I recently read an article about a man who, after being released from jail after a 44-year incarceration, felt as though he’d traveled through time. He was flustered by the lack of payphones and confused why perfectly normal people were talking to themselves (ear buds and bluetooth). He was amazed at the flashing video ads attached to the sides of buildings and the many colorful choices now available in soft drinks.
I had the exact same reaction after joining a friend for a trendy new exercise class. You see, I don’t exercise with any regularity or dedication. I don’t pay attention to “the latest” this and that in fitness. In college, I was always at the gym taking cardio classes and step aerobics classes, which was all the rage in the ‘90s. I continued to exercise well into the Millennia but after having three kids in five years, exercise classes and fitness programs became a luxury of time and money and thus were dropped.
But kids grow and now spend hours at school, and suddenly I found myself with a little more time on my hands. And it was becoming awkward using the “I just had a baby” excuse for the extra weight I was carrying around, especially when my youngest (a 5-year year old) would interrupt my conversations with other moms to ask, in complete and articulate sentences, if he could use the remote control or cook something. My cover was blown.
Re-entering the fitness world after such a long absence is a little like time travel. I remember exercise involving movement. I remember sweating and being out of breath. Now, everything’s changed and, much like that ex-con, I’m trying to make sense of it all.
Today, it’s all about precision and micro movements. It’s much slower and more deliberate. And perhaps no other exercise program demonstrates this change better than barre. Named for the handrail used by dancers to provide balance and support during workouts, barre workouts are similar and yet very different from the workouts used in ballet classes.
I’d heard about barre at school pickup. Tiny, spandex-clad moms with twig-like legs and hips so narrow one wonders how a child ever emerged from them heaped endless praise on barre, explaining it’s a cross between yoga and Pilates and physical torture.
“You’re going to love it!” declared one friend, adding “I barre every morning.” Her elevation of the exercise to a verb made it feel even more cult-like. I was unconvinced. Yet, off I went to my first barre class in my spandex and wicking shirt, water bottle and towel, completely convinced I would be that pathetic, fat, uncoordinated mom in the back who has to sit out half the class while the other hard bodies in the room looked at me with a combination of smugness and pity.
Well, I didn’t die but I did learn an interesting bit of trivia. Did you know that the word “barre” is Latin for “hold that awkward pose”? Okay, not really, but barre is sort of, kind of, exactly that.
My instructor that morning had one of those intimidatingly perfect bodies but thankfully she wasn’t overly cheerful and talked like an adult (instead of a valley girl with chronic rising intonation—a common ailment suffered by the workout class). She spent a few minutes with me before class, not to reassure me, but to show me the utterly impossible-to-see “moves” I would need to make to ensure an effective hour of working out.
She appeared to think I possessed x-ray vision and could see her muscles stretching and contracting under her skin but I didn’t see anything but her rock hard, well-defined, jealousy-inducing, Britney Spears-like abs twitching. I nodded approvingly and enthusiastically trying to convey confidence when really I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about.
Of course, at this moment, I was comforting myself with the thought that I would just do what I always did in these classes—look at my friend or some other more coordinated person and imitate them. Except that that doesn’t work with barre. At all. Because no one moves. At all.
Let me paint the picture: after a brief warm-up that does include some movement, the real barre begins. The class lines up on a ballet bar and a good amount of instruction on how one must move is given yet no one moves in any noticeable way. In fact, if someone peered into the class, they’d think we were all attending a lecture or doing some sort of standing meditation.
In explaining the class to my kids, I told them I went into a large room and played Freeze for grownups. I told them that a woman walks around the room and yells at us to stay up on our toes, stick our legs out, and maintain the agony on our faces.
But after only a few minutes doing nothing but sticking out my leg and trying to figure out what I was supposed to do with it, I noticed something strange. The people standing around me (doing nothing) started to quiver. One young, bearded hipster was shaking so hard I thought I’d have to render aid. I decided to wait until he hit the ground but he never fell over which—sadly for me at the time—meant the class continued.
While thinking to myself that I’d just wasted 20 bucks on crazy, the instructor made her way over to me. And just like a sweaty evangelical pastor with healing powers, she cured me. She barely made any physical contact but gently told me to move this part and that part and quietly explained that I needed to tighten this and tuck in that. Suddenly I too began to quiver and while my movements weren’t noticeable, I was if fact moving slightly and feeling a tremendous burn.
So, what was happening to me? Carrie Razabek, founder of Barre Technique, explained the process to Women’s Health Magazine by saying: “Pure Barre is an athletic approach to dance and Pilates. . . . It uses calculated isometric movements to work each muscle, then stretches the muscle back out to create long, lean lines—without the bulk.” In other words, you’re tightening your muscles for a longer period of time—keeping them tense, which gives you the results you want—stronger muscles—yet at a lower impact.
At one point we were told to lie down on the floor and loop a rubber exercise band around the bar above us. While doing more micro movements on my back, I kept staring at the exercise band dangling above my head and realized it looked just like a noose. I realized that this all seemed familiar. I had the same suicidal thoughts while exercising throughout the 90s. The high-impact, cardio-heavy workouts were just as strenuous and painful. That was instantly comforting and made me realize not much has changed.
I still hate exercise but I appreciate a good workout and that’s precisely what I was getting with barre—a good workout.
I joined the cult and bought a package of 20 classes.