Fitness

Barre Fight in Boston

Barre, the hottest boutique-fitness craze in Boston, is also the most hotly contested, pitting purists against those with a more freewheeling approach. Can guru Andrea Lucas keep the local workout community from tearing itself apart?

Illustration by Jonathan Carlson

The ugliest moment in the fight for the soul of barre in Boston was probably when Erin Dickman was banned from the fitness studio Exhale in mid-2014, along with everyone who worked for her. A former gymnast who had been bitten by the barre craze, Dickman had plans to open her own studio in the city and had shelled out $9,975 to get herself and four others trained and certified at Exhale, a New York City–based chain of boutique wellness wonderlands with studios in the Back Bay and Battery Wharf. Exhale contractually prohibited its certified trainers from opening competing business within a 10-mile radius, but Dickman had received written permission to take the training despite her idea for an independent studio in Brookline, downtown Boston, or Chestnut Hill. So what happened? Her plans changed, and she opened a studio, Simply Barre, in Southie—a little more than a mile from Exhale’s Back Bay spot. And just like that, anyone and everyone affiliated with Simply Barre was ballerina non grata.

In short order, Heidi Anderson, who was one of Dickman’s instructors, received the boot not only from Exhale, where she went on her days off, but also from her other favorite studio, Pure Barre. In mid-January 2015, Pure Barre informed Anderson by email that, because she taught at a competing studio, the remaining $139 of her “Pure Resolution” workout package was being refunded. The cheery missive wished her “best of luck!” after telling her that she was no longer welcome. Anderson was not pleased about being shut out of the workout she loved. “This really pisses me off because I am there to get my own workout in, not ‘steal’ their moves,” she wrote on Facebook at the time, lamenting the plight of mistreated boutique fitness mavens everywhere. “Studios should be happy other teachers appreciate their workouts. We should not be shunned!” Suddenly, the citywide pointe power struggle tipped into public view.

Despite what instructors have said, Kim Kiernan, a spokeswoman for Exhale, disputed that Dickman and others were ever officially banned over the contract disagreement, adding that if they don’t feel comfortable, that sounded like their problem.

Time, of course, heals all wounds, and the unpleasantness had almost faded into memory when, in August 2016, Andrea Lucas, the charismatic 37-year-old founder of the local chain Barre & Soul, upped the stakes and engaged the city’s barre community in a debate over technique, branding, and who deserves to even use the term “barre” at all. For years she had watched as barre—the highly disciplined workout that helped her find her confidence after escaping an abusive boyfriend—became a shadow of its former self, bastardized and watered down time and again. She’d had enough. Writing in the HuffPost, Lucas unleashed a fiery screed headlined, “Is Your Barre Class a Fake? Why It Matters and How to Tell.” The notoriously tough technique had started in a London basement and built a cult following, hardening bodies through moves lifted from dance and physical therapy, but its success had bred unfaithful imitators. “Many a studio has hung mirrors and ballet barres along one wall, mixed some yoga moves with a few deep pliés and raised their prices without proper training,” Lucas wrote. “That’s just not right.” It was more than the principle, however. Instructors with merely a weekend’s worth of training could translate to injuries and shoddy classes, as well as the debasement of the whole form.

Lucas’s post wasn’t just a shot across the bow, or an outburst caused by the stress of trying to carve out space in the lucrative but hyper-competitive $27 billion health-club market. It was a call to arms, to get someone, anyone, to bring order to what was becoming a spandex-clad Wild West. “No one is moderating or monitoring the dozens of studios that have popped up calling themselves ‘barre,’” she lamented. She was suggesting it was time to bring purity, or at least clarity, to the small but growing community with a regulatory body—an alliance of barre studios—that could put a stop to this fitness anarchy, accrediting the thoroughbreds and keeping the knockoffs far away from the word “barre.” Unsurprisingly, Boston’s insular fitness community had already taken notice. “I got a lot of, ‘Sigh. Thank you,’” Lucas says, “Like, [thank goodness] someone finally said something.”

Which is why, less than a year after Lucas’s post, I find myself standing beside her in the mirror-lined room of a competing Boston barre studio at 6 a.m., surrounded by perfectly made-up women with more spandex in their designer leggings than fat on their entire bodies, for back-to-back classes. As the bass of Top 40 hits reverberates through the room and we’re led through an hour of punishing, precise pulses, presses, tucks, and planks, I’m trying to find out why Lucas is so damn pissed off. I’m also trying not to die.

It isn’t until our second class of the morning, at a studio a few doors down, that I start to see what she’s talking about. The minuscule movements of the earlier, more traditional class have given way to deep squats, dance-inspired choreography, and—worst of all—jumps. Lucas is calmly powering through the exercises beside me, her wavy, jet-black hair cascading loosely down her back like she’s in a shampoo commercial. But inside, she must be screaming. “Okay, that was so not a barre class,” she declares as soon as we hit the sidewalk. “If it’s ballet-inspired fitness or ballet-cardio, cool,” she later says. “That could be an awesome class, but I don’t want to see it called barre.”

So what is Lucas going to do about it? Attempting to wrangle an entire industry—especially one as territorial and competitive as barre—into following one set of standards seems like an exercise in futility, and possibly insanity. Jenny Anania, a friend of Lucas’s and the owner of the South Shore barre chain Secret Physique, already toyed with starting a barre alliance last year, but it never got off the ground. “Too much time has passed since the industry began,” she says, so “it would be too hard at this point to create a structure.” After all, if studio owners can’t stand to let rival teachers even walk through their front doors, why would they let someone else tell them how to run their classes?

To equip herself with the kind of unimpeachable authority she’ll need to make her case for what’s barre and what’s not, Lucas bought a July plane ticket to London to visit the only living person who can rightly say: Esther Fairfax, daughter of the woman who invented the workout almost 60 years ago. But the question remains: Will Lucas’s crusade for purity end up saving Boston’s embattled barre scene, or finish tearing it apart?

 

For a long time, barre in Boston was an underground fitness cult. Classes, which began here more than a decade ago and attracted only devoted acolytes, didn’t explode in popularity until around 2013. Today, the city and its immediate suburbs boast more than 20 studios and counting, enticing throngs of students—nearly all female, most of a certain lofty tax bracket—willing to spend fistfuls of money on this miracle exercise.

If you’ve never squeezed into a pair of Lululemons and dropped $25 for a class, here’s a primer: Barre consists mainly of tiny isometric movements that sculpt the core, thighs, arms, and seat. To an outside observer, the exercises—think minute pelvic tilts at the ballet barre, or shoulder presses done with 2-pound dumbbells—look laughably easy. They are not. They are incredibly difficult, and also incredibly effective. There’s quite a bit of carryover from class to class, but each studio has a proprietary style, usually created by the owner and then meticulously conveyed to a roster of instructors who, by and large, teach the owner’s method.

All those variations, however, come from the same place: Lotte Berk, a modern dancer who fled Nazi Germany in 1938 to settle in London. Berk devised the highly specific fitness method after retiring from the stage, mixing the punishing exercises of her dance classes with movements prescribed by her physical therapist after a back injury. In 1959, she began offering classes in her London basement.

The former ballerina’s classes were anything but prim. Exercises were bestowed names like “fucking a bidet” or “the peeing dog,” and Berk was known to punish bad form with a riding crop, or hurl an astonished “How is your sex life?” at women struggling with their pelvic tucks. (No men were allowed, naturally.) Somehow, Berk’s bawdy humor and ruthless standards proved a draw, and the method caught on. Within a few years, stars such as Joan Collins and Yasmin Le Bon were slinking into the basement to be transformed by the hard-bodied hard-ass with the severe black bob. (Barbra Streisand famously tried it, but only for one class.)

In 1971, an American named Lydia Bach took classes during a trip to London and fell in love with the workout. She bought the rights to Berk’s name and opened the United States’ first Lotte Berk Method studio in Manhattan. For years, Bach’s was the only place in the country where you could take the exclusive class, and Lotte Berk teachers kept the moves and training close to their chests. Then, in the early ’90s, student Burr Leonard—who would go on to start the Bar Method chain in 2000—bought a license and opened studios in Connecticut. And in 2002, managers Fred DeVito and Elisabeth Halfpapp split from the Lotte Berk Method studio to cofound Exhale’s fitness program. “The owner of [Lotte Berk] never really wanted to expand,” DeVito says, and “we had something very special that we wanted to share with the world.”

From there, things snowballed. Other managers and teachers began breaking off to found their own studios with such frequency that Lotte Berk’s New York flagship closed in 2005, two years after its namesake founder died. It was replaced by a slew of brands using Berk’s foundational teaching under new names—ones that dominate today, such as Pure Barre, Exhale’s Core Fusion, and Physique 57. Many of them can be traced to Exhale, DeVito tells me: “Countless studios have roots to our teaching and training back in the day.” Over time, this ever-proliferating pool of studios began to bastardize Berk’s carefully controlled system of tiny motions repeated until exhaustion, adding cardio, dance, and exaggerated movements. It’s this slow unraveling that has Lucas so upset—and she’s not the only one.

Esther Fairfax, Berk’s 83-year-old daughter, still offers pure, unadulterated Lotte Berk training at a studio in Berkshire, England, motivated by a heartfelt desire to preserve her mother’s legacy. “If I can’t keep her alive, I may as well keep her technique alive,” Fairfax tells me. “My worry is that it will die out, because I’m the last person to do it authentically.” Even the best barre studios, Fairfax says, have strayed from the Lotte Berk foundation. (Or so she hears; she’s never deigned to try a class herself.) The core exercises are, she says, far easier. The muscles aren’t targeted as deeply. And Fairfax says her mother would have been “aghast” at the thought of using weights, as nearly all studios now do. “I think her ashes would be turning over.”

 

Lucas grew up as a rebellious kid. With a difficult family life, she regularly ran away from home for months at a time, sleeping in dumpsters behind Salvation Army locations; after high school, she found herself a 19-year-old mother dancing at a strip club, trying to figure out how she was going to get herself to college. In her twenties, a boyfriend turned violent and she relied on friends and crisis centers to get out of the relationship. At her lowest moment, Lucas found comfort and a much-needed community in a burlesque troupe she joined, and in barre, which she took up in 2006 while pregnant with her second child.

By 30, Lucas had pulled her life together, earned a degree in women’s studies from Lesley University, and was trying to figure out what came next. “One day in the middle of a barre class, I thought: Maybe this is it!” she told Forbes in a recent interview. “Right here we have 20 women in a room together twice a week—why not extend this beyond fitness to focus on community, adopting a positive body image, and empowerment?” Fully committed, she sought out the best studio she could find, and soon took a job working for DeVito and Halfpapp at Exhale. In 2013, she founded Barre & Soul, which has since expanded to five locations, pulling in $1.5 million in revenue a year while proselytizing for the method that changed Lucas’s life.

It stands to reason, though, that not everyone is so attached to the rigid form of barre as Berk created it. Andrea Rogers, founder of the international chain Xtend Barre, says she has “great respect” for the Lotte Berk Method, but purposely modified it when she opened her first studio almost a decade ago. “I really wanted to dance and move the body—not just small, intricate movements, but also large, full movements,” she says. “It’s important that you change it up,” agrees Jess Perkins, a local instructor who teaches under the brand name Bad to the Barre.

For Lucas, though, striving for purity is about more than splitting hairs between pulsing and tucking and jumping. It’s a fight to save the soul of a method she credits with pulling her out of a dark hole 11 years ago—a Hail Mary attempt to rescue an art she feels is slipping further and further away with each new studio that opens its doors. “It changed my body,” Lucas says. “It really empowered me. It made me feel so strong. So it makes me sad to see it watered down. For those of us that really, deeply love barre, that’s almost the first thing, is just that pang that you get in your heart.” When she talks about creating an alliance, a guiding force for barre, it’s born of the impulse to protect the community she found, and has now spent years building.

For all those reasons, meeting Fairfax in England was a revelation. Three days after Lucas returned from her journey, Lotte Berk Technique certification in hand, she gushed about Fairfax, the training, the entire experience—and I can’t help but notice that the way she talks about a barre alliance has changed. “I have gone right to the source and have had this pilgrimage to our barre guru,” she says. “I do feel a sense of [responsibility] to share that, and to make it available to other people who are searching and would like to be able to know more and go deeper.”

What does this all mean for Boston? As Lucas speaks, it’s clear to me that her intentions aren’t malicious, confrontational, or elitist. She just wants what she feels is best for barre, for the Lotte Berk Method, and for students across the city who love the original exercises the way she does. “It’s not surprising that this is mushrooming into different derivatives of barre,” Exhale’s DeVito tells me. “Does it upset us? Our concern is the quality and people being safe.” He continues, “If it’s growing, we want to educate as many teachers as we can with this barre program. We opened it up because you can’t patent an exercise, you can’t patent a movement.”

Still, there are limits to how gracious Exhale is willing to be with their expertise. “You don’t want to cannibalize your own business,” DeVito says. “That’s what prevented us from doing community teacher-training in the first place.” Although the 10-mile ban on teaching has changed to 5 miles, it seems the restriction isn’t going anywhere. “We have that as a safety net in case we need to stop someone from competing with Exhale and taking business away from our properties.”

Even though Exhale and Lucas may not agree on everything, there’s enough common ground to where they’d join an alliance, if there were one to join. Exhale has as much interest in eliminating half-assed one-day trainings and shoddy studios as anyone. They helped build barre’s reputation as the best workout money can buy, and while they’re willing to see it grow and change, they’re less interested in seeing it watered down by people who don’t know what they’re doing. “We feel like the parents in some way,” Halfpapp says. “I’ve probably taught the most barre classes of anyone, probably, in the world.”

Which means there’s hope yet for Lucas’s dream of bringing some order to the pelvic tucks of this city. Whether other studios see it that way is the question. If they don’t—and some are sure not to—Boston may have yet to see its last barre fight.


Jamie Ducharme Jamie Ducharme, Health Editor at Boston Magazine jducharme@bostonmagazine.com


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