I started doing barre about three years ago, after being told its focus on my core would make me a better runner. While the workout was tough and produced results, there was something else about it I didn’t expect: I was always the only man in the room. This isn’t uncommon when you enjoy fitness classes – sometimes dudes just want to stick to the floor instead – but in spin or a kettlebell session, there had always been the feeling that even if I was the only man, another could walk round the corner and come in at any point.
For some reason, barre felt different. It felt the way I imagine yoga did to those first pioneering chaps in the 1990s: like I had stumbled upon a space men had ignored and so women had claimed as a safe space. Every gym and studio I went to (and I’ve been to my fair share) I galumphed in and seemed to have shattered some kind of sacred, quiet, feminine space. I began to feel guilty: like I was ruining a moment of release; as if by steamrolling over an oasis for women just so I could work on my core I was doing something profoundly misogynist.
It ended up becoming something of a complex: one time, I turned up to a studio to discover they didn’t even have a men’s changing room and was offered the disabled loos in exchange. Another time, desperate to finally find other men who loved barre, I went to a studio that had been praised by Men’s Health: I was, again, the only man in the class. This was probably for the best: it was so small that if two six-foot gym goers had tried to do some of the moves we’d have been kissing in the middle of the studio.
But each time – alone in the changing room; alone in the class – I wondered if barre, truly, could ever be for a man. Was I somehow wrong to think it was something I enjoyed and benefited from? Was the male body even designed to acces and grow stronger as a result of a barre class?
The answer is, obviously, yes: men are just as capable of doing and benefit just as much from barre. While it’s undeniable that male ballet dancers have physiques any man would kill for, barre – which is ballet but also not – has benefited sportspeople in many disciplines: footballers use it for injury prevention; runners have used it for strength; NBA players have fallen in love with it; and Wigan Warriors’ under-19s are advocates. But my reticence to explore it, as a dude, was far from uncommon: it’s something the barre field is really trying to tackle.
Depending on who you speak to, barre can be described any number of different ways. For Courtney Thompson, who teaches at Disco Barre in London's Dalston, it’s “a fitness adaptation of ballet movement”, using core ballet techniques, mixed with the format and structure of a fitness class. For Charlotte Tooth, who teaches TRX/Sculpt at Core Collective (barre with additional TRX thrown in) it’s “movements that you might see in a ballet class and mixing them in with Pilates and bodyweight exercises”. For Rod Buchanan, however, who is co-head of barre at Psycle, barre’s association with ballet might be its greatest problem. “A lot of places just cheat it and it becomes a ballet class,” he said as we sat, sweating after nearly an hour at the barre. “You don't have to be a dancer to do barre.”
Forty-year-old Buchanan was a professional dancer before a brain tumour threw his life into chaos: “When I got healthy again, it was barre that really started testing my body.” For him, barre is all about when the body starts to tremble with the effort of maintaining various positions: the sensation of isometric holds lengthening muscles, heating up the twitching muscle fibres. “The shaking is muscle fibres breaking down,” explained Buchanan, “and it's how you lean the body out and build strength.” He moved into fitness, started teaching barre and then Psycle brought him on to codevelop their barre programme.
After arriving at Psycle, Buchanan sat down with the co-head of barre (Maria Eleftheriou) and figured out everything they loved and hated about it. They also wanted to make sure men came: part of the appeal of coming to Psycle was the fact the studio already had a lot of men in attendance. “We wanted to strip the femininity away from it,” explained Buchanan. “Every single move has a name. We were like, ‘They don’t need to know the names. Just make it clear instructions, clear directions.' Some of the traditional positions might be a little bit more dancey looking. So we changed the lines of it.”
Buchanan wanted to move away from well-lit, carpeted dance studios where people weren’t trying to sweat. “A lot of women will go to a barre class so they can leave and be like, 'I did a lovely workout. But I didn't sweat.' And they can go straight for a blow dry." That was not how he wanted to run his class. Psycle’s barre classes turn the lights down low, move you to the beat and don’t give you a second to stop.
I went to one of his 55-minute classes and he’s right: Psycle’s barre classes are nothing like the ones I’d been to. Lit with neon and done to the beat, it feels much more dynamic. “We like to get down and dirty,” Buchanan said, “and grittier and sweatier.” You’re moved from the centre of the room to the barre to your mat and back round again several times, meaning you don’t feel like you’ve entered ‘the barre half’ of the class, locking you in second position for the next 20 minutes. Did he pick on me a lot? Yes, because I was terrible! Am I deeply inflexible? Of course! And while about 35 minutes in I began to loathe every fibre of my body for how it was failing me, I left with that great feeling of having just had a sensational workout. Other Psycle barre classes I attended advised us to start primal screaming when the shakes got too much: all of us took them up on the offer.
For Buchanan, the muscles barre works out in men are cruelly ignored by most of their regular exercise regimens. “When we go to the gym we look in the mirror and we only see the front. We tend to only move our bodies in one plane,” explained Buchanan. “You’re doing squats, your mid glutes are weak and so you end up injuring your back. Maybe your core is weak: barre helps strengthen all the little intrinsic muscles, muscles that we don’t use in everyday life.”
“It targets the smaller muscle groups that are often missed,” explained Core Collective's Charlotte Tooth. “I have had plenty of guys comment after class saying that the class was so much harder than they presumed it would be and that it’s exactly what has been missing from their training.”
“It will improve your squat and your deadlift and your big compound movements. You’ll understand engaging your body,” added Disco Barre's Courtney Thompson. “You’re working out the insides of your legs, which are predominantly forgotten. There is so much that’s forgotten, because the body is complicated.”
Thompson, like Buchanan, came to barre via a dance background. He’d trained at London Contemporary Dance School, then worked at Third Space after. That was where he started teaching barre, which he saw as a perfect fusion of what he’d learned as a dancer and what was great about the fitness world. Although he’s taught men all throughout his career, he said that, “When you gear a class towards the women that always come, you can sometimes forget about the men. My ambition has been to get more male classes, where you can really push each other.” He wanted to create classes specifically designed to accommodate to the needs of men: at Disco Barre he not only teaches classes for men, but also a new class – Gay Barre – specifically designed for queer dudes.
A lot of barre fitness, says Thompson, is derived from the techniques of Lotte Berk: a radical believer in free love who saw barre as a way for women to build sexual confidence and competence. “It’s a lot of pelvic floor engagement,” said Thompson, diplomatically, “which may not correlate to men. The physiology is very different.” But more modern forms of barre, including the stuff he teaches in Gay Barre and other classes, moves away from that. “It’ll be more compound movements, a bit more testosterone-fuelled, but still focusing on those stabilising muscles.”
If you fear that, as a guy, you might be born with an ineptitude for barre, this isn’t the case. “The main reason I see men finding barre a little harder is because they usually don’t do it as much as women do,” explained Tooth. “We do well what we do often, right?” Both Thompson and Buchanan conceded that many men might come to the classes less flexible or co-ordinated than women who attend, but that these can be taught and there’s no distinct reason men should find barre any harder than women. The most important thing, really, is consistency: “Don’t just come once. If you come once, you might be like, ‘It’s not for me.’ Come twice, then you’re like: ‘OK, this makes a wee bit more sense,’" said Buchanan. "When you come a few times that’s when it starts to get addictive.”
I wondered if there’s a sense, as I'd sometimes worried, that men are not welcome. Both Buchanan and Tooth said there’s not a chance. In fact: women love seeing men enter the room. “If I see a guy by my side in TRX/Sculpt, I have instant respect for him trying something that has previously had a reputation for being more femme-centric,” said Tooth. “Women comment saying they enjoy having a guy in the class, as it can provide healthy competition.”
When I went to Buchanan's class, it was the first time I had ever been one of multiple men. Admittedly there were just three of us – and one had turned up only because he’d missed his yoga class – but with other dudes around I began to feel a little less like a malign agent in the room and a little bit more like this could be for me.
It really does feel that barre is going the same way as Pilates and yoga in previous decades: once seen as feminine, both have been reclaimed as exercises that benefit people across the gender spectrum. Just like any other form of exercise, your first class – or first instructor – might not be the right fit for us. But a few classes in, you might just find the feeling of your entire body trembling is the rush you’ve been missing at the squat rack.