Barre Fitness: Get a Ballet Body without Dancing

Whether you want to work on postural strength, weight loss, or just find a fun new workout, the ballet barre-based classes at Barre Fitness will leave you feeling as poised as a dancer

Credit: Catherine Roscoe Barr

The small class sizes at Barre Fitness mean you get lots of instructor attention

Ballet barre-based exercise routines are the ultimate workout for people with desk jobs because the focus is on postural strength – and the resulting lithe dancer’s body is a nice perk, too

Some fitness fads come and go, and some catch on and stay. Ballet barre-based workouts have taken off south of the border and Ella Jotie and Michele Murgel, owners of Yaletown’s Barre Fitness, are hoping it will do the same in Canada.

“What the majority of people don’t know about this type of workout – because we were the first to open in Canada so everybody thought it was the new thing – is that it’s been around for over 50 years,” says Murgel.

Old Barre-based Fitness is New Again

The barre-based workout concept was developed by professional dancer Lotte Berk in London in the 1950s. Lydia Bach, an American travelling through Europe, discovered Berk’s studio and purchased the worldwide rights to her method. Bach opened her first Lotte Berk Method studio in Manhattan in 1971.

“When I discovered ballet barre-based workouts down in California I thought they were the best total body workout I’d ever found. And when I decided to come back to Canada I was really passionate about continuing the workouts and finding a way to bring them to Canada,” says Murgel.

Around the same time Jotie, who’s also been a professional dancer and fitness instructor since the age of 18, also discovered barre workouts. A mutual friend introduced the two women (pictured at left) and “the moment we met we started working together,” says Murgel. “We hired physiotherapists to work with us as we evolved the program. The way we describe it is: you don’t need to be a dancer but it will get you a dancer’s body, without dancing.”

The Barre Workout

Barre Fitness opened in August 2010 – the first barre-based workout to be available in Canada – and offers 40-, 60- and 75-minute classes that are a “fusion of dance conditioning, sports conditioning, Pilates and stretching. It trims, tones and transforms your whole body,” says Murgel.  

“What I think is really unique about Barre Fitness,” says Jotie, “is that we’ve been able to take the original technique and evolve it to meet the needs of women on the west coast, especially Vancouver.”

They took into account the west coast’s love for outdoor sports and yoga when developing classes beyond the basic Barre Fitness to include Barre Bootcamp (“which incorporates a cardio element and is focused a lot more on sports conditioning”), Barre Flow (“a much slower-paced class, and we work a lot on core conditioning, balance and flexibility training”), and Power Barre (“our clients wanted more, they wanted a longer class, so we take it up a notch and fit in as many exercises as we possibly can”).

I decided to try the basic Barre Fitness class and didn’t know what to expect. Were we going to be dancing and prancing around the room? The last time I did ballet was a few years ago (that’s me pictured at right) and I couldn’t remember much more than “plié” and “first position.”

Luckily there was no dancing or prancing, just a whole lot of strength and flexibility training.

What You’ll Need for a Barre Fitness Workout

All you need to do is wear comfortable athletic clothing and socks (preferably non-slip grip socks, which you can purchase in their retail area) and bring a refillable water bottle to fill up at their Elkay EZH2O bottle filling station.

“We invested a fair bit of money into this water station,” says Murgel, and “were the first company in BC to implement one,” adds Jotie. The EZH2O dispenses chilled, filtered water and has a Green Ticker that tallies how many water bottles have been diverted from the landfill – “we’re at almost 22,000 since we opened last August,” says Murgel.

“As you can see,” says Jotie, showing me around the studio before class, “each client has their own station, so there’s an adequate amount of space for each person to do what they need to do.”

“The classes are taught in groups of 20 people or less,” points out Murgel, and Jotie adds, “We like to think of it as group personal training. Our instructors are hands-on with everyone.”

“We have all the equipment you need here: mat, stretching strap, fit ball, and you’ll be grabbing two sets of weights,” says Jotie. “We work with lighter weights. The lightest we have is 2lbs, the heaviest we have is 8lbs. A lot of the work we do is isometric work so we’re holding the contraction, you don’t even need weight to fatigue the muscles.”

All of Barre’s Instructors Have Dancing Backgrounds

Kaitlin, our uber-svelte instructor, led us through a warm-up followed by a series of upper body exercises with the weights, blasting our arms and shoulders from every angle. It was awesome.

Then we went to the barre where I held on for dear life as we performed calf raises from a number of foot positions, wide legged squats (known as plies), and narrow squats holding a fitball about the size of a volleyball between our knees. My legs were quivering by the end and I absolutely loved it.

Next it was down to the mats for some core work, where we arranged ourselves on our sides on top of the fitballs to work on our obliques, followed by many more new and challenging core exercises. And, finally, we ended with stretching.

This is the ultimate workout for people with sedentary jobs, especially those who sit at a desk all day, because the focus throughout each class is on postural strength. “We call it the Barre Posture here,” says Jotie. “It’s having a strong neutral spine, activating the pelvic floor, lifting through the centre of the body, and learning how to move from the core.”

Barre Fitness is located at 1038 Mainland Street. View their class schedule and rates.


Catherine Roscoe Barr, BSc Neuroscience, is a Vancouver-based writer, editor, and fitness professional. Before settling on the west coast she lived in Sydney, Toronto, Oregon, Montana, and practically everywhere in Alberta. She can be found jogging with her adorable dog, dining with her fabulous husband or voraciously reading anywhere comfy.