Pure Bliss at the Barre

by Bailey Edelstein

October 2014

After their first 55-minute session at Pure Barre, they’re already addicts. They come back for more each week and sometimes every day to get their fix of the most unusual elixir, which guarantees they’ll leave happier than when they walked in the door. The instructor’s arms were immaculate, sculpted in all the right places. Her posture was flawless and her body was graceful, like a ballerina. She encouraged the class’ goal to get through 55-minutes and come out feeling stronger and toned—and all 18 of them did.

“I was hooked on Pure Barre after my first class. I walked out of there feeling cleansed,” says Kerri Knippenberg, a barre-goer since April 2014 and varsity athlete at American University. “My feeling of rejuvenation lasted all day long! Plus, I wasn’t that sweaty when I left class.”

Women of all shapes, ages and sizes are headed to this fitness mecca called Pure Barre. It’s an exercise studio that facilitates a more healthful means of mental release than a five o’clock Corona. Pure Barre uses unique moves such as the “tuck,” where you make small thrusts with your hips to engage and tone the abs. Other creative terminology includes reference to the “Pure Barre ledge,” which pinpoints the space where your rear meets the back of your thighs. Instead of leaning on a grimy bar counter after work with friends, Pure Barre clients choose to rest their forearms on a ballet barre, a key tool used in this unique full-body workout.

Founded in 2001 by the Chief Concept Officer, Carrie Dorr, Pure Barre’s low-intensity, formulaic routines that yield high results are transforming bodies and enhancing the lives of women across the United States. Pure Barre is far-reaching and in high demand. According to an interview with BusinessWire, Pure Barre’s Chief Executive Officer, Sloan Evans, revealed that February 2014 marked a company-wide celebration of 200 studios open in 38 states.

Pure Barre
Demonstrated above is the “tuck,” a movement central to Pure Barre technique. Photo courtesy of Pure Barre

“It is an extremely exciting time for everyone in the Pure Barre family,” Evans said. “We have an amazing group of franchisees who exude passion for the Pure Barre brand and work tirelessly to provide an exceptional Pure Barre experience to clients in their studios each and every day.”

The franchise recently expanded to the DC-Metropolitan areas in the spring of 2014, when locals began toning their six-packs at the barre, not drinking them there. The co-owners of the Arlington, Alexandria and Bethesda Pure Barre locations are Katie Shearin Chaffee and Mary-Beth Coleman. Chaffee is surely a walking advertisement for her local studios and Pure Barre at large. Her strong, lean figure visually boasts the company’s motto “Lift. Tone. Burn,” urging women to ask what her secret is. In a charming North Carolinian accent you could listen to for hours, Chaffee distinguishes Pure Barre philosophy from a rudimentary Pilates or yoga class.

“I tend to veer away from saying it’s a mix of Pilates, yoga and ballet, because to me it is its own thing, not a hybrid of a lot of things,” says Chaffee, a tall, blond, young woman in her 20s with a ballerina-build. “The whole concept of making small isometric movements is really unique to Pure Barre, as it focuses on smaller muscles to develop larger muscles. Lengthening your body through stretching.”

When you arrive for class at Pure Barre, you check in with the “barre-tender,” remove your sneakers (Pure Barre is a no-shoe zone) and head into the studio. It is a rectangular, grey, carpeted room, with a ballet-barre lining three-quarters of the walls. The studio is strictly used for class purposes; to prevent clutter, personal items are stored in a separate cubby-space at the facility. Pure Barre only uses small lightweight red balls and red stretching bands to conduct their workouts. Upon your first visit, you may doubt that such minimal equipment would prove to be as gratifying as your usual gym routine.

“Do they have any eight or 12-pound weights?” a newcomer asks, scanning the sets labeled only two or three pounds. “Trust me,” the woman says as she leans in as if to tell a secret, “you’ll probably choose to put down your weights half-way through the arms section.”

Skeptical, she took a seat Indian-style on the floor among the other participants. Some are decked-out in Lululemon’s latest gear and others are wearing Splits59, a clothing line designed specifically for Pure Barre classes. Music pumps through the speakers, filling the studio with upbeat tunes to help motivate clients. Positioned around the room are mothers, college students, and a pregnant woman, ladies who are fit and others who are severely out of shape. The class begins as the instructor cranks up the music and chimes, “The next 55 minutes are all about you!” They begin the warm-up, followed by a section targeting the arms. As they fatigue their muscles with small two-inch movements of the hand weights some thought wouldn’t be heavy enough, the clients’ arms begin to feel like Jell-O as they migrate from triceps to biceps. There are no breaks, so you don’t have the chance to quit even if you wanted to.

“You know you’re doing three thigh exercises and you know you’re going to do two seat exercises [which work your rear],” Chaffee says. “So you can push yourself to that limit each time, looking forward to stretching it all out afterwards.”

Moving on to thighs with one hand on the barre for stability, the class lowers their bodies into a deep ballet-inspired squat while on tiptoes. The body of a woman across the room is shaking uncontrollably. Other bodies begin to convulse too. It’s all part of the exercise and everyone is silently agonizing. “Shaking means changing! Shaking is good!” the instructor says. Encouraged, the whole class melts deeper into the position, embracing this love-hate relationship with the pain.

“The class requires so much focus that it requires you to block life out for an hour. You can’t be thinking about what you’re cooking for dinner tonight, or the email your boss just sent you, or the fight you had with your boyfriend,” says Chaffee. “By the end of the class you’ve had that time to make it all about you.”

It all began in 2001, when Dorr opened her first Pure Barre studio in Birmingham, Michigan. “It was a tiny space in the basement of a building with no sign and a shoestring budget. I had no idea what I was doing,” Dorr said during an interview with the Huffington Post for an article titled, “7 Sizzling Entrepreneurs Under 40.” The business was taking off by 2009, gaining popularity through word of mouth and the physical results shown by Pure Barre’s first patrons. Then, Dorr turned her company into a franchise and began granting locations to women with business acumen who were passionate about Pure Barre technique. It was 2012 when Katie Shearin Chaffee first met Dorr and applied to run her own studio. Soon thereafter, a private investment firm took over the company’s business aspects to help facilitate its rapid expansion. They established their headquarters in Spartanburg, South Carolina and Dorr continued to innovate the Pure Barre technique.

In 2010, Pure Barre was featured in an issue of Women’s Health magazine, where Dorr describes the technique as “an athletic approach to dance and Pilates.” The company’s DVD series, highlighted in Health magazine’s article, “8 Workout DVDs You Need to Try Now,” are for sale on their corporate website and can take you through complete Pure Barre routines from your living room.

The latest promotions for any given Pure Barre studio can be found on their individual social media accounts. Barre-goers can stay connected to their local studio communities through monthly e-newsletters or through Facebook, where each franchise shares posts for their local clientele. You can also follow their Instagram feeds for daily motivation. A recent post from the Pure Barre Bethesda account reads, “Your legs are not giving out. Your head is giving up. Keep going.” Pure Barre is a no-quitting zone where the instructors push you to stay in the positions that are most difficult, so you see results faster. The photo is captioned: “Focus on holding the movement and pushing yourself past the point of ‘I can’t’—your body will thank you in the end.”

Photo courtesy of Pure Barre Bethesda  A 6AM class at Pure Barre Bethesda demonstrates the abs exercise described at left in the article.
Photo courtesy of Pure Barre Bethesda
A 6AM class at Pure Barre Bethesda demonstrates the abs exercise described at left in the article.

The class is sitting now with their backs against the wall, cushioned by red mats for the abs section of class. Hands are above the head in a diamond shape, forearms pressing against the barre with fingertips floating freely above. The act of pressing remarkably stimulates the abdominals in a way never experienced before. The instructor verbally illustrates how the muscles are igniting, as a burning sensation races up and down the obliques. The class begins to lift their legs, which are also in a diamond shape out in front, just two inches off the floor. These small movements are communicating with the abs to sculpt that stubborn area of the lower belly. No description does justice to painting a mental-image of this contortionist act.

“After class clients say, ‘Wow that’s unlike anything I’ve ever done!’” Chaffee says. “You’re using your own weight to shape your body. It’s similar to Pilates and yoga in that way, but its different in that it’s really intense. It’s fast paced, yet low-impact.”

Unlike workout studios with different styles of classes, or multiple levels of cycling and yoga, Pure Barre has only one class-type and no levels. As a religious barre-goer, 20-year-old Ali Danziger shares that the client can customize each class by choosing their own level of intensity.

“Having a neutral, unleveled class system helps you go off what you’re feeling that particular day and gauge how hard you’ll make your body work,” Danziger says. “I always leave feeling more energized and yearning for another round.”

As the class files out of the studio, Danziger routinely puts away her ball, mat and tube. Looking at Danziger’s crystal-blue eyes, framed by the stray brown hairs that escaped from her ponytail mid-workout, you would never notice that she suffers from a mild case of cerebral palsy. Her condition causes occasional discomfort, as it restricts the movements in the right side of her body, but Danziger emphasizes it is always her priority to stay fit. Since she started Pure Barre three months ago, she notices significant changes.

“Pure Barre has acted as my therapy, loosening my muscles and helping improve my overall mobility,” Danziger says. “I enjoy exercising and I’m definitely seeing improvement with my body in terms of general toning, and an increase in my flexibility.”

Physical therapist Danielle Clare of D.C. Physiotherapy Associates lends perspective on Danziger’s success story and the general benefits of a low-impact exercise routine like Pure Barre. As a hiker, biker and runner, Clare frequently participates in sprint-triathlons and Tough Mudder competitions. This athletic background enables her to relate to patients, as well as demonstrate and explain their rehabilitation exercises in a more concise way.

“An individual’s main focus in a workout really depends on that person and what their strengths and weaknesses are,” Clare says. “A class like Pure Barre could be more beneficial [than other higher-intensity workouts] because it concentrates on maintaining proper form and posture. The instructors correct an individual’s form and focus on flexibility, toning, and strength.”

Classes are filled with varying age demographics. Older clients leave the barre with the same feelings of gratification as a “barre-goer” in their twenties. They are seeing results while keeping their joints protected, as there is zero impact involved.

“This [use of] proper technique and controlled movements could result in fewer injuries and in turn, be less strenuous and harmful to the body,” Clare says.

Now the class is migrating to the center of the floor for some final core work, which sparks an adrenaline rush similar to nearing a finish line. Clients glance toward the clock to see they only have a few more minutes to make their workout count. “Little down, little up,” the instructor says as she demonstrates the crunch-like exercise to the class, whose abdominal walls are pleading for a rest. They continue to power through, as beads of sweat form upon their upper lips. “10 more seconds! You can do anything for 10 seconds,” the instructor says. Then the music tempo decreases as the class-pace slows down. A few clients smile while releasing an exasperated sigh, and the final two minutes of class are spent on a meditational stretch sequence guided by the soothing voice of the instructor.

For Chaffee, Pure Barre has become more than the addictive, results-guaranteed workout she first discovered as a client in 2009 at a North Carolina studio. Now as the co-owner of multiple Pure Barre studios in this selective franchise, she says it’s the community-building aspect that hooked her from the beginning. With membership growing weekly, classes are reaching full-capacity days in advance as Pure Barre finds its way into the regular workout routines of women everywhere.

“Pure Barre makes you feel like you’re a part of something bigger than just going to work out. That really sets it apart,” Chaffee says. “For instance, when you just go to the gym, you hop on a treadmill, do your thing and then leave. Everyone can do Pure Barre, and people feel empowered when they come. That keeps people coming back.”

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