It’s the secret to Victoria Beckham’s flexibility and Alexa Chung’s lean limbs, but don’t be intimidated by ballet, says recent convert SARAH BREEN
On a rainy Saturday morning in May, I make my way through the clatter of food vendors setting up shop in Temple Bar to a small underground dance studio where I’m about to participate in my first ever ballet class. It’s all Victoria Beckham’s fault. Two months ago she posted a picture online displaying her impressive flexibility, captioned “ballet classes are paying off,” and now here I am, an adult woman who can’t even touch her toes, about to hit the barre.
Downstairs in The Art of Ballet and Dance Studio (www.abdstudio.ie), some 15 women of various shapes and sizes in their late 20s and early 30s are hanging up coats, shaking off umbrellas and slipping into pale pink ballet shoes. Most are dressed in black: stretchy cotton camisoles or leotards and leggings with the occasional pair of chunky legwarmers and a white wrap skirt or two. There are buns aplenty. By the time class starts, there’s even a man.
“I had always wanted to try ballet and when my dad got sick last year I decided to stop putting things on the long finger,” Aoife Drumm, a 28-year-old swimming teacher tells me, stretching out her calves. “I wasn’t prepared for how tough it would be. After my first class I couldn’t walk up the stairs for three days. But I love it and I now find myself much more aware of how I hold my body.”
Leading the class is Arianna Ghisu, a petite Italian with teeny tiny thighs of sculpted steel, who has been dancing since she was three. “Ballet eradicates stiffness and corrects bad posture,” Ghisu explains. “You release tension while engaging your whole body and strengthening your core, limbs and back. While lifting weights builds muscle, in ballet we want the opposite; we want to be strong but lean and light. And we have fun too.”
Why does she think the workout appeals to Beckham? “Victoria Beckham is a perfectionist,” Ghisu says. “She’s obsessed with the aesthetic. What’s more beautiful than a ballerina? And the results, being slim and toned, speak for themselves.”
Forty minutes later and my French vocabulary has expanded to accommodate words like pointe, demi pointe, demi plié, grand plié and releve. My thighs (feeling anything but “relevé”) are burning and I’m clinging to the barre while trying to keep my tailbone tucked in and thinking “tiny waist!” as instructed. But the music is carrying me forward and even though I’m having trouble keeping up with the steps, I’m enjoying myself, encouraged by the grace of my fellow classmates.
When actress Natalie Portman was training for her role in Black Swan, she turned to professional ballerina Mary Helen Bowers to whip her into shape. Bowers has since gone on to found Ballet Beautiful (www.balletbeautiful.com), a ballet-inspired fitness programme with two studios in Manhattan, and legions of celebrity fans, including Alexa Chung, Kate Hudson and models Gigi Hadid and Lily Aldridge who go to “transform, elongate and tone” their lithe bodies.
“We target ballet-specific muscles to achieve that ‘dancer’s body’ shape,” Bowers explains from New York while I tend to my aching hamstrings the following day. “We do a huge amount to strengthen the core and tone the arms, making everything very lean. Celebrities and VIPs find us through word of mouth. We’ve always had a lot of very high-profile clients who work in fashion, but also regular women all over the world who can subscribe to a personalised workout programme through our website.”
Closer to home, Orla Hannon and Jade O’Connor run Rebel Barre (www.rebelbarre.rocks), a similar workout that combines ballet, Pilates and high-impact interval training, at a studio on Merrion Square and another location in Temple Bar.
“Our clients come back because although they say it’s tough, it’s not boring like running on a treadmill,” says Hannon. “We see all ages and fitness levels in our classes and we teach pregnant clients as well. Simply standing at the barre and working on posture is great for anyone who spends a lot of time at a desk. Although I trained in ballet, I first took barre classes in Los Angeles where barre is hugely successful and I still go back and train there at least once a year. We have noticed a huge increase in the popularity of the classes here and it’s continuing to grow.”
Two days later, when my DOMS – that’s delayed onset muscle soreness – has finally subsided, I’m still thinking about my first ever ballet class. I learned that how you hold your body can completely change its shape, and how you feel about it. Everything my mother told me about good posture was true. So without further ado, I’ve decided to sign up my three-year-old daughter. She’ll thank me later.
This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this, don’t miss our July/August issue, out Thursday July 7.
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