For 55 minutes, I thought of little else but the simple instruction “tuck, tuck under.” On the barre, on the mat, with weights in hand or an exercise ball secured under my burning butt cheek – Pure Barre is all about pushing your own body to its limits, and working deep within each exercise to achieve results.
The more you tuck, the deeper you tuck, the faster you can change your body. That’s the Pure Barre promise.
It’s a mild Saturday morning, and I’m ruminating on instructor Meaghan Cleary’s advice as I prepare for my first Pure Barre class. “It’s a smaller range of motion,” Cleary says of the exercises. “It might seem like no one is even moving at times – but they are. You’ll look around and see the silent pain.”
Of course, Cleary says it with an energy and enthusiasm that few people possess – especially at 9 AM. I watch as women file into the brightly-lit studio and claim spaces on the carpeted floor with the essential equipment: a light set of weights; two interconnected resistance tubes; a small red ball stamped with the iconic Pure Barre logo.
I notice that most of us are sporting black athletic leggings, with some combination of black or pink exercise top. I’m no exception. Cleary, donning her own black-paneled pants and tank, has observed the same thing.
“Everyone’s very pink today,” she says. The quiet studio is punctuated by a few sleepy chuckles.
That we’ve all unknowingly slipped into complementary uniforms is not surprising. Pure Barre has achieved cult status amongst women, and grown a community of more than 200 studios nationwide as of this February.
“Exercise can be intimidating,” Cleary tells me as we discuss the phenomenon, explaining how Pure Barre has become a safe and powerful sorority where women can workout together for motivation. “There is a wonderful sense of camaraderie and support.”
Not that men aren’t welcome – but Pure Barre classes are typically a majority women.
After all, the fitness method for enhancing core strength and flexibility is attributed first to European ballerina Lotte Berk. When she premiered her ballet barre-based exercise class in the 1950’s, the studio was open exclusively to women.
When class starts, everyone in the room springs into action – there is no time for slow unfurling of bodies or easy morning stretches. We are lifting our knees, dropping into planks, and kicking to an energetic remix in which Beyoncé makes more than one appearance.
It’s only the warm-up, but my legs are already trembling with fatigue and my bangs have worked themselves into a goofy curl affixed to my forehead.
Ask any Pure Barre diehard, however, and they’ll say the intense muscle fatigue that causes your thighs to quake is the best sign your body can give.
“I was so embarrassed that my thighs were shaking,” Cleary tells me of her first Pure Barre class. “Until I realized that was the whole point.” That was two and a half years ago, when co-owners Kaitlin Vandura and Leslie Coakley first brought Pure Barre to New York City.
“There was no way I could [go] without Pure Barre,” Vandura says of her move from North Carolina, and the transition from teacher to owner. “Pure Barre is so much more than a workout – it’s a lifestyle.”
Whatever our individual intentions, it’s the workout we all got out of bed for this morning, and it’s the workout that has us glistening with sweat while we press our thighs back in an escalating sequence of deep and deeper pliés. It’s here, at the barre, while simultaneously dipping low and lifting higher into relevé, that my legs are really shuddering.
After wincing through the arms section (non-stop repetitions designed to sculpt the arms despite the light weights) we are in the thick of the workout.
Throughout the hour, Cleary toggles between instructive explanations of each exercise, and her personal repertoire of encouragements. She asks the class to “wake up into our bodies,” while adjusting my hips into correct alignment. In order to get the benefits of Pure Barre, I need to be properly tucked.
I can’t imagine anyone hasn’t woken up yet, although a few veterans are staring tight-lipped at their reflections: what must be a mask of the silent pain Cleary had foreshadowed.
As we work through the signature six sections, the isometric movements maintain their intensity. We press our legs back and up to tone our glutes, and later, define our abdominals with a series I recognize from my years of Pilates.
Most of the movements taught in Pure Barre are easy to replicate, although the “seat work” section has me struggling a bit with my resistance bands.
I lose a repetition or two until Cleary helps me settle into the proper alignment.
It’s clear that Pure Barre goes beyond fitness. No matter how many hours I spend at the gym a week, the program is targeting underused, hard-to-find muscles in a way I could not have done without such precise movements and hands-on direction.
What’s more, Pure Barre is an exercise in concentration and inner resilience. You could easily go through the motions and walk out without ever perspiring.
There is no conveyer belt to tug you along. Only the instructor’s motivation, and your personal desire to advance yourself physically and mentally. Ultimately, the exercises are only as effective as your willingness to put forth the effort.
“Every individual has that untapped potential,” Cleary says with confidence. “I always want to push my clients to find that strength, and that power.”
Unlike many barre-style classes, Pure Barre doesn’t offer different levels.
“We want each client to be open to the workout and work where they feel comfortable, Cleary explains. “Whatever your fitness level, Pure Barre is going to nurture your strongest self, mind, and body.”
As the hour draws to a close, Cleary dims the lights and lowers the music for the cool down. We lengthen our exhausted muscles with side bends and stretches: twenty tired bodies extended in a diverse display of flexibility and fitness.
There is no judgment, or competition. Just relief. I already feel stronger and leaner – lifted up in so many ways.
The following morning, my limbs are sore and tired – secondary muscles that had been awoken from many years of neglect.
To be sure, it’s a huge part of what has made Pure Barre so extraordinarily popular. If you’re working hard, you’ll see results, without resorting to strenuous, high-impact alternatives that can leave you too tired to exercise the following day.
But most importantly, everyone is welcome, whether you’re an ex-ballerina, an active individual, or just beginning your foray into fitness. There are no exclusions, no minimum requirements, and their Pure Barre sticky socks are one size fits all.
Want to try barre without committing to a single studio? These three health clubs offer their own versions of the barre experience, as well as other classes and wellness facilities.
VBarre – Town Sports International Gyms
At the cardio end of the barre spectrum, VBarre combines elements of ballet and pilates with resistance bands, a ball, the bar, and a glide board. Unlike other barre classes, sliding on the glide board is fundamental to keeping up heart rate between sections. The unique lateral movement is low-impact, and targets the hard to reach inner and outer thigh muscles.
Barre Burn – Equinox
In this national fitness center’s version of barre, students are freed from the wall, and instead balance on a personal weighted body bar. Yoga is also more prevalent in the choreography, providing an option that is arguably more accessible to people unfamiliar with, or intimidated by, the ballet component of traditional barre classes.
Core Fusion Barre – Exhale Spa
If the gym-scene isn’t for you, retreat to this mind-body spa and studio. Perhaps the most similar to Pure Barre, you’ll hold postures – and maybe even your breath – until your instructor reminds you to relax and exhale. Locations range from Los Angeles to Boston, and even Turks & Caicos. In May, Exhale will welcome their 22nd location to New York City’s bustling Flatiron district.
To see more, check out the Summer Issue of Lydia Magazine!