Mary Helen Bowers practices what she preaches, and has the body, peace of mind and cultlike fashion industry following to prove it.
Often the road to a successful fitness empire is paved with good intentions and pitted with lots of near-impossible promises. The latter part of that equation holds no weight for Bowers, which she demonstrates with the latest addition to her dance-inspired fitness company, “Ballet Beautiful,” an exercise and lifestyle guide released by DaCapo-Lifelong Books today.
This story first appeared in the June 12, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“People are still into the quick fix…the juice cleanse now or the anticarb diet 10 years ago,” Bowers explains on a balmy June day over a skim cappuccino at the Mercer Kitchen, a few blocks away from her company’s sunny, whitewashed studio on Greene Street in New York.
“It works if you’ve ever tried it: you’ll lose weight really quickly, but you just can’t maintain it,” she goes on.
Bowers is whippet thin: all lean, toned muscle and impeccable posture. She danced with the New York City Ballet for a decade, and can still deliver fiercely intimidating physical flexibility with nonchalance. She looks years younger than her age, which is 32.
“Ballet Beautiful is about finding balance and making fitness a part of your life in a happy, healthy, rewarding way where you get to feel pretty and look beautiful. It’s not about beating yourself up in the gym and locking yourself in a dark room with blasting music,” she explains. “A lot of fitness has that very masculine energy and drive, and that never worked for me. I want to be challenged, I don’t want to be told that I’m terrible, and that I suck and that I’m not good enough — that’s not motivating. I think the measure of a really good fitness program is how well you’re really able to maintain it and be happy.…If you’re not happy, it’s just not really going to work.”
A few photos of Bowers onstage at Lincoln Center pepper the shelves of the Ballet Beautiful studio, nestled alongside beat-up toe shoes, a stray can of Elnet and a few glass jars holding fresh flowers. One gets the feeling that for her, like many who choose careers with a very defined physical requirement and inevitable sell-by date, ballet wasn’t always beautiful.
“There’s no feeling like performing. It’s magical, it’s so rewarding, and it just feeds this special little part of your soul,” Bowers says with a smile. “But the lifestyle is so crazy and demanding. It’s all-consuming. It’s every part of your life, every single day. And for me, it was like a scale, where I felt like I always took out a lot more than I put in, and when that scale started to tip a little, to where I was putting in way, way more than I was taking out? That’s when it was time to leave.”
Bowers left the troupe for Columbia University as an undergrad at 26, where she went from being perpetually physically active to full-time student. Her weight and body, she says, completely changed. When she wanted to get back into shape, she eschewed the gym in favor of the aerobic exercises she’d developed years previous, after a dance injury: “45 minutes a day in my apartment, and I was shocked by the results.”
Her friends were as well, and began asking her for help training to achieve the lean, toned physique of a dancer. Ballet Beautiful was born.
For all her talk of “feeling pretty and looking beautiful,” Bowers’ program is not for sissies. Ballet is famous for the appearance of effortlessness in the face of tremendously wrenching strain, and Bowers is the trainer, after all, who whipped Natalie Portman into “prima” shape for her role in 2010’s “Black Swan.” The actress wrote the foreword for “Ballet Beautiful,” noting that, after working with Bowers, her “arms and legs completely changed shape. My posture looked, as my dad said, like I had swallowed a broom.” After the high-profile transformation of Portman’s physique, Ballet Beautiful took flight, and now counts other notable clients like Karen Elson, Sarah Sophie Flicker, Rachel Antonoff, Liv Tyler and Zooey Deschanel, most of whom contributed rapturous quotes to the book jacket and DVD covers.
The book is the latest development of Bowers’ multipronged approach. Her studio allows for group and private instruction, and there is a growing series of DVDs, online classes and streaming videos available. Bowers is workshopping a line of specialized ballet slippers for the company and is considering creating a line of dancewear, though the design she is most proud of to date is her Web site, balletbeautiful.com. The online studio enables clients to have training sessions via Skype from wherever there’s WiFi.
“I really think it’s the future — for all industries — but definitely fitness,” Bowers says. “A group class can have up to 12 people at a time: there’s a lot of privacy features built in, if people want them, but most people like the social aspect of fitness…and this brings that into your home. It’s live, fresh content, and you have that give-and-take with the trainer.” Bowers notes that some of her clients are “traveling in the summer, in the Hamptons or overseas, or models who are away on shoots. We can schedule training sessions anytime. Having the live element of the workout be really portable? That’s truly making it accessible. That’s a big part of staying connected in the program and getting great results.”
Training, whether guided or solo, and a certain level of consciousness are both central to Bowers’ Ballet Beautiful ethos, which she ultimately sees as much of a guide to transforming one’s life as it is one’s limbs.
“I like to think that when you take care of yourself, when you do nice things for yourself, it has a nice ripple effect on the rest of the world.”