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Pliés meet Pilates in a workout pas de deux

Fact: Ballet dancers have incredible bodies. Some alarmingly thin exceptions notwithstanding, most dancers possess well-defined, long and lean muscle tone - especially in their legs and backs - and very little avoirdupois.

They also have enviable posture, fantastic flexibility and unparalleled grace. None of this happens overnight, of course. Even the fittest among us can't just put on tights, stand en pointe and voilà, dance the role of Sugar Plum Fairy.

Which might explain why people are so reluctant to explore ballet as a form of fitness.

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But what if all those beneficial, functional exercises could be removed from the pressures of performance?

That's what Amy Brown of Pilates For Life had in mind when she introduced a Ballet Core class last month. She was also thinking ahead to the release of Black Swan on Dec. 1, and how everyone will be wowed by Natalie Portman's talent as a dancer.

I have been taking Pilates classes at her Toronto studio for more than a year and, while I have noticed improved mobility and less tightness, Ballet Core seemed like a more dynamic alternative to all the mat work.

The focus of Ballet Core (or, as I call it, Ballet-lates) is on toning. Within the first 10 minutes of the hour-long session, I realize how difficult the most basic of ballet moves can be. I never seemed challenged by a plié when I was 5. Decades later, I can no longer squat with the same range of motion. A battement tendu, where one foot extends sideways, never leaving the floor, requires serious core stability. A sauté is a finessed jumping jack without the flailing arms. Do three sets of 20 and expect to be winded.

Instructor Shalini Bhat has danced her whole life and now teaches Pilates. Having attended her fair share of ballet conditioning classes, she acknowledges that this follows neither a traditional ballet warm-up nor a Pilates class (the latter normally begins with ab work as opposed to targeting large muscle groups with standing exercises).

It also uses toning balls, pétanque-size balls filled with sand. "These lengthen the muscles," says Ms. Bhat, demonstrating movements where the arms are almost always outstretched or overhead. "Traditional workouts can shorten muscles and dancers are always after that long, lean body."

There is no barre in this particular studio; Ms. Bhat says the barre can create bad habits among non-dancers, who will lean on it for support instead of engaging the core. Instead, we do leg circles on the mat. Again, I'm dismayed by how something that looks so easy can prove so awkward. I can flex and point my feet, sure, but I cannot fully straighten my legs. Forget swan, I look like a flamingo.

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Ms. Bhat devotes the last quarter of the class to ab work - but she eschews crunches in favour of planks, side-to-side movements for the obliques and the dreaded Pilates 100, in which legs assume a tabletop position and the arms hover above the floor, pumping for every sharp exhale. Not fun.

Je-an Salas, the resident Pilates teacher at the National Ballet Company, hasn't tried this hybrid but confirms that the two forms of movement are well suited to be partners.

"[Pilates]teaches a person how to stabilize and mobilize the joints, and work within a full range of motion," she says by phone.

Unlike Ms. Bhat, she's a fan of barre work for beginners. "It's tactile feedback," Ms. Salas explains. "And if we do spine stretching, then it's good to have a hand on the barre."

Her sole concern is that instructors have a firm knowledge of both specialties. "It's a safety issue that boils down to proper body mechanics and technique," she says, citing the complexity of fifth position in which the toes of each foot are flush with the heels of the other.

Fortunately, we never reach fifth position in Ballet Core. Relevés (standing in a demi-pointe) are as close to prima ballerina as we get. I imagine, though, that if I kept taking the class, I might actually stand a chance of carrying myself with more poise. I'm definitely not looking to become hard-core. Although a strong core would be nice.

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Ballet core

What is it?

Drawing from principles of both ballet and Pilates, the hour-long class combines graceful jumps and squats with core and back-strengthening mat work.

What does it work?

From the neck to the feet, no body part gets overlooked. The movements progress from standing and weight-bearing to supine with minimal strain. Optional lightweight toning balls add more resistance and upper body work.

How hard is it?

Put it this way, if you don't feel some degree of muscle engagement or discomfort, you're not doing it properly. Instructor Shalini Bhat makes leg lifts and circles look easy. Just you wait.

What are classes like?

No Tchaikovsky here. Ambient music sets the mood for an informal, though quick-paced and continuous workout.

Who's taking it?

The class is only three weeks old, so currently only women who have double- and triple-checked that they need no previous dance experience. Some body awareness and familiarity with Pilates doesn't hurt, though.

Sign me up!

Drop-in classes at Pilates For Life cost $19.50. Class bundles and passes are also available. Visit

Sweat-o-meter: Ballet Core

Cardio intensity: 5/10

Muscle burn: 7/10

Fun factor: 7/10

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