Images of female fitness influencers packing on muscle or shedding kilos through circuit sessions as they work out with hefty weights and intimidating-looking machinery are all too common on social media. These have inspired many to sign up for gym memberships or hire personal trainers.
However, while this type of high-intensity bodybuilding might be one of the most common pictures of what “working out” can look like, becoming a gym junkie with a focus on lifting, pressing, building muscle and losing weight may not be the ideal fitness routine for every woman. Many are turning to softer, slower techniques that focus on toning and sculpting, rather than bulking. If this approach sounds appealing, consider ballet dance as an approach to staying fit and active.
Beginning ballet as an adult
Aja Barber, Elle UK contributing editor and author of Consumed, started ballet when she was 26 and tweeted about witnessing a surge in the popularity of ballet earlier this year. “Apparently ballet is REALLY big with adults right now. All my classes are pretty much filled.”
The trend isn’t solely a Western one. Sofiia Salinska, a ballet instructor at Melodica music school in Dubai, says she too has noticed a recent increase in adults registering for ballet classes. “Ballet is not just for children and is becoming more and more accessible to adults who want to pick up a new skill or stay physically fit,” she says, listing numerous benefits of the dance form — from improving posture and alignment to increasing flexibility and strengthening muscles.
While both men and women can practice ballet, Salinska says it’s particularly beneficial for the female body. “Ballet promotes grace, posture and control. It emphasises proper alignment, leading to a more toned appearance and requires strength and control in the legs, hips, and core.”
Salinska recognises classes may appear to be intimidating for newcomers, especially when there are more experienced students present, but says it’s key to focus on personal growth to help build confidence. She also acknowledges the challenges of taking up ballet as an adult, citing decreased flexibility as one of the main physical limitations. “Developing co-ordination and grace can take time, but with the right mindset, patience and persistence, adult beginners can improve,” she says.
Still, enrolling in ballet dance class may not be for every woman, and for those who seek a middle ground between ballet and high-intensity workouts, there is barre, an exercise that was invented by ballerina Lotte Berk in 1959 in London.
Braving the barre effect
“Originally created as physiotherapy for injured dancers, barre is a low-impact fitness technique that blends elements of dance, Pilates, yoga and strength training,” explains Nora Hameidani, founder of Barre Effect, a studio in Dubai.
The set-up of her ladies-only barre studio is similar to that of a ballet studio, which features walls lined with mirrors and the installation of a parallel bar placed a little higher than waist-length. “We use a ballet bar for support with posture, stretching and strength-training exercises,” says Hameidani, who has been a barre instructor for 12 years.
“The technique itself is based on the same principles of posture and alignment as ballet, often working with a long and lengthened spine and proper hip and pelvis alignment. It sculpts the muscles to be long and lean, which many find to be more feminine.”
Hameidani notes that, as in ballet, balance and stability are key focus points in barre, and that some positions resemble ballet moves and even share the same terminology. “Ballet also comes through to barre in the articulation of the feet, working your muscles in a different way when you pointe versus flex your feet,” she says.
She adds that music is also a key element of barre, with exercises matching the beats of songs, often in sets of eight or 10 counts. Props such as resistance bands, yoga blocks and light weights often accompany barre classes, and movements such as lunges, planks, push-ups, curls and squats are integrated into the workouts.
Barre offers full-body conditioning and toning fitness routines with an element of cardiovascular training. Hameidani says not only is it a suitable exercise for all levels and ages, but it’s also safe to practise while pregnant and after delivery. “As well as toning muscles, stretching is an integral part of barre, which many women find important to help injury and overall live a more comfortable life,” she says. “Finally, barre focuses on posture, which can help your body in day-to-day life, and even counteract stressors of a sedentary lifestyle.”
Feminine fitness fashion
While adults need not turn up to a ballet or barre studio in a pink leotard and tulle tutu skirt, the workout wear of choice for women who partake in these classes often complements the feminine, stress-relieving element that both fitness instructors emphasise.
Just as the demand for softer approaches to fitness has risen, so too has a niche of athleisure and activewear for women. Many who attend Pilates, yoga, ballet or barre classes don black, neutral and pastel-toned leggings and workout sets, paired with grip socks with crossover straps that mimic ballet slippers.
In the realm of fashion, ballet has even inspired a whole new aesthetic called “balletcore,” endorsed by the likes of Bella Hadid.
L’Couture is a local label specialising in feminine athleisure and active wear, and while founder Lyndsay Doran says she is forever a fan of high-intensity workouts, she has seen an uptake in softer fitness regimens, which she believes can be a form of self-care. Her latest Serenity Seamless collection features leggings, tanks and sports bras with decorative criss-cross backs and textured detailing in neutral, earthy tones.
“It has mindfulness at its heart, through eco-friendly fabrics that make you feel put-together and comfortable,” says Doran. "We are constantly innovating and involving our collections to ensure we have something to suit everyone and all types of workouts.”