Face to Face: Fitness from a Distance

A conversation with Ballet Beautiful creator Mary Helen Bowers


Since retiring from a 10-year career with New York City Ballet in 2004, Mary Helen Bowers has transformed a home workout into an international fitness program, complete with a book, DVD and a developing apparel line. Like other ballet-based regimens, Bowers’ Ballet Beautiful offers an alternative to Pilates and yoga and uses ballet to help tone and strengthen. But unlike other programs, Ballet Beautiful primarily takes place online.

The virtual classes work like a Skype video chat or a FaceTime phone call. The instructor’s video feed is broadcast to students’ internet browsers, and students can also see themselves in the same window.

Bowers developed the classes from backstage workouts she did when performing with NYCB’s corps. Once she left the company, she began teaching a few women privately while getting her bachelor’s degree at Columbia University. Because the exercises were designed to fit in tight spaces, they translated well to clients’ living rooms. Over time, word spread about her program, and in 2008, Natalie Portman joined Bowers’ client list. She put her classes online just three years later, and today, Ballet Beautiful has more than 20,000 users in over 50 countries, including high-profile devotees like Liv Tyler and Zooey Deschanel. “The internet is an incredible platform,” Bowers says.

This fall, Lionsgate Home Entertainment released the Ballet Beautiful: Total Body Workout DVD. And Bowers has plans to keep expanding her company, especially online. “We’re introducing new widgets that will translate the classes into different languages,” she says. Dance Teacher spoke with Bowers about teaching from a distance—what she sees as the future of fitness training.

Dance Teacher: What was the inspiration for the online classes?

Mary Helen Bowers: I needed a way to stay connected with my clients while traveling with Natalie Portman, who wanted to use my workout to get ready for Black Swan. When I first connected with her, the movie hadn’t even been green-lighted—it was basically an art project that she and Darren [Aronofsky] were passionate about. But as the movie started to come to life, I knew we had to take the training to the next level, which meant traveling with her while she was working on other films in L.A. and overseas. So in order to keep training Natalie and my clients in New York, I had to put the workout online. I went to the Apple Store, bought my first MacBook and brought it into my lessons and showed my clients how we’d do it. After a while, I outgrew using other applications and wanted to have my own site and add e-commerce and a schedule. I have a  great team of professional programmers who’ve helped me develop my software.

DT: Not being able to physically interact with students must be challenging.

MHB: Actually, the biggest challenge is dealing with the internet—if power goes out or you lose your web connection, for example. Dance and exercise is all visual. It’s amazing how much you can communicate by simply demonstrating.

I use the video stream like a mirror. I can see what students are seeing and I can correct. If I’m telling you to straighten your knee, I have to make sure that my knee is really reading as straight and that you can see it onscreen. But it’s also a little different than a mirror because you’re sort of outside yourself in an interesting way.

DT: Why continue to push for more online classes when people can simply work out on their own with your DVD or book?

MHB: I love the social element of a dance or fitness class. There’s a different level of accountability when you’re in class or working with a private coach. And it’s fun! My overall goal is to make Ballet Beautiful accessible and something that really works for busy women leading modern lives.

DT: What’s your best advice for staying healthy during busy periods? 

MHB: It’s the same thing that improves your technique: consistency. Get into a steady pattern where you have a regular workout and your diet is satisfying and consistent. When you’re running your own business, it’s challenging. But find ways to treat your body with as much love and kindness as possible. Listen to it to know when you can push harder and when you need to pull back. DT

Photo by Ashley Connor, courtesy of Mary Helen Bowers


Clockwise from top left: Courtesy Ford Foundation; Christian Peacock; Nathan James, Courtesy Gibson; David Gonsier, courtesy Marshall; Bill Zemanek, courtesy King; Josefina Santos, courtesy Brown; Jayme Thornton; Ian Douglas, courtesy American Realness

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