How the Barre Fitness Method Gained Popularity—And Why Its Loved for Its Sexual Health Benefits
In this excerpt from Let’s Get Physical, author Danielle Friedman looks at the history of barre—and what sex has to do with it.
Lydia Bach didn’t initially aspire to fuel a fitness phenomenon. She started her career working as a tax lobbyist for the nonpartisan Taxpayers’ Federation of Illinois near her hometown of Decatur. But in the early 1960s, she became disillusioned with the government and felt she could do more good traveling the world. Lydia traveled to Syria to do humanitarian work. She traveled to Afghanistan. She taught English in Ethiopia and did aid work in Spain. Eventually, in the late sixties, she followed friends to London.
Lydia arrived as Lotte Berk’s fame was peaking. She was never a dancer, but she was athletic growing up, spending her days on the playground jungle gyms and later, in college, joining her boyfriends on ski trips and tennis courts. She’d always liked challenging herself physically. So when her friend Britt Ekland— the Bond girl— told her about an exercise class that offered women a truly challenging workout, she had to check it out. “I was really physically strong,” she told me in an interview. “I’d traveled the world by land. So I was shocked when I couldn’t do any of the moves.”
Lotte hit it off with Lydia right away. Lydia was striking— long and lean with waist-length blond hair and big blue eyes— and charismatic. Both women were direct, adventurous, sensual, and independent. And after a few classes, Lydia was hooked. She loved the way the workout energized her, the way it pushed her physically. “It changed my body,” she told me. She became a regular.
One day, seeing her passion for the classes, a friend suggested that she take the workout to New York. Lydia had been to New York only once, and she hated it. But she loved a challenge. She ran the idea by Lotte, who handed over the U.S. and Canadian rights to her technique for several thousand pounds in cash, a percentage of Lydia’s future earnings, and the promise of seeing her name go international. Later, according to Esther, Lotte regretted that she parted with these rights so willingly, and without the guidance of a lawyer: When book offers and other business opportunities came her way, she was forced to turn them down, since she no longer owned what she had created. In the early seventies, New York City was descending into a long period of decay. The Upper East Side, though, remained more or less pristine. The neighborhood had long held a reputation as the most elegant in the city, with its regal brownstones, world-famous museums, and visible wealth. It was home to exactly the kind of woman who might have the time and money to pay someone to help her shape her body.
In April 1971, Lydia opened the Lotte Berk Method studio in a townhouse on 67th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues. The studio spanned several floors, and instead of green carpet, Lydia went for pink. The larger space— and the bathroom’s location inside the studio— made it an instant upgrade from the original. Lydia was renting, and for a while, she was also sleeping on the studio floor. In the dozen years since Lotte had first started teaching, a handful of other small fitness studios had sprung up in New York and Los Angeles, giving Lydia some competition. Disciples of German strong man Joseph Pilates— the inventor of the eponymous strength and flexibility workout—taught lessons in studios and homes around Manhattan, from an outpost in Henri Bendel’s department store to instructors’ apartments. The New York Times would showcase Lydia’s studio alongside two others, one offering stretching and strengthening from a dance teacher and another acrobatics. But Lydia had a secret weapon. With Lotte’s blessing, she sent out hand-calligraphed invitations to her mentor’s New York-based client list— wealthy ladies who had taken classes at Lotte’s studio while passing through London— encouraging them to visit her Upper East Side studio. Like its London predecessor, the studio was soon filled with recognizable faces, from Ali MacGraw and Candice Bergen to Princess Lee Radziwill. Later, Lydia told The New York Observer, she taught three generations of Kennedys in one class.
In the beginning, the studio remained an exclusively female space. “I felt that women should be able to go someplace and not have to care what they looked like, to be comfortable,” Lydia told me. “And I thought, Fuck you, men, you’ve got all your clubs around New York City. Now we’ve got ours.” But her attitude softened over the decades. She hired a male instructor and began to teach a handful of male students— including the writer Tom Wolfe.
Tom’s wife, Sheila, was a client and believer in the workout, and she thought its exercises might help her husband. After years of sitting at desks and writing, the Bonfire of the Vanities author was so stiff he could barely reach past his knees. Tom became a client, and six months later, he was able to do a backbend and a split. Tom and Sheila’s daughter, the journalist Alexandra Wolfe Schiff, remembers accompanying both her parents to class as a teenager. “Everybody went there,” she told me.
In the beginning, Lydia carried on Lotte’s legacy of incorporating sexual frankness into the workout. In that same New York Times article about the studio, Lydia described the method as “a combination of modern ballet, yoga, orthopedic exercise and sex.” In her 1973 exercise book Awake! Aware! Alive!, which features photos of Lydia wearing a sheer leotard, she devotes the entire last chapter to sex. “All of the exercises in this book are important for sex,” Lydia advises. (The book’s editor at Random House was the legendary Nan Talese, who was also a client at Lydia’s studio. Talese told me coyly, “The men in the office used to come and look at the pictures that were spread out on my sofa.”) The 1970s American press loved this angle. In a feature that excerpted the book, Cosmopolitan gushed in the title, “Exercise Your Way to a Better Sex Life!” But over time, as American culture shifted, so did the Lotte Berk Method. From the mid- 1970s into the 1980s, the idea that women enjoyed sex became less revelatory. Women developed more physical confidence, and Lydia tweaked the method to be more physically rigorous. “I loved the challenge of making it harder, faster, and better,” she told me. She hired a growing roster of instructors, mostly former dancers, to teach at the studio and do the same.
By the early 1990s, few of the Lotte Berk Method’s American devotees knew anything about its origins. In a 1994 article for Harper’s Bazaar, journalist Annemarie Iverson wrote of her classmates at the Upper East Side studio: “Most had never met Lotte Berk. Some had no idea that she was a real person who lived in London.” One client tells her, “Lotte is the woman with long blond hair.” To which Iverson explains, “It was a common mistake: She confused Lotte with Lydia Bach.” (The fact that they have the same initials only added to the confusion.) Another client corrects: “No, no, no. There is no single Lotte.” Was she wrong? Lotte did contain multitudes. And before long, the studios teaching her method— or variations thereof— would multiply exponentially. Most would drop references to the workout’s creator altogether, partly due to licensing agreements and partly to an evolving clientele, opting instead to align themselves with her exercises’ signature piece of equipment: the ballet barre. In the decades that followed, Lydia and her disciples would train nearly all of the women (and one man) who’d go on to open today’s biggest barre franchises, from Core Fusion and Physique 57 to Pure Barre and The Bar Method.
On a steamy Tuesday morning in late July 2019, I traveled an hour and a half west of London to the idyllic country town of Hungerford, Berkshire. Lotte’s daughter, Esther Fairfax, lives in a modest home just a short walk from the town’s main street, a windy road of shops, pubs, and inns. Esther, then a radiant eighty-five years old, was teaching a 9:30 a.m. class in her home studio—a sun-drenched living room off her kitchen, decorated with abstract oil paintings, light beige carpet, and a white ballet barre around the perimeter. Today’s class, like every class, would be filled with her regulars. One of these regulars, Jennie, had been showing up for forty-seven years.
Dressed in a black leotard, sheer black tights, and a fitted floral shirt, Esther greeted me with a warm smile. She still wears her white hair in a sleek Sassoon-esque bob. She had recently been ill and was relieved to be teaching again after a short hiatus. “I’ve really missed this,” she told me. I would be joining her class that morning. I was intrigued to see how contemporary barre had evolved from the original workout—whether, like a game of physical telephone, the technique had been morphed beyond recognition.
Her home was filled with mementos of her life and fitness career—photographs, books, a copy of Lydia Bach’s Awake! Aware! Alive! Soon students began showing up, a small group of mostly blond British women in their sixties and older, dressed in tank tops and leggings. (Take away their British accents and they could have been my mom’s Dance It Off friends at her suburban Atlanta cardio dance studio.) “All right, let’s go!” Esther announced. We made our way into the living room studio and found our
places at the barre, and she switched on a bossa nova CD. Esther began the class with a gentle warm-up not unlike warmups at contemporary barre studios in New York. But as class got going, it was clear that this would not be the serious, intensely choreographed workout I was used to, where the goal of each set of moves, instructors explain, is to work your muscles until they literally quiver. Everyone moved at their own pace and to a slightly different beat. No headset microphone was necessary; we could hear Esther fine without one. And as the class progressed, her students chimed in to remind everyone what exercise came next: “Oh, this one’s Sara’s favorite.” “Bugger, I hate this one.” “Time for fold-ups.” I recognized most of the moves, though they did feel something like second cousins to the ones I’d become familiar with in contemporary barre classes. And I was lost in an unfamiliar terminology.
Fold-ups— or “fold yourself in half”— were tiny crunches. When Esther told us to make “happy feet,” I asked, “You mean, flex?” and she quickly tsk-tsked me: “That sounds too much like the gym.” Later, we were instructed to get into what Pure Barre instructors call the pretzel and Esther calls the tramp— a difficult floor position in which one leg is bent in front and the other in back and the hips and butt are rotated forward and lifted. I was the only one in the room who struggled with this one.
About halfway through class, a few students called for Esther to get out the whip, and she revealed a well-worn brown leather weapon. She teasingly tapped me with it during fold-ups, correcting my form with her free hand. Shortly after, during a period of class in which everyone got very quiet, we sat in a circle with our legs crossed and Esther instructed us to “lift, two, three, four, five, and release, two, three, four, five.” It took me a moment to realize we were doing Kegels. At some point the music switched from Latin to French. When we moved on to legwork, Esther told me, “You know, you could be good if you kept coming back.”
Class ended and the women walked back into the kitchen, chatty and energized. I was proud I had kept up with them, though my legs felt a little wobbly. (The relaxed vibe was deceiving—I would be sore everywhere for the next two days.) Everyone changed into street clothes around the kitchen table, paid Esther in cash, and said their goodbyes. When the last student left, Esther turned to me. “These women have been with me for a long time,” she said. “This is my life.”
Today, stand-alone barre studios number more than 850 in this country, and that’s not counting the one-off classes being taught at gyms like Equinox and other multipurpose studios or the many virtual offerings that emerged during the coronavirus pandemic. Pure Barre’s client base alone is more than half a million strong. While many women still seek out the workout to “lift, tone, burn” their way to a “ballerina body,” many stick with it because, as I discovered, it can make you feel good: The first time I returned to barre after giving birth to my son, I left the studio feeling hopeful, proud of myself, and lighter on my feet than I had in months. And when I asked barre-devotee friends and acquaintances why they enjoy the workout, several said it made them feel “energized” or “motivated.” Some pointed to its meditative qualities—the workout is so challenging, it requires complete focus, which can be head-clearing. “I forget about what’s going on outside the room,” my friend Melanie, a forty-year old
human resources director in Connecticut, told me. Barre is also gentler on the body than workouts that involve a lot of bouncing or pounding. Journalist Samantha Matt wrote in Women’s Health that barre “totally changed [her] life” by helping her manage her fibromyalgia, a condition that causes full-body pain, stiffness, and fatigue. “When I first felt my muscles tighten after taking a few classes, I immediately became addicted to the burn.”
And it’s widely recommended for pregnant women. It turns out Lotte’s obsession with the so-called inner core— the ab muscles and pelvic floor— led to exercises that can help with labor, delivery, and postpartum recovery. My college classmate Sarah, a lawyer living outside Chicago, took barre classes until the day before she gave birth to each of her three children, and she’s convinced the workout helped her deliveries go smoothly, telling me: “My ability to push was amazingly impacted.”
And then there are the workout’s sexual health benefits. With the Swinging Sixties spirit long extinguished— Lotte Berk’s “prostitute” and “sex” moves were long ago renamed— the workout’s teeny-tiny resistance movements, performed at a ballet barre, can even make classes feel prim. Instructors rarely draw attention to the fact that the workout can, as many instructors privately admit, bring very real improvements to women’s sex lives. “It’s kind of like this weird elephant in the room,” a barre-going friend in her late twenties who lives in San Francisco told me. “No one talks about it. But after you’ve done barre for like four days in a row, you’re not going to lie there like a dead fish during sex. You feel like a strong woman who’s like, rawwwr, you know?”
But even without barre being an explicit sex-enhancing workout, women can still reap its benefits— from pelvic floor strength to increased stamina. “I think if we were all pelvic thrusting, holding on to the barre, and the instructor was like, ‘This will be so great when you’re having sex later!’ everyone would immediately get uncomfortable,” my San Francisco friend told me. When Lotte Berk first introduced women to her workout in the sixties, the class’s sexual openness felt thrilling and empowering,
because it was taboo. Now, more than fifty years after the sexual revolution, turning a rigorous strength-training workout into something overtly sexual feels gratuitous. “I want that hour to myself for my peace and my well-being and my mental health,” Burr Leonard, the creator of The Bar Method, told me, echoing the feelings of other women I spoke with. “I think that’s what it does most powerfully.”
Excerpted from Let’s Get Physical, by Danielle Friedman. Copyright © 2022, Danielle Friedman. Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.