My love of dancing has been apparent ever since I was 3 and, as family legend has it, positioned myself in front of the band and danced the night away at my aunt's wedding. Eager to channel my enthusiasm, my mom signed me up for ballet a few years later. Even at 5, I sized up my fellow ballerinas and quickly realized that pirouettes weren't in my future; tap was more my style. Tap led to step aerobics, then jogging and spinning and yoga.
When barre classes became all the buzz, part of me wondered if I'd given up on ballet too quickly. And because I've done years of balance and strength-training work, my muscles are in much different shape now than when I was 5! So I decided to book myself a session at the Ballet Beautiful studio in NYC, fantasizing about turning into the ballerina I never was -- rocking a black leotard, pink tights, and leg warmers. (Aren't they back in?)
Ballerina Mary Helen Bowers (BB's founder, who squeezed me in between training models for a Victoria's Secret fashion show), appeared in all her flowy gracefulness -- even at 7 months' pregnant -- and took me through a few basic moves on the mat. We started with simple leg lifts, which I survived, but the next move involved holding my leg up and moving it in little circles. Can I just say "Holy hurt"?
After about eight reps, my leg started to shake. Was all that spinning for nothing? "Ballet is about the extension of your body through space," Mary Helen says. "Ballet Beautiful mimics this with exercises that strengthen and tone the muscles while elongating the lines. Most fitness is built around movements that contract and shorten the muscles." Well, at 5-foot-1, I certainly can't afford to shorten anything.
My moment of redemption came as we stood in first position, doing arm and leg lifts simultaneously, and Mary Helen said "beautiful form." All the pain was worth it!
My second stop two days later: Pure Barre. As I entered the carpeted studio with techno music blasting, I thought, OK, I've got this. Everyone had a spot with a mat, ball, light weights, and tubing. We started with small and controlled exercises on the mat, but this felt distinctly more like the body conditioning classes I'd taken at the gym.
Then we headed to the barre. And that's when it happened: As I did lifts with my right leg, my left leg shook so badly I thought it was going to give out. "Shaking is good!" the teacher said in a way-too-excited voice. "That means you've worked the muscle so much you've exhausted it." I woke up the next morning sore, but not the worst I've ever felt. And I have to say I think I was the slightest bit longer and leaner. Barre workout classes (and maybe 5-foot-1½?), here I come.