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Ballet's Jete Into the Gym

Classical dance workouts make inroads into the aerobics craze. The focus is on grace as well as conditioning.

June 22, 2003|Ira Dreyfuss | Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON — For those who think that hopping, shuffling, shouting and jumping isn't fulfilling, there is the demi-plie releve in first position.

The demi-plie releve routine, as described by the New York City Ballet, includes dancers rocking back, lifting the toes, squeezing the buttocks and tightening the inner thighs. Translation: They work their butts, thighs and calves.

Ballet is making its move on aerobic dance.

"This is a way to bring ballet into the gym," said Kate Solmssen, manager of the New York City Ballet Workout.

The company, one of the top dance troupes in the nation, began offering ballet-based workouts in 1997 with a book, as well as classes in New York City. A videotape followed in 2001. A new tape and DVD were out last month, and Solmssen is training instructors in cities around the nation as well as leading workouts in New York City.

Although the routines are based on the choreography of elite ballet, they are simplified. "There is a discrepancy between someone who has been trained for 20 years and someone who hasn't," Solmssen said.

Much of the DVD focuses on conditioning as opposed to group dance. And the workouts bend to limitations of equipment, such as not expecting participants to have a barre, the rail that is a mainstay for ballet's stretches and practice positions. Barre work is modified and can be done on the floor, Solmssen said.

Similarly, there are no lifts. "We don't do partnering," Solmssen said. Nor are there great leaps. This is a fitness class, and exercises are done with an eye toward safety more than spectacle, she said.

Just the same, the workouts show their dance roots.

"We have a nice little repertoire of about 25 movement combinations," based on ballets such as New York City Ballet founder George Balanchine's "Tarantella," she said.

This doesn't mean that every class ends in a dying swan, a la "Swan Lake." Nor do participants necessarily want that, Solmssen said.

"There's a certain style to the arms and the upper body, and a grace and a poise that people see when they see a dancer on the street," she said, and that's what many are after -- as well as a dancer's flexible, elongated muscles and flat abs.

There is also the pleasure of exercising to the civilized strings of Bach and Mozart rather than the plebeian pounding of rock. "It's not a Step class, it is an art form," Solmssen said.

The ballet workout is a mind-body experience, and mood counts for a lot, she said.

However, the home-use versions work better if one already has training in dance.

On the DVD, plies and third positions flit past. So can the in-and-out dance footwork that substitutes for the hop-and-bop of step class.

Even in preparatory exercises, dancer versions of crunches have the hips moving to the side while the belly and back are parallel to the floor -- something that a dancer would have been taught to do, but something that a non-dancer might not notice.

The company's dancers demonstrate the movements and do them beautifully. However, for ordinary, less-than-limber mortals, the dancers sometimes do them incredibly. For instance, the bend-and-reach culminates with the dancers' heads reaching their knees.

This isn't to say that the ballet workout can't find its own corps. People might attain a better posture from it, and its trunk conditioning could help women shine in low-rise jeans and above-the-bellybutton tops, Kari Anderson said. Anderson, the American Council on Exercise's 2003 fitness director of the year, is co-owner of Seattle's Pro-Robics aerobics studio chain and the Gold's Gym Seattle franchise.

Trainers who have a ballet background, as she does, can work ballet into classes, Anderson said. But that's not easy with a broad range of abilities, she said. She does not see a big market, especially in gyms.

Classical ballet is a parvenu in group fitness, with jazz-based Jazzercise preceding it and dominating the art-dance sector. But Jazzercise founder and CEO Judi Sheppard Missett is willing to share at least part of the stage.

"It would be very appealing to those who really enjoy a more meditative exercise," Missett said. "Let's get that out to people. I'm happy for anybody doing anything."

Just the same, this is pretty artsy, Missett said.

"I don't think it would be appealing to a wide variety of people because it is tuned in to classical music," she said.

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