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Singaporean Men — Called To The Barre
These traditional ballet conditioning classes are sprouting all over the island, and men are invited.
By Guan Tan
/24 August 2018
"Can guys do this?" mimics Beh Hwee Sze. Beh is the founder of Upside Motion, a chain of boutique fitness studios in Singapore, and this is one of the most common questions she gets from her male customers. "There is often a preconceived notion that a barre class is a girly ballet class," she explains.
Beh was the first to introduce an institutionalised Barre class to Singapore back in 2012 — a time when the yoga and pilates trends were still unfolding, and Barre was largely unheard of in the local fitness industry.
"Nope, there weren't any barre class," Beh recalls. "There weren't many boutique fitness studios available back then either." Back then, like many other Singaporeans, Beh was practising Pilates. She first stepped into a Barre class in New York City, where she was there for vacation. "After the class, I realised I've not experienced such a class in Singapore!"
Barre, named after the actual bar that ballerinas use in their ballet conditioning exercises, is a form of exercise developed in the '50s by Lotte Berk, a former German-born dancer. Over the decades, different methods of Barre surfaced — some focus on cardiovascular training, dance techniques and rhythm, toning muscle definition and flexibility, while others cross barre regimes with yoga and pilates.
Owing to the background in Pilates, Beh chose to bring in Xtend Barre, a Pilates-based barre method developed by a professional American dancer named Andrea Rogers.
"Our first clients were those who have experienced a barre class abroad and were excited that it had landed on our shores," Beh recounts. "They were mostly ladies who moved to Singapore from the U.S. and Australian cities, where barre had already gained momentum."
One of these ladies who was first exposed to barre abroad was Singaporean Anabel Chew. "I first tried back in 2015 in New York City," the 31-year-old recalls. "I tried a class and literally have never done anything as challenging as it was." Chew later enrolled herself into a barre instructor training course, developed her own method, and launched barre studio, WeBarre, with another partner, Linda Tang, in January 2016.
In the same year, a Hong Kong-based barre studio, Barre2Barre, launched in Singapore. It was spearheaded by Jessica Felicia, a Californian-born Indonesian, who was trained in the American method called BarreAmped. "The BarreAmped method was created by Suzanne Bowen, who worked directly under The Lotte Berk Method in New York," Felicia explains. This crop of forerunners established the foundations of the local barre industry. And ballet being heavily associated as a feminine discipline, the first crop of Singaporean barre attendees was "mostly females, however, we got some token barre boys," Felicia recounts.
Over the past three years, numerous barre studios have sprouted all over the island. Amongst them are Called To The Barre, PLENA, Joyful Steps and Rhythm, and Barre Lab. Yoga studios like Jal Yoga slotted Barre in their class schedules, and Virgin Active introduced three different Barre methods for their gym members — and men started turning up.
At Upside Motion, their "Boys At The Barre" day, held two months ago in June, was fully booked. At WeBarre, 12 to 15 percent of clients are male, and likewise at Virgin Active, 10 percent of barre attendees are male.
"BootyBarre Plus was first launched in March 2017 as a group exercise class for Virgin Active members to participate in," Rue She, the head of programming at Virgin Active explains. "Due to its overwhelming popularity and demand from our members, we introduced BBarre Less, a type of Barre workout that does not require the use of a ballet barre, just two months after that." Earlier this year, the gym injected another New Zealand-based barre method named Les Mills to their schedule — and the instructor is male.
So, can guys do this?
"Yes," replies a ripped Samson Lau, the leading instructor for Les Mills barre at Virgin Active.
"When did I first step into a barre class? I think it was last year," Lau laughs. "It was crazy!" The instructor was formally trained in high-intensity and weightlifting regimes. "The stuff that I teach is very dynamic — big muscle groups like the quadriceps, shoulder presses, biceps and stuff like that. But barre? It takes all that away. You're going to hold there and just use one small, tiny muscle group. So you are forced to stay within that isolated group [of muscles]."
Lau found himself aching after the class. "The inner thighs, your butt and the glutes. Your lower back, the posterior chain and things like that — that we rarely use," he recounts. "It was very challenging." To Lau, barre has allowed him to condition smaller muscle groups, which complements his high-intensity workouts.
Beyond that, the artistry of barre gave him the leeway to drop all of the strict expectations that he had for himself in a gym. "Les Mills' barre, compared to other barres, is a bit different. It's all about dance," he says as he swivels his leg up into the air, into an arabesque, and into a full pirouette. Every 30-minute Les Mills barre class came to be his avenue of expression and revelry.
Later, he enrolled himself in a barre instructor training course. While he's come to be known as the "high-intensity guy" amongst the gym members, Lau now leads Les Mills barre classes as well.
Quite like Lau, kickboxer, Muay Thai fighter, and founder of local personal training studio Ghetto Fitness, Terence Teo, signed up for barre to supplement his primary practice.
When he first stepped into a barre class, he walked in with the misconception that barre was for females only. "But the mentality started to change after the first five minutes," Teo grimaces as he speaks. "This is not a female thing... It's not as easy as it looks until you try it then you will understand."
In fact, to Teo, there are numerous invisible gender boundaries in the arena of competitive sports. "Muay Thai is a male-dominated environment," he muses. Yet, as the local fitness industry burgeons, these gender divisions are slowly being ironed out. "Same for female clients who come into the gym — I have females who can fight better than guys."
His barre practice has helped him to increase muscular mobility and flexibility — all of which are key to Muay Thai fights. "It helps me to perform better," Teo explains. "With barre, you get more flexible, for kicks and movement." But more often than not, he's still one of the few guys — or the only one in class.
"You just get over it, and get used to being the only one in the studio," a 29-year-old Swiss-born Will Chenneveau chimes in.
Chenneveau has been practising barre for the past two and a half years. In the mornings, he hits the "weights and gym at Fitness First. The barre is to unwind in the evening — once a week." He strategically divides his workout regime, "weights will be more of the chest and arms. Barre is more for the legs and the core — and the butt," he laughs.
Like Chenneveau, a 31-year-old Alex Deleon found barre to be more demanding on the legs as compared to conventional gym workouts. In his own regime, Deleon runs and couples it up with bodyweight exercises.
"A lot of muscles are difficult to exercise through normal gym methods — the squats, pull-ups, and push-ups," Deleon explains. In a barre class, "my core heats up all over. It's a lot of balance on the sides. And the muscles in my butt and legs? I don't even know what they are called."
"I don't ever balance on my toes for any reason ever. But the moment I go up on my heels, my legs start shaking," Deleon continues. "I think it's really challenging."
Ming Lim, a barre instructor from local studio WeBarre explains this "challenge" that all of the above men have been unsettled by. The challenge is found in "maintaining the right posture while in the position. This, coupled with keeping up with the cardio element of the class? But then again, it is always so rewarding. I feel the same even though I've been teaching for some years now."
The 32-year-old has been practising barre for the past four years. With his male students, "They always end up saying, it was a good burn and a wake-up call to work on their overall flexibility and mobility."
The local barre landscape has arguably passed its infancy, and is in its formative years now. In the years to come, besides expecting more men to sign up for barre classes, the studio owners anticipate an influx of a wide variety of barre methods.
"Just like how the yoga industry has grown, I believe barre is going to be something that more male clients will do as a part of their fitness regime," Jessica Felicia, founder of Barre2Barre Singapore observes."
"We will definitely see more barre styles in the market," Beh Hwee Sze, founder of Upside Motion echoes. She expects to see more Pilates-inspired and "athletic, interval-based class types" in the local barre landscape. That being said, "For clients, it's really a great time to sample and find a class type that best fits you."
Anabel Chew, co-founder of WeBarre, reckons that the pool of fitness consumers in Singapore will only grow to be "more discerning, [by] understanding what a quality product is. And with that, raise the standard of the industry as a whole."
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