This is not what I had in mind for kicking my feet up on a Friday night. Facing a ballet barre in Burlington’s Core Studio, I’m frantically trying to hoist my right leg to 90 degrees so that my ankle rests gracefully flexed on the horizontal wooden pole. In a few minutes, I fear, instructor Liz Sheridan may have to call in the crew that raised the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree to get my leg into position.
But I do manage it, and the long-limbed, lithe Sheridan instructs my classmate and me to stretch forward over our raised legs before moving on to the next set of hamstring-torturing exercises. “Lift, lift, lift!” Sheridan encourages as Ke$ha’s “Die Young” plays on the stereo. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, hold it!”
Aargh! This new, innocuous-sounding BarSculpt class, a hybrid of Pilates, ballet stretches and sports conditioning, is kicking my ass — literally. Even a fitness addict and former Pilates devotee like me feels like a bull in a china shop. But, after months of avoiding the issue of my chronic inflexibility (again), it also feels pretty freaking great.
Called “Pilates evolved,” BarSculpt was the brainchild of a Maine fitness instructor and personal trainer named Leslie Hamm who wanted to combine high-energy cardio, strengthening and stretching. It taps into the growing popularity of ballet-based workouts; since Lotte Berk began teaching her dance-based exercise method in the 1970s, millions of gym-goers have turned to ballet-barre routines for stronger and more supple bodies.
For Sheridan, who grew up in Belgium and New Jersey and played Division I lacrosse for Virginia Tech and Colgate University, barre-based routines were a natural application of the flexibility she acquired after taking up Bikram yoga. Though she had no ballet experience whatsoever, the current Charlotte resident began practicing Bar Method while visiting family in New Jersey and then stumbled on the similar BarSculpt. Within a few months, Sheridan was trained and certified by Hamm in the latter’s Portland studio.
“I like that BarSculpt works your entire body but focuses on toning the smaller muscle groups, so it keeps you from bulking up,” Sheridan says of her attraction to the new, 55-minute, nonimpact practice, which is done in socks (preferably ones with grip on the soles). “It stretches you at the same time, so you do really leave a class both sculpted and more lean.”
Accustomed to lifting much heavier weights, I’m skeptical about the 1-, 2- and 3-pound dumbbells that Sheridan has lined up at Core Studio during my class. But, after a brief warm-up of marching in place to Usher’s “Without You,” classmate Hermine Flanigan and I start doing so many triceps extensions, I know the back of my arms will hurt for days.
Flanigan, it turns out, also teaches BarSculpt at Burlington’s All Wellness, which began offering the class last fall in addition to other barre-based classes. “Barre is catching on in Burlington because it’s different, because it’s a very effective workout done in a feminine way,” says All Wellness owner Laura Savard. “Haven’t we all dreamed of being a ballet dancer? Being on a barre for a fitness class is the closest most of us are going to get!”
In Sheridan’s class at Core Studio, I’m actually feeling light years away from being a ballet dancer as I try a position called “flat back,” in which I’m supposed to sit with my legs straight out, back against a wall. Sounds simple, but Sheridan says it’s the most challenging part of BarSculpt for her, and it’s a pain in the abs to attempt to lift my legs in different directions. It’s a pain in quads and glutes, meanwhile, to perform another set of moves during which we are instructed to hold a squishy ball between our thighs while “pulsing” downward. Again, in a day or so, I’ll feel aches in places I didn’t know existed in my body.
“BarSculpt focuses on muscles not used all the time, and working these to the point of exhaustion,” Sheridan explains later. “Then you get a chance to stretch those muscles right after each set. Warm, worked muscles are like clay and, when stretched, begin to take the form that you want them to be in: long, lean and toned.”
It’s impossible to tell after one session if my muscles are longer or leaner. Toned? The class’ attention to specific areas, such as the “seat,” raises one warning flag about the concepts behind it: Isn’t spot reduction a myth? Cedric Bryant of the American Council on Exercise writes that, while sufficient caloric expenditure can cause the loss of fat, “the last areas to become lean tend to be those areas where an individual tends to gain fat.” And “the hips, buttocks and thighs tend to be the trouble spots for most women.”
I experience another “uh-oh” moment when, at one point, my iliotibial band begans to twang. But an exercise band that Sheridan provides to alleviate the awkward pressure immediately allows me to deepen the stretch without hurting myself. And, frankly, the class, with its high-intensity intervals and satisfying stretches set to top-40 music, is too much fun to leave me time to ruminate on which spots I might be reducing. Or not.
“Awesome work, you guys,” says Sheridan, a far more encouraging and enthusiastic teacher than, I would guess, the majority of ballet instructors. “That was amazing, holy crap!”
For health-minded Vermonters who’ve come down with cabin fever, BarSculpt’s is one bar that’s perfectly OK to sidle up to in the evenings. “It’s January; people have renewed energy and are looking for something to inspire them,” says Savard, who cites the “lovely women to be around” as one of the biggest benefits of BarSculpt. “Because, let’s face it, this is pretty much a class for the ladies!”
For more information on BarSculpt at Core Studio, contact Liz Sheridan at 908-922-2325 or visit burlingtonbarrevt.com. For more information on barre-based classes at All Wellness, call 863-9900 or visit allwellnessvt.com.
The print version of this article was headlined "Barre Fly".