Mary Helen Bowers
THE FOUNDER OF BALLET BEAUTIFUL ON DANCE'S LIFE LESSONS AND HOW SHE DEFINES HER BEST BODY
Going to the ballet is a surreal, inspiring immersion of music, athleticism, and dazzle. Mary Helen Bowers embodied that life of discipline and hard-won prestige for many years as a prima ballerina in the NYC ballet, before deciding that she wanted to loosen up the reigns a bit. Since that shift, she’s created a beloved empire of ballet videos and classes that celebrate the joy of dance, lovingly called Ballet Beautiful.
We are very much part of the fan club, happily enduring endless swan arms and glute work to lengthen and define our muscles. While the moves seem slight, the results are nothing short of transformative, giving us greater confidence and a deeper awareness of our physical selves.
This year, through our Best Body Challenge (four weeks of powerful nutrition, movement, and creating transformational habits), we’ve connected with Mary Helen and the Ballet Beautiful team to provide unlimited access to this happy hybrid of strength and tone. Read more about Mary Helen’s take on motherhood, dance’s life lessons, and how she defines her best body.
Can you share with us how you created Ballet Beautiful?
It came back in this very organic way, however, which started with me wanting to pick up my workouts again. Missing moving my body but not really wanting to go back to a ballet studio, not wanting to go to the gym. I began picking up with my old workout with the series of exercises and stretches I created for myself when I was dancing with New York City Ballet. It started, first, with me sharing this workout with friends and then very slowly, one client at a time, building this sort of movement around a program that's helped bring ballet into people's lives. To bring health and fitness and a little bit of art and glamour and beauty and grace. Finding ways to make fitness and health an enjoyable part of everyday life. Not a punishment, and not a chore. Something that's about treating yourself with love and being kind to your body and creating that glow and that strength from the inside out.
What does finding your best body mean to you?
My best body is one that is happy and strong. As a young ballerina in NYC I faced tremendous pressure to have my body look a certain way and, in turn, I placed a huge amount of pressure on myself. This was a dangerous recipe that made me absolutely miserable and created a lot of unhealthy habits. One of the most important lessons that I’ve learned along the way is that my “best body” changes all the time. It needs to be nourished, moved daily and loved! For me this trifecta is eating 3 healthy, balanced meals a day with plenty of snacks, as much Ballet Beautiful as time affords and making happiness a choice that I actively pursue.
How has motherhood changed your relationship with your body?
Motherhood has given me a much better understanding of my body and its capabilities. The female form is so powerful and the process of becoming a Mom has given me so much appreciation for what I can do physically. I am totally in awe of my body now! To create, grow, birth and nourish a human being is a very special privilege that I am incredibly grateful for.
How do you think ballet has helped you change the way that you view yourself and your outlook on life?
Since it's such a huge part of me, it's hard to know how it's changed me, but I would say that my experience with it, coming from this very strict professional life of a ballerina where it's all-consuming, all day, every day, 24 hours a day practically. All you have time for is to live and breathe ballet. Leaving that world and taking a break had a huge impact on the creation of Ballet Beautiful and starting to understand the world of ballet from the perspective of a non-dancer.
I think it's been this really interesting journey from my first ballet class, to the stage, to then realizing that 'Hey, there's a way to share ballet with other people. There's a way for me to enjoy it that's a little less extreme than the life of a professional dancer.' Bringing more lightness to it, because I think that ballet can be a very serious art and that can weigh down on people. I wanted to bring a lightness to it and make it more accessible. Peeling back the curtain a little. That, for me, has been really fun and enjoyable and being able to share it with so many people around the world.
Why do you think people gravitate towards you and Ballet Beautiful?
I think it's a mixture of things. I think that people are drawn to the world of Ballet Beautiful because of the workout and the results. But, it's more than just changing your body. I think that it's about helping women find confidence and security in their bodies that they haven't had before. Making exercise more enjoyable and fun. So many of our clients are people, that are not necessarily “exercisers.” They're not the people that, no matter what is going on, will be training every single day. We've been able to bring a lot of people in that weren't necessarily working out and show them that you can work out and fitness can be fun. It can be beautiful. It can be glamorous. I think that's been very appealing, and then, of course, the workout also really changes people's bodies. That's always really motivating too. There are the results, which sort of speak for themselves, and then this more magical world of Ballet Beautiful and I think it's twofold.
What you can expect from doing a Ballet Beautiful workout as opposed to going to the gym and lifting weights or running on a treadmill?
This workout is very targeted. We're targeting what you call your “ballet muscles.” We're building lean muscle. We're going to add a lot of tone. That's going to help rev up your metabolism and the more muscle you have the more fat you're burning. It's not about restricting calories or dieting. It's really about changing the way that you're training and making sure that the workout that you're doing is smart. We obviously focus a huge amount on the legs. That's a big part of ballet, making sure that the muscles that we're working are getting strong and toned, like the inner thighs, the back of the thighs, the outside of the thighs. Overdeveloping muscles in your quadriceps, for example, can cause bulk really quickly and shorten the lines of the legs. With ballet, everything is about the extension. Even just a simple tendu, which is one of the most basic steps in ballet, and is French for “stretch”, has so much power behind it. That alone works towards changing the way that your body's shaped. It's about the muscles that you're targeting and also the way that you use them. That extension is a really unique part of ballet, particularly from the perspective of fitness. Most fitness is about contracting and curling. You're going to have power but from those types of contractions, you're going to have a certain type of thickness that comes with the muscle type. With dance, it's all about stretching so you're working incredibly hard but with really, really long movements, so you're always elongating the body.
If you only could do one movement a day, what would you recommend people start with?
Bridge work is my favorite for targeting the legs, butt, and core. I would recommend focusing first on our Ballet Beautiful mat exercises to build strength and tone and then adding in barre and cardio from our program.
When it comes to balance, can you share some of your tips, tools, and rituals that you practice in your everyday life?
It's hard to figure out how to listen to your body but that to me is the best way to achieve balance because your body really tells you. Maybe today I'm a little more hungry, or I need more exercise or more sleep. Maybe I need more time to focus and do work or relax. So, the more you can sort of tune in to those signals, I think the easier it is to achieve balance. You're not going to have the same formula every single day. It's just not realistic. Life is too busy and messy and chaotic. Sometimes you're going to have your full hour to exercise, sometimes you're not. Sometimes you're going to be able to shop for yourself and prepare healthy foods and sometimes you're gonna have to pick them up or depend on a service like Sakara to be able to provide those for you. But having the baseline of what you're ideal is sets the tone, and then you've just got to be flexible. Sometimes you'll be able to do it all and sometimes you can't. And that's fine, but finding a way to do it with the most grace and being as kind to your body as possible in that whole process is so, so important.
What are some of the biggest life lessons you’ve learned from dance?
Discipline is a huge part of dance. Ballet taught me the rewards of committing to something fully, working hard and seeing things through. You can’t make excuses and succeed as a dancer. At the end of the day, you are up on stage and it’s hard work that gets and keeps you there! Aspects of the dance world itself can, however, make for a very unhealthy and stressful environment. With Ballet Beautiful I have tried to create a world that centers around the magic of ballet and its movement in a way that is happy, healthy and fun!
Can you tell us how BB brings support to women and helps nurture the feminine fire?
It's a powerful time for women. I think you see that in a lot of different fields; women are coming together. They're coming forward. They're taking on new roles and leadership, and so, helping support women with whatever those goals are and being a part of their day that makes them feel stronger, happier, healthier, better. To me, that’s a really important thing to do with your everyday life and I'm so happy to be able to contribute to that and hopefully not just help people feel like they're achieving whatever physical goal they have, but helping them achieve strength, empowerment, and confidence across a lot of different levels. Women’s voices are coming in the spotlight, as never before and I think it's just the beginning.