The temperatures are soaring outside but on a recent weekday morning, members of Synchro Swim Ontario have skipped the pool to stand in ballet's first position in a stuffy room inside the Etobicoke Olympium.
"Point and one-and-two-and-three-and-four!"
Shouting out the counts is Jennifer Nichols, a lithe ballet dancer who has pioneered the Extension Method, a workout regimen combining classical dance technique with strength and cross training exercises using rubber bands, free weights and complex movement sequences.
Today, she has the swimmers lined up along a ballet barre doing rapid-fire foot drills to build speed, extension and finesse in their leg work. Next, she orders them to go centre floor to hold their balance on one foot.
"Ballet is not just an art it's a sport," says Nichols, who dances with Opera Atelier in Toronto in addition to running her own dance fitness studio, Extension Room, located on Eastern Avenue.
"For these swimmers, I'm adapting ballet technique to make it serve them in the pool. These exercises will help them hold their core stable while their limbs are doing extreme movements in the water and increase their range of motion."
Ballet builds flexibility. It also builds strength, speed, agility, balance, mental focus and endurance, which might explain why ballet workouts are the latest fitness craze, benefitting elite athletes but also those looking to add a little bounce to their exercise regimes.
Barre-based fitness programs are popping up all over the country and come wrapped in tutu-sounding names like Bar Method (Vancouver), Barre Beautiful (Toronto) and Halifax Barre (Halifax and Dartmouth). Toronto's Barreworks recently opened a second location in response to growing demand for its body sculpting and cardio classes using weights, balls and the ballet barre itself for building strength and endurance. The popularity of the programs has been built on high-profile success stories.
When NHL goaltender Ray Emery was facing the premature end of his hockey career in 2010 as a result of a debilitating health issue that required surgery to his hip, he took up ballet. Less than a year later he was back playing as a member of the Anaheim Ducks.
Mick Jagger credits ballet for enabling him, at age 70, to move, well, like Jagger.
In a 2011 Brazilian documentary, World Heavyweight Champion Evander Holyfield is seen doing pliés at the barre as part of his overall fitness regime. "When I was fighting the big guys I needed to have something that they didn't have," he explains. "These guys were bigger so I had to have a game plan. And flexibility was the key."
Now, the benefits of ballet training have got amateurs ponying up to the barre. And they're not all women.
Toronto marathon runner Cory Pagett has been studying with Nichols for the past five years.
"This has been of great help with the endurance aspect of long-distance running," says Pagett, a marketing specialist. "The cardio portion of the classes helps with heart strength, breath control and that non-physical attribute, will power, when facing particularly gruelling courses or hills which require me to dig deep for that extra amount of drive."
At Vancouver's Barre Fitness, co-founder Ella Jotie is seeing a sharp increase in male clients.
"We've recently been working with male soccer players, a professional lacrosse player and competitive road cyclists," says Jotie. They've all told her the exercise has helped build strength and heightened flexibility.
In Halifax, Laurissa Manning, who owns Halifax Barre, is presently training a male cyclist at her Dartmouth studios.
"Cyclists don't often think to use ballet as part of their training, but it definitely yields benefits," Manning says. "Ballet gives them heightened stability."
Nichols' Extension Room ballet workouts use the supporting apparatus of the ballet barre but, as in a real ballet class, also uses the floor to test individual balance and poise. Participants are also encouraged to jump, turn and do running leaps, or jetés, to build stamina.
Nichols designed her workout to train basketball players to jump higher, hockey players to skate better and soccer players to execute quick lateral moves with a reduced risk of injury. "Athletes," she says, "do not know how to really use the full potential of the foot. Use of turnout and strength in the peroneals – the lateral side of the calf – would also decrease ankle sprains when players land from jumps by ensuring that the foot is trained not to roll over the lateral edge."
The trend didn't come out of nowhere. Ballet as a strength- and endurance-building regime has a long history: Originating in the 16th century as an exclusively male pursuit, it was used to train men in the arts of war – fencing, jousting and military discipline.
Even so, Nichols says she often encounters resistance when offering to train professional male athletes.
"They think ballet is effeminate and somehow beneath them," she observes.
"The gender stereotypes are still so shockingly prevalent, despite the fact that scientists and doctors are unanimous in stating that ballet dancers are the fittest and most well rounded in existence," says Nichols.
"I have guys sometimes hovering by my door, wanting to come in and then chickening out," she says.
"But if they think ballet is for sissies, they are dead wrong."
Just ask Evander Holyfield.