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Mary Helen Bowers on Turning Ballet into a Fitness Frenzy

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Photo courtesy of Ballet Beautiful
Photo courtesy of Ballet Beautiful

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If there was ever a difficult world to succeed in, it's ballet. And the insane amount of dedication it takes to make it big in the competitive, rigorous art—not to mention the stress it puts on the body—is just as intense as the pressure to find another calling once a dance career ends.

Few professionals have been able to extend their ballet life quite like Mary Helen Bowers. The 35-year-old former New York City Ballet dancer is perhaps best known for developing Ballet Beautiful, an elegant-but-tough workout taught privately at her SoHo studio and online via live-streamed classes. Not wanting to fall into the "just giving dance lessons" rut after her professional career came to a close, Bowers espouses the belief that the principles of ballet can be part of a fitness routine accessible to everyone.

Her booming business has landed her star clients like Liv Tyler, Zooey Deschanel, Kirsten Dunst and Helena Christensen; Bowers even trained actress Natalie Portman for Black Swan. Ballet Beautiful also now has its own line of fitness apparel sold on Net-a-Sporter. Racked caught up with the ballet superstar to discuss her company's beginnings, how to build muscle without getting bulky, and why non-ballerinas' dancer aspirations can actually become a reality.

What did you do before you started Ballet Beautiful?
I danced professionally with New York City Ballet for 10 years. Like a lot of little girls, I took ballet classes as a kid, and by the time I was probably 12 years old, I knew that was what I wanted to do professionally. I went to NYCB's official school, which is a sort of training ground and theater for the company. When I was 15, I came as a full scholarship student. The next year when I returned, I was invited to join New York City Ballet as one of their dancers.

What inspired you to turn ballet into an actual workout for non-dancers?
It started when I left the company and I had enrolled at Columbia University. I wasn't working out and I wasn't dancing, and I gained weight and didn't feel great about my body. I didn't want to go into a ballet class, so I picked up with my old exercises and started doing 45 minutes a day in my apartment. My body started to transform and get back to where it was when I was dancing, just by doing the exercises. That kind of amazed me. My friends wanted to know what I was doing, and I started training some of them. When I graduated from Columbia in '08, I had a few private clients—it started very organically, just training a couple of people. As I went along and saw how well the workout was working, not just for myself but for people who weren't dancers, I realized I had something special and I wanted to find a way to share it.

Why did you decide to develop a ballet-inspired workout instead of teaching actual ballet classes?
I always loved dancing, but I knew that in a lot of ways I wasn't connected to the ballet world. I knew I didn't want to just become a ballet teacher and continue working with dancers; I really wanted to taste and experience other things in life. With Ballet Beautiful, I found a way to merge my passion for ballet with my love of fitness and health. But also, more importantly, it allows me to bring ballet into the lives of a lot of non-dancers in a way that's accessible and healthy and fun.

Do you think the workout is doable for people who don't have the slightest ballet background?
The whole idea behind the workout is that it's a program designed to give anybody a ballet-type body. We do that by targeting what I call your "ballet muscles." The reason why a dancer's body is so different from someone's who's doing yoga or cycling is because you're using completely different muscles. The way that you tone those muscles and lengthen them and condition them every day is what makes the difference in the way the body is shaped. What I found is that the exercises we have target ballet muscles—your inner thighs, the back of the leg, the butt, deep through the core, muscles all through your upper body. Working those muscles is how you build the body shape, it's not just through actual dancing.

How do you do intense workouts without getting bulky?
Bulk is a dancer's worst nightmare, and a lot of that has to do with the way you train and target the muscles. The quadriceps, for example, are a huge muscle, probably the biggest in your leg, and they get very big very quickly. When your quads start to get big, everything looks thick and short. So with ballet, you never use your quads. We're doing everything with our inner thighs, the hamstrings, the butt, basically all the muscles around your quadriceps without really engaging them. That's a real defining difference between Ballet Beautiful and a typical barre workout. Spinning, running, anything where you're using the front of the thigh, you're going to run into the possibility of really bulking up the muscles. In ballet, everything we do has a bend. There's a plie, but there's always a stretch and an extension. You're toning muscles, but you're also elongating, which makes a tremendous difference in the way that the body shapes and forms.

What would you say to someone who thinks they're not graceful enough for the workout?
I think that's crazy! The workout isn't a professional ballet class. It's a workout that's designed to give you that very toned but still feminine body shape. It's about making exercise a little more feminine and a little bit more fun. I want exercise to feel elegant and graceful. And often, if you're twisting more and adding small changes, it can make a huge difference in the way it makes you feel and look.

Why do you think the fashion world loves ballet so much?
Ballet is so beautiful, it really is. There's so much mystery and mystique around it. We have so many clients in fashion and we always have; it's been a huge part of our clientele from the very beginning. I think it's a very natural fit! We take the beauty and artistry of ballet and make it accessible.

Who are some of your most devoted clients?
We've got thousands of women all over the world doing our workout, ladies that are out there using the program and benefitting from it. We also have a lot of top models who are known for having the best bodies, like Miranda Kerr and Lily Aldridge and Doutzen Kroes. They're all big fans and longtime clients—and friends as well.

How did you establish your following?
We've been so fortunate. We've never really done any marketing; it's always been very word of mouth. You have one great client, and they tell their friend and spread the word from there. And then of course, I trained Natalie Portman for Black Swan, and there certainly was quite a lot of excitement and press around her performance. I think that movie helped expand a lot of awareness for ballet and ballet as a workout and certainly for Ballet Beautiful.

Is it hard to compete in the fitness industry?
I never think about competition in part because what Ballet Beautiful is doing is unique. We're always looking ahead, not at who's beside us or right behind us. That's important when you're building a business and thinking about how you can share workouts. We sell them online, not because I think that's a great business move, but because I want to make the workout accessible for women.

What were some challenges you faced when you first started out?
There was such a massive learning curve with everything, and that continues to be true today because we're always branching out and trying new things. I think one of the most important things, though, when you're starting a business is to not let the naysayers stand in your way. I found that some people can see my vision and some can't. It would be a mistake to let other people's limitations keep you from accomplishing and doing the things you really want to do. You can meet people who are unbelievably supportive and have incredible positive energy and really understand where you're going.

What's your vision for the company's growth?
We're getting more into lifestyle and activewear. We're part of Net-a-Porter's recent launch of their activewear division Net-a-Sporter, which has been hugely successful. Most of our line sold out in the first week. There's a moment right now where we really are poised for a lot of growth, and we're just out there trying to provide the workout and all these other pieces.

Do you think special fitness apparel is important for the actual workout?
I think it's about what makes you feel beautiful and comfortable and confident and happy when you're exercising. So for me, as a dancer, those have always been dance clothes. I always wear leotards, tights, slippers. It's taken a little while to figure out exactly what those perfect pieces are. I think that a lot of fitnesswear has been historically focused around yoga and sport, and what we're doing is quite different. It's obviously based around ballet, and there's a very specific fashion aesthetic that's connected with it that's about feminine necklines, comfort, and breathable materials.

What are the most common misconceptions about Ballet Beautiful?
It's not a ballet class, it's a workout inspired by ballet. Also, there's quite a lot you can do with private training in terms of customizing your workout for what your goals are. I think ultimately what I want women to know is that you don't have to settle when it comes to your body; you can really find your ultimate form. Exercise should be fun, it shouldn't be a punishment. It should be something you look forward to and that makes you feel better. It shouldn't be a process that you hate or dread.