Mary Helen Bowers, Ballet Beautiful
The woman behind the leanest bodies (hi, Natalie Portman in Black Swan and our girl, Lily Aldridge on the VS runway...) sheds light on how she is disrupting people's ideas of ballet in order to connect them to their strongest, most confident selves.
Can you tell us about your journey to Ballet Beautiful?
It goes back to being a girl falling in love with dance and ballet. That was just the thing that I wanted to do. I think somehow it's always just been a huge part of my heart and of my life. Then, flash forward after moving from North Carolina moving to New York, studying and dancing at the School of American Ballet and then being invited to join New York City Ballet and living out that dream on the stage. I then came to a point where I realized I was ready to retire, to make a change. Initially I didn't know what kind of role ballet was going to play in my life when I took that step, so it was pretty scary initially.
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 every day 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.
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 bit less extreme than the life of a professional dancer.' Bringing more lightness to it, because I think that ballet is so beautiful but it 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 really enjoyable and being able to share it with so many people around the world.
Was it difficult to come back to ballet?
Not necessarily but I needed a break physically and emotionally and all of that stuff. I think it's important that when you feel that with whatever it is in your life, that you respect and listen to it. For me, I was able to find ballet in a whole new way and created this very original concept of blending ballet with fitness and lifestyle in a way that is about strengthening and nurturing the body. So, coming at it from a more healthy and lighthearted perspective.
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. So, making exercise more enjoyable and fun. We have a really high conversion rate for people that are not necessarily exercisers. They're not somebody that no matter what is going to 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. So sort of opening up those various aspects. 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 or Ballet Beautiful and I think it's twofold.
Can you tell us how Ballet Beautiful brings support to women and helps nurture the feminine fire?
I mean, I think it's a powerful time for women. I think you see that in a lot of different fields; that 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 this part of the their day that makes them feel stronger, happier, healthier, better. That to me is a really important thing to do with your everyday life and so I'm so happy to be able to contribute to that and hopefully not just help people feel like they're getting in to their skinny jeans or whatever the physical goal they have, but helping them achieve strength, empowerment, and confidence across a lot of different levels. Women are coming in the spotlight, as never before and I think it's just the beginning.
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. So, 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 or anything like that. It's really about changing the way that you're training and making sure that the workout that you're doing is really 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. Over developing muscles in your quadriceps, for example, can cause bulk really quickly and shorten the lines of the legs. With ballet, everything is about 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.
When it comes to balance, can you share some of your tips, tools and rituals that you practice in your every day life?
It's hard to figure out how to listen to your body but that to me is the easiest 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 gonna have your full hour to exercise, sometimes you're 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 and lower your expectations a little bit. 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.
We tie everything around the idea of legacy and the mark that you want to leave behind. Can you tell us about the mark you want to leave on this world?
I think it's so important to just spend your time doing the things that you love and for me, that's ballet and finding a way to share it with people. To inspire them, to empower them, to strengthen them. The more people we're able to share Ballet Beautiful with people and have their lives change? That's the biggest mark of success for this company and I think for my role in it. This company is not only about women of course, but certainly that's the huge part of our base. So, anything that we can do as women to support each other and make each other healthier, stronger, live better lives, hopefully longer lives and even a better quality of life while we're at it. To me, that is important work.