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Banned from Barre! What?

I’ve been doing barre-style exercise by going to studios directly and through an aggregator in the Bay Area called Class Pass. One of the local barre studios is a place called Alkalign. I had a bad experience with an instructor that didn’t choreograph or syncopate her workout with the music. Instead, the instructor just played an Internet pop radio station and it was difficult to hear her instructions over the singing and rock ballads and there was no cadence for the workout.
     At the end of every class, the instructors solicit feedback, “if you have any questions, comments, or feedback, please let me know after class.” My feedback has always been good, but short, like “thanks for the great workout.” But this instructor didn’t give a good workout and because I had obtained coverage for my daughters, paid for the class and invested time in the effort and I felt that I wasted the time, I gave feedback. Politely. I told the instructor that she should use music intended for this kind of a workout instead of Internet pop radio.
     Three weeks later, I learned that my feedback was not received well. The CEO of Alkalign (who I don’t recall ever meeting) sent me this email setting out conditions on which I could attend their studio:

It came to my attention that a couple of weeks ago after a class at my studio you approached the instructor to give feedback. We are all for constructive feedback but neither the nature of the feedback nor the way it was communicated was constructive or kind. The outburst made the instructor as well as several people in the vicinity feel uncomfortable. You followed up with a negative Class Pass review and told the instructor you would never come back. However, seeing that you returned to the Los Altos location on Wednesday I feel it necessary to address what happened.
I know we all have bad days but this was unacceptable. You are welcome to attend classes but I fully expect that you treat my staff and instructors with respect and kindness.
Erin Paruszewski
Founder & CEO
Alkalign Studios
Menlo Park+Los Altos+Irvine+Grand Rapids"

     I’ve thought about this email all week. It’s frustrating to have this happen and it’s embarrassing. What did I do wrong? I checked with Class Pass, and it got even weirder, because at the same time that the Founder & CEO of Alkalign wrote me to give the conditions on which she would permit my return (i.e., no more feedback, basically) the CEO also wrote Class Pass. The CEO told Class Pass something different—not that I could return, but instead, that I was banned from the studio! Here’s what Sammy at Class Pass said:

"We received your email at the same time we heard from the studio and I immediately passed your feedback to their account manager. I was then informed by their account manager Alkalign had already expressed that you not attend in the future. I apologize if this was not the case or unclear in any way."

     OK, so the CEO says I can come but not complain, but she tells Class Pass to lock me out of the system so that I can not attend in the future. Passive-aggressive much? I asked Class Pass about this. In response, apparently the description above about feedback was given differently to Class Pass. Sammy told me this:

"For additional context, in speaking with the account manager, the studio felt you had cornered the instructor and were belittling with your feedback."

     Holy cow! I went to a barre class at Alkalign, gave feedback, and three weeks later the CEO wrote me to say I could come but not complain, and she wrote Class Pass and told them to ban me from their system so that I could never come back. What a mess. There is plenty of barre around town so I’ll be fine. However, I’ve been thinking a lot this week about why the CEO studio would throw a tantrum like this. I’m not entirely sure but I have some theories.

Why is barre for me?

     Let me explain why I like barre in the first place. Ever since I decided to get healthy (which is only a couple years ago), I’ve found that one of the best all-around exercises is barre because the low-impact, strength-intense, movement inspired program is also highly therapeutic. I saw my daughters doing really amazing and difficult things with ballet and modern dance, and I wanted to learn more. Enrolling in ballet classes in late 40s isn’t practical. So I thought I’d try a couple barre classes to just get a sense of the moves, the muscles used for ballet, etc.
     I took a couple classes and I was hooked. I now attend one or two barre classes per week. For this, I don’t believe that more is necessarily better: the moves in barre vary somewhat but are generally “sculpting” style moves that tend to forge a certain body type. Essentially, a dancer’s body. Truth is, achieving that type of look (e.g., a ballet dancer) is, like many things in life, as difficult to accomplish as it is silly to aspire to. It involves a lot of repetition, elongation, small moves. My fitness goals require a weekly heavy lift every week because that’s the best combination to avoid all the brutal pain I had in my skeletomuskular system before. For me it's a recovery-style workout (as are yoga and Pilates for me) but it's become a consistent, fun, hard part of my fitness program.
     When traveling, the barre classes are the best. You can roll out of bed early and hit a 5:00 AM kicker to the day. There are several great franchises: Bar Method, Pure Barre, Barre3, Dailey Method and others. My absolute favorite is Bar Method in San Mateo—unlike Alkalign, they’re extremely welcoming and open to men. However, because of daily travel up and down Hwy 101 for work and sometimes around the country, it’s good to have options. Barre a great program and although there is some variety in the studios (mostly in their culture) the overall program is similar, with some combination of ballet techniques, pilates and yoga.

Barre is primarily a womens’ sport

Across the country, barre is predominantly (if not nearly exclusively) marketed to and attended by women. I haven’t exactly kept track, but I can remember a total of 4 or 5 times in hundreds of classes when there was another male in the class. The ratio is very small. Maybe 1:60. Why?
     Historically, American men don’t do ballet. Barre is ballet (or, at least it's frequently associated that way). It’s not manly to do ballet so it’s not manly to do barre. Leave ballet for Russian, Chinese or Cuban men, but not red blooded Americans. That’s the vibe.
     I propose that one of the main reasons there aren’t more men in barre is the same reason why there aren’t more men in ballet. The numbers of men in ballet programs shows this to be true. Anecdotally, based on my shuttling of daughters to/from dance, I'd say that the men/women ratios for ballet are about 1:12 and when adjusted for quality (it’s not like the one guy is always awesome) the reality is probably something like 1:40 or worse. Sure, there are examples of exceptional male ballet dancers, but unless you’re in Russia, China or Cuba, where there’s nearly 50/50 participation, then ballet is, basically, a woman’s sport.
     The phobia that men have of ballet has deep cultural roots. It’s a very American thing (other countries, too, but I’m just picking on America). I found a student’s online presentation that illustrated the point. In this student’s class, there were 12 female ballet students each year plus one male. Over the course of five years, the school would graduate 5x12=60 danceuses and just 5 danceurs. This compounding over time is engrained in our culture and explains why there are generations of Americans associating ballet as a women’s sport rather than for men. The student’s graph described it clearly:

     If it’s correct that men associate barre with ballet (either directly or indirectly), then it’s not a surprise that there are few American men that do barre.
     Similarly, although I don’t have any correlation or causation analysis to offer here, I have personally felt a strong negative association that men make with ballet and barre (it's viewed as uncool, to put it generously).  In my experience, our society can be pretty rude, assumptive, and accusatory about these things. But just as importantly, it’s not clear to me that men are always really welcome to join the ladies at barre.

How to change the scene

If the Barre Industrial Complex wants to entice more men to join barre, I think there are a few steps that can be taken.
     The first is a mindset change on the business-ownership level. It may seem obvious, but the business needs to decide if it wants to be a niche that serves women primarily or if it wants to recruit men. In my opinion this decision is harder to do in practice than in reality, and there are good reasons for the difficulty.
     There is a sense of safety and freedom from harassment that women rightly enjoy in all-women classes. Women are able to open up and be freer without the pressure of creepy gym lurkers, being hit on, etc. Gyms are famously bad at organizing good mixes of men and women and having to deal with sexual innuendos and relationship dynamics detract from the purpose of getting in shape. I suspect that putting on lululemon, athleta or allo's tight, form-fitting attire (the required uniform for barre) is also part of the empowerment, fun, and good for self confidence.  This is healthy for body and mind.  So in a case like barre, I can understand how women may want only other women nearby. If a man suddenly jumps in the scene, it could be seen as a kind of mini-invasion, a bogeyman or a virus that just shouldn’t be there.
     Also, let’s face it, the size of the male-dominated fitness category can be overwhelming. There’s a million meatheads and a million meathead gyms. Women have every reason to want their own thing. The problem is that many barre facilities seem to be confused, at best, about whether they really want male customers or not. Instead of embracing the idea of “this facility is for women, it’s our safe place, no men allowed” these studios frequently give a gloss about barre being for everybody. But it’s not r-e-a-l-l-y for everybody. Or perhaps it initiated as an intent to be open but later, out of practice, evolved to become viewed as a safe place for women and only women. Either way, I think it would be cleaner if some of barre places should simply declare themselves as women’s studios. That’s OK, it’s good for business and focus.
     A man in a barre class feels like the spotting of a unicorn (or maybe a bear) in the wild. Some people are intrigued, but it’s almost like a novelty and probably something to be afraid of. Is this man a predator? Just experimenting? It can’t be regular. Sometimes women feel awkward and insist on trying to help me feel comfortable, e.g., “my husband did barre with me . . . just once, but it's too hard for him.” Or the ladies will tell a story about their “spotting” of a man doing barre, something like “yes, there’s David who comes in once a month or so, I think, but now that I think of it, we haven’t seen him in a year.” The rare stories of male spottings are about as frequent as the stories about how they haven't showed up recently.
     There’s no doubt that having an occasional male attendee in an environment that rarely or never has them can change the dynamic.  There are many subtle signals sent and received about welcomeness and openess. Although our society and history overwhelmingly shows that men have been hostile and oppressive to women, yes, women can be hostile to men as well. And let me tell you, navigating this hostility (frequently it’s passive-aggressive) at barre is a bit complicated. Even when management is supportive, the dirty looks and snide comments can be frequent.  That's actually, OK, I know that my participation in barre requires an unusually high amount of deference to the studio and the other colleagues—much more so than in the case of a Gold's Gym, Crunch or even yoga.
     And here’s the problem with Alkalign. I respect what the women in barre are trying to accomplish, and it horrifies me to be accused of "cornering" and "belittling" an instructor.  I was disappointed by lack of professionalism and dearth of choreography and syncopation with music.  I asked the instructor if this was her typical style. The instructor looked at me like a ghost had spoken to her. The instructor cocked her head, looked at me sideways with confused look and a pointed index finger, “hmmm, I’ve seen you before, you’ve done barre before at least once, right?” With her question, the instructor has already disqualified me from having a valid opinion. So I decided not go into it far because her response and body language clearly told me that she didn’t care. I nonetheless told her that I didn’t think rock ballads were the best kind of music for barre. Then I returned to collect my daughters and carried on with the day.
     My translation of the message from the CEO is “we tolerate your kind, barely, but we don’t really want you here.” It’s the only explanation I can muster because she told me by email that I could come back if I don’t complain, and she instructed Class Pass at the same time that I’m no longer authorized to return at all. The owner used words about my behavior including “belittled” and “cornered” and used an overall description of me as an overly aggressive alpha male.
     That’s not what happened, and it doesn’t even make sense. With a class full of about 15 women and one man, and at the end feedback time, what man is going to aggressively “corner” the instructor and “belittle” her? And then the man would to go the studio the next week? Sigh.

Men and barre in the future?

I’m a huge fan of barre and I’ll continue with it. I frankly don’t care whether or not there are more men in barre, but it’s something that I think about a lot because it seems to come up. I’m not sanguine that we can change the perception of men and barre without addressing the problem of men and ballet. Perhaps some rebranding could help.
     Ultimately, the most important key to success in getting more men into barre is to first decide if they really want men, or if they’re just tolerating them. If it’s the latter, then please don’t open your door to us. Ironically, the best studios for barre (like my favorite, Bar Method in San Mateo) are doing so well and have so many sold-out classes to women that they probably don’t need to take on an effort to really recruit men, because they don’t have space.
     But for any studio that does want men, here’s the key to success: welcome us, help us (we need it), but don’t make us feel like mascots or aliens. A few incentives can go a long way, too. Studios that want to attract men may need to offer a kind of “happy hour” for men in the same way that bars may do to get women to come. Differential treatment may be required to get men in the door, but that’s where it should basically stop.


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