Natalie Portman in all her Rodarte glory inspired a following, an awakening of sorts. It was reminder to all those who chose not to follow the dream they carried through primary school printed on library bags and in the tightly-wound buns and leotards of Saturday mornings, but instead the path that would pay the rent, that was better-suited to their body. They were the ones told they were too tall, too big; the ones who believed it. Ballerinas are, after all, oh-so-delicate. But Black Swan changed all that. More accurately, though, it wasn’t Portman. It was Mary Helen Bowers.
Bowers is one of the few who didn’t give up that dream – from twirling down grocery aisles in her hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina to dancing with New York City Ballet for close-on a decade – she followed her passion from the supermarket to the stage, and has spent her time since helping others remember their own dream – including Portman. Ballet Beautiful is a fitness and conditioning program of Bowers’ making, firmly grounded in the training a dancer would receive and brings ballet to those of us who are not as dedicated as Portman’s Nina Sayers. Because, let’s face it, being a ballerina is hard. Think the loud crack of her ankle in front of the mirror and those scratches on her back. Mary McCartney shadowed the dancers of the Corps de Ballet dancers at London’s Royal Opera House for months and the shots are graceful in their brutality: think Caroline Duprot sitting in one sink, her feet resting in the cool water of the adjacent.
“It’s a hard job,” says Bowers, “it’s a very demanding job because ballet is so physical, you are living a life really like you are a professional athlete. I think one of the reasons ballet is so beautiful is because it is this incredible mix of artistry and athleticism and the part that is most difficult in terms of the lifestyle is the physical aspect. The days are so long; you dance 10 to 12 hour days, six days a week. You work so, so hard and it’s a constant battle to keep your body in top form so you will be able to perform and keep on performing.”
Still, it is one of those things you can’t help but love; to want to do. The long arms and neck, the posture, the carriage that’s so damn perfect. “Ballerinas have a really neat body shape. People in NY ask me all the time: ‘Are you a ballerina?’ Part of that is the way that I’ve trained my body to carry those muscles. Dancers always have really elegant posture … they are a little more upright. We’re using our muscles in different ways, muscles that aren’t targeted by other sports or fitness programmes. The same thing is true with the posture. It’s not just about putting your shoulders down, it’s the way you build strength through your back, your ribcage, your centre, your whole upper body. And it’s very attainable – all of it really is.”
Bowers’ program targets the same muscles a ballet workout would – think the inside and backs of the legs, your bum and the outside of your hips, your stomach, and your upper body – to shape muscles worthy of words like ‘lean’ and ‘toned’ and to lengthen your lines and reduce cellulite. Much like the Alexander Technique, it’s about creating a carriage that supports, that is weightless, effortless. Bowers was never a Jane Fonda devotee, but she is building her ballet empire through her internet-ready videos. Her Swan Arms series focuses on the upper body; they’re exercises that require no weights, so there’s no bulk. She also has a ‘butt series’ – think where your bum meets your thigh – along with a full body blast and stretching in a mean 15 minutes.
“If you’re doing Ballet Beautiful, your body would start to transform, your muscles would get longer and leaner and your posture would improve. You’d have the physical benefits of ballet without the gruelling training and that difficult and consuming lifestyle.”
Bowers says that from training two to three days each week “you’ll see a change probably in as little as two to three weeks” thanks to the targeted nature of the exercises. “People write to me and tell me about how they feel they are carrying themselves differently, their shoulders are stronger and they’re feeling better. Sometimes that helps relieve back pain and things like that as well. There’s just so many benefits ... Anything you are doing to better yourself has this wonderful ripple effect. It can roll over into other aspects of your life, make you feel more confident, happier. It affects the way you make decisions and go through your day.”
So while you may not have – or want – the mettle to dance the Black Swan, and the divide may remain between the things you love and things you’re good at (if there wasn’t, we’d all be professional anything-we-wanted), there is no reason why you can’t build a ballet body of your own. “I’m a big believer that it’s not just for professionals,” says Bowers of ballet. “I enjoy tennis; I’m a terrible tennis player but I have a lot of fun. I think the same can be true with ballet.”
Discipline and motivation are elusive for many, but the ‘all or nothing’ mentality when it comes to fitness, says Bowers, will do you few favours. “It’s really important for people not to worry about what they did or what they didn’t do yesterday and to focus on what they can do today,” she adds. “There’s a lot of guilt. Don’t worry about that stuff, just focus on what you can do to have a great workout today, to feel better and to come back tomorrow. If you don’t have an hour, do 15 minutes.”
“I just want to be perfect,” Portman breathed as the petite-framed Sayers. And her choreographer and seducer Vincent Cassell’s Thomas Leroy’s reply? “The only person standing in your way is you.”