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Raising the Barre -- How a New Exercise Changed My Body and Career

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Sarasota Magazine 2016

By Kim Hackett

My unlikely journey from recreational runner to barre studio owner began on the road I could no longer travel – at least not at a fast clip.

Running had always been my exercise of choice. I craved the solitude, the breeze on my face and the mind-clearing adrenaline rush that came after pushing through fatigue to reach a finish line.

And then a few years ago, after competing in my first full marathon, chronic heel pain on my left side put an end to running. Making matters worse, “mother’s hip” – my term for the right-side shooting pain caused by years of perching children and groceries on a jutted hip – made it difficult to do impact-bearing exercises. Both conditions coalesced after I left my 60-hour-a-week job as a newspaper reporter and had all the time in the world to exercise. My body, relieved of years of deadline stress and work-life imbalance, seemed to say, “Ok, it’s safe to fall apart now.”

Physical therapy didn’t help much. Cortisone shots didn’t last, and pain killers and anti-inflammatory drugs are not a good or long-term option.

Then a new friend asked me to join her for a barre class. I had never heard of “barre” – a fitness routine that combines dance exercises, such as plies and leg lifts, with strength training, cardio and Pilates. “Barre” refers to the ballet barre used for balance and resistance. (No, you don’t have to hike your leg up on it.) She assured me there were no jarring movements or jumping, so I gave it a try.

“You’ll be swearing at me during your first class,” my friend said. “They you’ll love it.” Right on both points.

That first class kicked my butt. When the instructor had us face the barre and squat with straight backs and heels lifted, as if we were sitting in a chair, my legs started quaking. I thought I would collapse. I couldn’t stay in a plank – a staple in barre classes – for longer than 10 seconds. A full-body pushup? That wasn’t going to happen. But I felt a shift in my hips almost immediately. They felt looser.

After a few more classes, the pain subsided in my heel. Lifting and lowering the heels stretches and strengthens the foot, much like physical therapy.

If I missed more than a few days of barre, the pain in my hip started creeping back. Barre, I realized, was therapy uniquely tailored to my conditions.

I found that I wasn’t alone. Next to the shapely 20-something-year-olds in class, there were 70-year-old women who said the classes had alleviated arthritis and hip problems.

Barre is built on small, pulsing isometric moves. The range of motion is so small and targeted that you quickly work your muscles to exhaustion, causing them to shake. Typically, you’ll do about 10 reps of an exercise and then the instructor will change the moves slightly to hit the muscle at different angles. A good barre instructor leaves no thigh, seat, back or abdominal muscle untouched.

Barre borrows from Pilates and yoga to elongate muscles and improve flexibility. Most people who take three to four classes a week will see improved posture and better muscle tone and flexibility within a few weeks.

Soon I had become a barre evangelical, urging everyone to give it a try. People would comment on my newly toned physique and, like a true barre devotee, I’d reply, “it’s barre.”

I had also started paying closer attention to what I ate. The 15 extra pounds I’d been carrying for years seemed to melt away. It was like taking a parka off after a long winter; deep, tight abdominal muscles suddenly were visible.

So I had to go to barre class. And that meant a 52-mile round-trip drive north because there were no barre classes in Venice. The distance became daunting during season, especially since I started writing more for Sarasota and Venice magazines.

There was no way I was going to give up barre and lose all it had done for me. I tried to persuade the Sarasota studio owner to open in South County, but to no avail. And when I couldn’t convince my Pilates instructor, Randi Green, to learn barre, I decided to become an instructor.

By the time I certified in 2015 to teach barre, my Pilates instructor had moved into a small studio and asked me to join her. 

It was lonely at first. I had five weekly classes and often no one showed up. Most people had never heard of barre.

Gradually, classes filled and we needed to move to a new studio to accommodate the demand for classes.

Word of mouth and client’s results have brought about 350 people to my barre since then. And nothing makes me happier than to hear some of them say, as I once did, “I’m addicted. I have to go to class.”

Our clients range from a 16-year-old male cheerleader to a 75-year-old real estate broker who can outwork clients a third of her age. I teach two to three daily classes. My body feels fluid and graceful – no heel pain, and no hip pain, either, unless I drive for long distances.

Just about anyone can take up barre; instructors can modify moves to accommodate disabilities or joint pain and offer challenging moves so more experienced clients can push themselves. It’s a hard workout, but it’s fun, and the benefits are immense. We like to say that it’s always happy hour at the barre.

Kim is the owner of BodybyBarre, and a contributing editor of Venice Magazine. 

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