Raising the Barre

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Ballet is the type of physical activity that seems unattainable to the uninitiated. Dancers train for years to perfect their form and technique, and at the highest levels are scrutinized to the point of exhaustion.

Despite its grueling nature, ballet can reap wonders for physical health. A study conducted by professors from the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, England concluded that professional ballet dancers are even fitter than international swimmers. With intrinsic stretching and elongated movements, it’s no wonder that ballet’s physical benefits have been translated into the fitness realm.

Barre is the term for the horizontal handrail used by ballet dancers during training, but it’s also the name of a burgeoning style of fitness that combines the movements of ballet with the stretching and balance of yoga and Pilates. With this combination, instructors can tailor their classes to whatever suits them best.

“It really depends on the instructor and where they’re coming from,” New Jersey-based barre instructor Shira Kraft tells BTRtoday. “So if you have an instructor with a ballet background, for example, chances are you’ll get a more ballet-based barre class.”

Part of barre’s appeal, Kraft explains, is its malleability. With instructors shaping the class to their liking, students usually aren’t caught doing the same thing day after day as they might be in other fitness classes.

“Barre isn’t like indoor cycling or spinning where it’s all the same thing every time,” she says. “When I teach a barre class, one day it may be more stretching, one day it may be more like Pilates with a bar. It all varies.”

Another element Kraft has integrated into her classes is cardio. Before students start with the barre, they’ll do a few minutes of cardio to really get them going.

“I do cardio beforehand, and people are dripping wet,” she says. “I get their heart rate jacked up and bring them down to the barre. I think there’s a therapeutic element to that.”

That bringdown highlights the somewhat therapeutic nature of barre. Another key reason for its growing acclaim is the low impact it has on limbs and joints. It’s a stark contrast to popular high-intensity workouts like CrossFit that can do a number on participants physically.

Due to its all-inclusive nature, barre stands up as a workout that just about anyone, regardless of fitness level or experience, can find comfort in. In fact, many of its exercises mimic exercises coached by physical therapists.

“There are so many people that come to my barre classes that tell me ‘my physical therapist said I should try this,’” Kraft says. “So there’s an element of therapy from doing these kinds of classes as well, because a lot of the movements are similar to physical therapy.”

Kraft believes the key to maintaining physical health from a fitness standpoint is to switch up workouts. Just about every physical activity and fitness class has its advantages, but sticking to just one caps the potential physical benefits. When it’s something with abnormally high impact, the effects can be injurious.

“As this generation in their 30s and 40s gets older, I think people are tired of jumping around,” she says. “People’s bodies are kind of injured from all the high impact stuff, and what barre allows is the high intensity with low impact. That’s the benefit of combining these things together.”

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