This article was written by Monicha Tully and originally featured in Issue 01 of Arcadia magazine. Buy the magazine here.
Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan changed the way that ballet was perceived in popular culture for a generation. Black Swan delved into the dark, chaotic underworld of ballet, where egos reigned supreme and transfiguration met disfiguration.
It was ballet’s dirty little secret that inside the powder pink pointe shoes, there were toes wrapped in blood-soaked bandages. Ballet dancers moved as fluidly as the wind across stages, a serene expression masking their pain.
This did not coincide with the whimsical dream that filled the heads of little girls all over the world as they pranced around in their brand new tutu. So what’s the truth about ballet?
I spoke to Mary Helen Bowers, a former prima ballerina turned fitness master. Mary Helen has a black book of high-profile clients; she has worked with the Angels in the run up to the Victoria’s Secret show and even trained Natalie Portman for her Academy Award winning role in Black Swan. I was on a mission to find out the truth about ballet from the ballerina that knows best.
They say that if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. At just 15-years-old, Mary Helen moved from her hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina to Manhattan to study at the prestigious School of American Ballet.
Mary Helen recalled nostalgically: “I was very fortunate to study there. We were able to watch some of the best ballerinas in the world perform every night, so in terms of my training, I couldn’t have had a better education.”
She added: “Everyone in New York is chasing their own dream. It’s a very work-centric town and even for me as a young adolescent, I adopted that outlook.”
Ballet is notoriously competitive and ruthless. Mary Helen was alone in an anonymous city at just 15-years-old; she had to learn to look after herself pretty quickly.
She laughed knowingly, then said: “The only way to survive that kind of high-pressure environment is to focus on yourself. To succeed you must work hard, but to be truly happy you need to focus on your own goals. You mustn’t measure your success by what anyone else is doing.”
At 16-years-old Mary Helen was invited to join the New York City Ballet, arguably one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world. The challenges at the School of American Ballet were child’s play in comparison; the safety net had well and truly been whipped out from under her.
Mary Helen revealed: “I was a child that had just adjusted to the environment at the School of American Ballet, then I was thrust into this very intimidating professional world. I was the newest and the youngest in an adult environment, where the pressure intensified beyond belief.”
A knowing laugh escaped Mary Helen’s lips, she continued: “At my previous school, the biggest achievement was impressing the teachers, but this was a whole new world. Suddenly, I was performing in front of three thousand people a night, the stakes were much higher.”
She confessed that the ballet world lacks the support system that is a necessity for young people embarking upon adulthood.
Mary Helen exhaled deeply and said: “In my experience, ballet isn’t a tremendously supportive world. You really have to learn how to figure things out for yourself pretty quickly. I was fortunate in that I was able to do so quickly and thrive in that environment.”
She continued: “It’s not like the older girls are going to take you under their wing and show you how to do your hair or put on your makeup. You are the competition.”
Ballet is not for the faint hearted; they spend arguably the best years of their lives chained to the barre. The training is rigorous and has broken many.
They say that nothing worth having is easy. Iconic dancer Martha Graham once said that ‘dance is the hidden language of the soul’. There is something so natural and yearningly honest about ballet that doesn’t quite transcend to the other arts.
Behind the grandeur of glitter and gilt, when the velvet curtain is drawn, there is a dancer who has devoted her life to her art. For a few moments, all the pain and sacrifice is forgotten.
Mary Helen’s voice was laced with nostalgia as she recalled: “The New York City Ballet is one of the best companies in the world to exist as a dancer. We toured the world, from the Acropolis in Athens to the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, and everywhere in between.”
She added: “It is such an honour to step on someone’s stage, in a far away place that was built in a whole other time and bring yourself to that.”
Ballerinas have a tragically short professional life. Only a small minority dance until they are 40-years-old, most hang up their pointes shoes at just 30-years-old. Mary Helen is a real blue-sky thinker, when it was time to move on, she turned her passion into a thriving business.
Mary Helen danced with the New York City Ballet for a decade before retiring to focus on her studies at the prestigious Columbia University. Following the completion of her bachelor’s degree in English Literature, she founded Ballet Beautiful.
Ballet Beautiful is a carefully designed workout that incorporates the athleticism and grace of classical ballet with targeted exercises and stretches that sculpt a dancer’s toned physique.
Mary Helen revealed that she retreated at just the right time. She had achieved phenomenal success as a ballerina, but always felt like the black sheep of the ballet world.
She sighed softly then confessed: “I have absolutely loved being a professional ballerina, but there was always something about the ballet world that never quite suited my personality. It can be a very rigid place and not the healthiest world.”
She added: “When I stopped dancing, there was a period where I didn’t exercise at all. I needed a break, but that didn’t last too long. I started doing exercises at home and developed a work out tailored for myself.”
Mary Helen would often be inundated with requests from friends, who were keen to discover the secrets to her phenomenal physique.
She said: “It was a very organic process, I never crystallised it in terms of ‘I am going to create a work out’. I just began sharing what I do with other people. I discovered that I had a program that would be beneficial, not just for me, but for people all over the world.”
At the heart of the Ballet Beautiful method is Mary Helen’s expertise; the exquisite grace, beauty and strength that are the essence of a ballerina’s form.
Ballet Beautiful offers a completely different distinction with regards to results than most people would achieve from any other exercise.
She said: “Whether you want to get fit or you’re looking to pursue a dance career, it’s going to help you get there. It’s going to build that base, strength and muscle tone that make basic ballet techniques easier and that’s a wonderful thing, because it’s such a difficult discipline.”
Mary Helen added: “It will strengthen you and add a tremendous amount of muscle tone, whilst elongating the muscles. It will improve your posture, which is a truly wonderful thing.”
She said passionately: “Posture is a pretty powerful tool in terms of body language; it is the way in which we project ourselves to the outside world. To me, beautiful posture is a projection of confidence and strength.”
Ballet Beautiful has become a roaring success and Mary Helen has attracted a vast and dedicated following from all corners of the world. She has also become a personal trainer to some of fashion and Hollywood’s most recognisable faces, including; Victoria Secret models Lily Aldridge and Doutzen Kroes, Zooey Deschanel and Liv Tyler.
Mary Helen’s most high-profile client to date was Natalie Portman, who she trained extensively for her starring role in Black Swan.
Mary Helen revealed: “Natalie’s training was intensive; we were working together six days per week and travelling all over the world. If Natalie was in Paris, I was in Paris. It was incredible to work so intimately together and dedicate myself entirely to the training.”
The film was released to rave reviews and has since become a cult classic. Mary Helen revealed that it was particularly emotional to see her hard work transcend to the big screen.
She laughed then said: “I felt so proud. It was incredible to see how that experience was knitted together into the complete film. It was very emotional to see her nail the final performance.”
She added: “Natalie was very rewarding to work with. She is a naturally talented dancer and a hard worker, I found her to be very inspiring.”
Mary Helen is most proud of the way that Black Swan injected a passion for ballet back into generations, old and new.
She said: “It was so wonderful to see the impact Black Swan has had on ballet in popular culture. It has made it more relevant and definitely very sexy.”
Mary Helen revealed that her extensive travels with Natalie Portman helped to develop her vision for Ballet Beautiful.
She said: “Ballet is versatile; it is not something that must be done in a studio, you can do it on the go.”
She added: “Exercise should be seen as something that is portable and accessible. That’s why with Ballet Beautiful, we offer online classes and videos that range between 5 minutes to 60 minutes; there is something for everyone.”
Ballet is an all-consuming art that is more than a job or passion; it is a lifestyle, which takes phenomenal commitment and drive. Mary Helen revealed that 12-years-old is a fundamentally important age in ballet.
She said: “For a dancer, around 12-years-old is when you’re either going to kick it into high gear and dedicate your life to studying, training and dancing or you’re going to begin to draw away from it.”
If you ask most five-year-old girls what they want to be when they grow up, the likely answer will be a ballerina. However, it takes a special person to take that childhood dream and turn it into a reality.
Mary Helen said: “It is important to have a dream, but it is equally important to see it through to the end. Whether that means becoming a professional ballet dancer or if you prefer to just practice it on a more casual basis, either way, you must keep pursuing.”
Although Mary Helen’s professional dance days are behind her, she has formed a life long love affair with ballet through Ballet Beautiful.
She confessed: “It is has been an incredible journey and not only have I realised a dream for myself, but to be able to share my love for ballet with so many around the world is a very beautiful thing.”
Celebrated author and ballet enthusiast Eliza Gaynor Minden once wrote, ‘Respect your body. Eat well. Dance forever.’ Mary Helen also believes that the secret to success is to take care of your body.
She said passionately: “It is not about being skinny, it’s about maintaining and caring for your body and developing your strength. Dieting does not work. The most common approach to dieting is to focus on what you shouldn’t eat, such as carbohydrates.”
She added: “I incorporate a lot of fresh vegetables and fruit, lean proteins and healthy fats in to my diet. I adore nuts, cheese, meat, avocados and olive oil. I’ve learned that when you focus on eating more of the right food, everything regulates; your appetite regulates, you’re getting proper nutrition, you’re more satisfied.”
They say that movements of the body are a reflection of the soul. Next time you have the pleasure of attending the ballet, marvel over the luxurious elongation of the dancer’s leg as she slides gracefully into a battement tendu and the articulation of her gloriously arched feet as she performs a gracious pirouette.
She has sacrificed so much and given her heart, body and soul for those few beautiful but brief moments in the sun.
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