appear a lot on the Barre3 website. “Lean, not bulky, muscles” are the goal here. “The technique works to defy gravity by tapering everything in and lifting it up!” the Pure Barre website assures, perkily.
Long, lean, lengthy, lean muscles that definitely aren’t bulky don’t come cheap.
In New York City, a class at Barre3 will run you $33 for an hour of exercise. In Dallas, a single Pure Barre class costs $22, with discounts if you buy a package of classes. Classes are tailored to their markets, so a single class in Fayetteville, Arizona, is $15. And a monthly subscription for online Barre3 workouts, complete with recipes and a chat function to consult instructors, is $29. Pure Barre recommends that beginners start by taking four classes a week “for optimal results.”
Then, there’s the gear: studios sell workout wear, weights and balls you can use at home, plus special socks purported to improve your grip and balance during a class that most people do wearing regular socks, or nothing at all, on their feet. The workout wear is pricey, too: There are $56 cotton tank tops and $98 leggings. The “grip sox” are $16.
The gear isn’t mandatory or necessary, of course, but it is part of what the Pure Barre website explicitly calls “more than just a workout … a lifestyle.” Barre life isn’t just about the squats. It’s about the gear, about carving out time for you, about doing exercises designed for women and taught by women. This is about “creating” a particular kind of female body ― one that is strong but not bulky ― and living a particular kind of feminine life. An expensive one.
Purity or proximity to classical ballet aside, barre classes do claim to offer participants a way to sculpt a ballerina-esque body. Despite its tenuous connections to actual ballet, barre uses the promise of a ballerina body to market to customers (Pure Barre was founded by a former dancer; while the founder of Barre3 describes herself as “renowned wellness expert” and “media personality”).
Barre studios are not the only ones in the fitness industry who are doing so. With the rise of athleisure, brands have begun hiring ballet dancers to help them market apparel for the gym, yoga, running and other workout activities. New York City Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns serves as a model for Cole Haan’s recently announced athleisure line. Fellow principal Lauren Lovette models for athleisure line MPG Sport. New York City Ballet corps de ballet member Olivia Boisson models for Puma, and the brand just released a Swan Lake-themed line of workout and athleisure gear, created in partnership with City Ballet and modeled by their dancers. American Ballet Theatre soloist Calvin Royal III models for GapFit, along with a racially diverse set of ballerinas. And American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland has a high-profile endorsement deal with Under Armor.
There are many forms of exercise that require, or seem to require, the kind of athleisure wear that has been embraced by retailers and celebrity merchandisers at a staggering rate in the last few years. And there are many forms of exercise that will give you, or promise to give you, the kind of long, lean muscles advertised by barre studios charging $30 per class. Plenty of workouts will leave you looking athletic, muscular, toned ― all those words that reveal the truth behind the “strong is the new skinny” movement, which is that, in addition to being strong, you should still, wherever possible, please be skinny. Yet it’s ballerinas who are increasingly modeling the athleisure wear, and it’s barre classes that are spiking in popularity.
The choice of the ballerina’s body as a way to market exercise gear ― and of ballet as a marketing tool for exercise classes (excuse me, “lifestyles”) ― is not coincidental.