Who doesn't want tighter abs, toned arms and a little more lift in their bootie? Barre fitness, a fairly recent addition to the exercise scene, promises to deliver all that and more — without stressing either joints or dance ability. • All you need is a desire to change your body and a willingness to work hard to reach your goals. • Barre fitness is not a dance class. It just borrows the ballet barre, anchored to the wall, so you have something to hold on to while you pull and stretch your muscles in ways you may not have thought possible. The music is modern and energizing. You can wear your usual workout clothes, but close-fitting shorts or yoga pants are recommended. Leave your shoes and socks in your gym bag. (Note to self: get a pedicure.) Oh, and bring a towel — you will be dripping before long.
The moves combine yoga, Pilates, some dance principles and stretching to tone and reshape muscles. Most movements are small — lift your outstretched arm just an inch or two while holding a 1-pound weight or lift your leg from the hip and make a circle the size of a quarter with your pointed toe. You feel the burn as you circle or pulse for what may seem like an eternity but is just a minute or so. Some classes also combine slow, focused exercises with dynamic moves and quick transitions to satisfy those craving cardio.
If you stick with it, take at least two classes a week and watch what you eat, you may see a difference after just three weeks.
Julie Martin Fletcher, 39, took her first barre class almost two months ago. She wanted to get toned, break up with her love handles and do something about her arms.
As a hair stylist, Martin Fletcher has her arms "up in the air all the time" holding a blow dryer and tugging on brushes full of hair. Yet she's still plagued by flabby upper arms — and in her line of work, she can't just ignore them.
"In the mirror, when the bottom of your arm is swinging back and forth, it's not very pretty," she says.
Power walking, running and high-impact aerobics were not an option, as Martin Fletcher has bad knees. At a co-worker's suggestion, she signed up for 21 days of classes at Barre Fitness Tampa and went to three one-hour classes a week, fitting them in around her work schedule and family duties.
"After the second week of classes, my husband said my butt was perkier. That was all the motivation I needed to keep going," she said.
Then friends and clients started asking her, "What are you doing? You're getting smaller." She credits the consistent workouts, along with sensible eating and fewer cocktails, for the results.
Since starting, she says, "I watch what I eat and don't drink as much Captain and Coke." Even though the scale budged by only a few pounds in those initial 21 days, the compliments and looser clothes were proof that her body was changing in a positive way.
Barre fitness isn't new — it's been in this country since the '70s. But it started taking off nationally in the last decade and within the last few years in the Tampa Bay area. We found seven studios that offer classes, including the Tampa YMCA in the Carrollwood area. (see box) The mega gym chain LA Fitness isn't offering barre classes at this time, but at least two more studios are opening in Pinellas in the coming weeks.
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"It's absolutely the most amazing workout," says Maria Gerelus, who was working as a personal trainer when she discovered barre fitness a few years ago. She gave it a try and liked it so much that she became a certified instructor in 2011 and opened two studios in St. Petersburg soon after. She says her clientele is mostly women "of all shapes and sizes" from their 20s to their 70s. She also has a few men who take classes. "Some come with their wives. Others are used to lifting weights and just want to gain some flexibility," she said.
Gerelus, 52, likes barre exercise because it's safe for people at all levels of fitness, including those with bad backs, bad knees, arthritis and poor posture. "We keep our classes small so instructors can check your form and correct mistakes so you don't get injured," said Gerelus, who will soon open a third Above the Barre Fitness in Belleair.
Denise Tini became a certified instructor before opening her own South Tampa studio, Barre Fitness Tampa, in November. In addition to regular barre classes, she offers what she calls Barre Burn and Barre Boot Camp, faster-moving classes that get the heart rate up.
"Whichever class you choose, you work at your own level and take breaks when you need to,'' she said. "Classes are designed for people at mixed levels of fitness and ability."
On a recent Monday morning I sampled a basic barre class at Tini's studio. I work out regularly and studied dance, ballet mostly, for years. But five minutes in, my arms were screaming with puny 1-pound weights in my hands. After eight minutes, I was reaching for my towel, thinking I should have brought a bigger one.
As we moved from arms to shoulders to legs, each exercise was a challenge. I wasn't the only one in the room who had to rest while drawing "air" circles with pointed toes. After a tiny break, it was on to the glutes and floor work. My sweat made small puddles on the mat. My water bottle was drained.
Back at the barre, standing with heels pressed together and lifted off the ground, my fatigued thigh muscles shook so much I thought my retinas might detach. Our instructor, Allie Pryd, admitted it was happening to her too, even after years of experience.
At the end of the hour, I realized my treadmill workouts and Zumba classes weren't the total-body routines I had thought.
"It'll get better," class regular Morgan Williamson, told me as she was leaving, noticing and understanding my fatigue. "It's still hard, but the next class will be easier than your first."
I intend to go back. With a bigger towel and more water. And a fresh pedicure.
Contact Irene Maher at firstname.lastname@example.org.