If you saw the movie Black Swan you knew Natalie Portman was a shoe-in for the Best Actress Oscar. What you didn't see was the intense ballet lessons and training that Natalie went through to prepare to play the perfect Swan Queen. I caught up with Natalie's high-in-demand trainer, Mary Helen Bowers, to talk ballet, pliés, and the big win!
Mary Helen Bowers, founder of Ballet Beautiful
What are some misconceptions about ballerinas? So many people think they're too thin, but they do have that sleek, strong body we all try to achieve! I think the biggest misconception about a ballerina is that you have to be on an extreme diet or training regimen to sculpt that toned, graceful shape. But a ballerina's body is an incredible combination of strength and artistry—it's not about how thin you are. Ballerinas have a very specific, unique body shape because of the way in which we train and build muscle. This elegant yet powerful body shape is attainable for all women though! You do not have to spend hours a day in a gym or ballet studio to achieve it.
How has ballet helped shape your life? Ballet has been a HUGE part of my life from a very young age. I just always loved dancing and when I was really young I made up my mind that I just had to dance in New York City—so I left my family in Charlotte, North Carolina when I was just 15 years old to attend the School of American Ballet in New York. The following year I was invited to join the New York City Ballet! I was just starting my junior year in high school, so it was a really exciting time. I danced with the NYCB for 10 years and then founded Ballet Beautiful, an online global studio. My first studio location opens this spring down in Soho, NYC.
Read on for Bowers's favorite sculpting moves -- plus behind-the-scenes stories from Natalie's training!
Ballet has definitely made a comeback. Between Core Fusion, Physique 57 and Barre3 exercise programs and Black Swan's popularity, ballet is infiltrating the fitness scene. Why do you think ballet as a way to work out is becoming so mainstream? The ballerina body type is strong but graceful at the same time. The body is muscular while remaining feminine and very different from the type of physique that you might build from other workout programs, like lifting weights or bootcamp classes. So women get the best of both worlds with a ballerina body! My program Ballet Beautiful tries to break down that barrier that you can't have a ballerina's body and making a true ballerina's elegance and power available to all women from the comfort of their own home!
What's your favorite move that you can do everyday for instant sculpting? One of my favorite exercises is my Swan Arms series (the act of moving your arms like a swan would flutter her wings!). It's a great upper body workout that is challenging and incredibly effective, but also really beautiful and fun! I did this for hours upon hours with Natalie to get her that sculpted, lean look. If you want to try Swan Arms, do this: Begin either standing or sitting straight up, pulling in through the stomach, opening up the chest. Keep your neck long and stretch your arms our to your side, to second position. Drop and bend the elbows down, lowering the arms. Then lift the elbows and raise the arms from the elbows. Lower again and lift, while keeping lifted through your center and open through your chest. Repeat this 30 times. [Check it out HERE]
You obviously had a huge impact on Natalie -- she gave you a shout-out during her Best Actress acceptance speech! So what was your best experience with working on the film and with Natalie? Working on that movie was the best experience! Natalie put in so many hours of training and prep for that role. The first time she hit her turning sequence in class—that's when you continuously twirl while keeping your one leg lifted up—we cheered and jumped around. It was an awesome moment for everybody!
Can you tell us a little more about balletbeautiful.com?
Mary Helen leads a group of online participants during a session via Skype. CREDIT: Philip Montgomery for The Wall Street Journal
I'm so excited to share Ballet Beautiful with others and so glad a movie like Black Swan helped open doors for ballet and programs like mine to become more mainstream. I just launched live online training —so you can literally take a class with me from your living room! I'm so happy to be able to train women all over the world through the website. All you have to do is log on, sign into a class and work directly with me in real time. It's that easy! We also just launched the Ballet Beautiful Blast Series, which includes the Swan Arm workout. The Blast Series are fast, targeted workouts in just 15 minutes! The videos stream from our site, or you can play them from your desktop, laptop, or whatever mobile device you have (the iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch and Android). I'm hoping to open the world of ballet to anyone who wants to try it out! Check out Mary Helen's LIVE Ballet Beautiful classes via Skype (as you see in the picture to the right) and tell us what you think!