The Lotte Berk Method, the 35-year-old Margo Channing of New York City fitness programs, is under siege by a fresh young Eve Harrington of exercise called Core Fusion, founded in 2002 by two former Berk instructors, a married couple named Fred DeVito and Elisabeth Halfpapp.
In the three years of its existence, at least a half-dozen Lotte Berk instructors have defected to Core Fusion-two in the last month-bringing the latter’s roster up to 15 and the former’s down to four. (Two of these recent defectors, contacted by The Observer, refused to speak for the record.) According to a proud Mr. DeVito, over 1,000 former Lotte Berk customers are now Core Fusion devotees-by choice, he said. The two disciplines are comparably priced, at around $450 for twenty sessions.
“They stole my client list. They stole my instructors. They tried to steal my receptionist,” said Lydia Bach, the sixtysomething owner of the Berk studio. A descendant of the famous family of German composers, Ms. Bach has been the guru to several generations of skinny stars, from Mary Tyler Moore to the Olsen twins.
Core Fusion is offered at “exhale” (the lower case is trademarked), a spa chain whose shiny outlets on Central Park South and Madison Avenue stand in stark contrast to the faded Berk command central, a drafty five-story brownstone on East 67th Street. “A dump,” according to Ellen Karps, a 58-year-old Upper East Sider and accountant who recently converted to Core Fusion after attending Lotte Berk classes since 1982. “I think of my grandmother’s toilet-that’s the kind of thing they have there,” Ms. Karps continued. “Really no-frills; just an ugly space.”
“Lotte Berk is a little démodé,” said Anja Schäfer, 41, a New York–based editor of three Italian fashion magazines who used to take classes there before switching to Core Fusion. “I know that a lot of people have made the switch.”
Even the writer Tom Wolfe, a Lotte Berk devotee for over a decade-he credits the Method with curing his bad back-has attended a Core Fusion workshop. “It was quite a good class,” he told The Observer. (He has since abandoned both workouts for the elliptical trainer he calls “the Swoopy”). Mariel Hemingway is also reportedly a fan.
“I can’t tell you how much I enjoy it,” said Maria del Rio, a fund-raiser and grandmother, of Core Fusion, which she attends four to five times per week. “Of course, I had qualms about leaving Lotte Berk. But the spa is lovely, and it’s clean, and there’s a place to sit and put on your makeup. You don’t have all of that at Lotte Berk.”
The Lotte Berk Method was the original, the mothership-the grand dame of making your ass smaller and higher and not quite so flat. It was there before step aerobics and spinning and Pilates and Tae Bo and a New York Sports Club or yoga center on every corner. But who was Lotte Berk?
She was born Liselotte Heymansohn, a Jew in Germany during the rise of the Third Reich. “Lotte was really a character,” said Ms. Bach, calling from a pay phone in India (she is touring the country with a group of doctors, photographing clubfoot surgeries and teaching literacy). “As a young modern dancer, she spoke out against Hitler while she was onstage. And the storm troopers came right in through the front door of the theater-this is a fact-and she snuck out the back. This little tiny woman with black, blunt hair ran away from the S.S. And she made it!”
In fact, this is not an indisputable fact. According to an obituary in The Times of London, the Nazis barred Berk from performing two hours before a show in 1938, hanging signs urging “good Nazis” not to attend. After Berk was declared “too ill” to perform, she made a grand entrance in the audience and sat to watch her husband Ernst, who was also a dancer, perform solo. After the performance, the conductor called her onstage, where she thanked the audience “for not being Nazis.” Then she fled to London.
There, in a drafty basement that used to house a hat factory in the city’s West End, Berk developed a strict workout formula that incorporated challenging dance moves, including salacious pelvic tilts. Vidal Sassoon did the hair and she did the bodies, including those of Joan Collins, Yasmin Le Bon, Britt Ekland, Shirley Conran and Barbra Streisand, who allegedly came once and refused to remove her hat for the duration of the workout.
Meanwhile, a young Illinois native named Lydia Bach was traveling the world, reeling from the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which she says left her confused and dejected and forced her into the expatriate life. One day, Ms. Bach found herself in Berk’s basement. “I walked in and I thought, ‘Oh my God, a group of women in a room-like a beauty parlor! I can’t stand it!'” she recalled. But then: “It was like an enlightenment. I’d been saying ‘yoga’ for years, but then I saw this mixing disciplines.” Ms. Bach won Berk’s favor, and eventually her permission to bring the Method to the United States and market it under the German woman’s name.
In 1973, Ms. Bach authored a book on the Method, featuring a hundred pages of ethereal black-and-white photographs of herself demonstrating unimaginable positions in a transparent white leotard. One chapter was entitled “Sex.” (She got many letters from grateful husbands.)
Berk died in November 2003 at the age of 90. By then, her eponymous Method was well-established among New York society women. Heeding Berk’s wishes, Ms. Bach kept the classes all-female until 1984. One of the great regrets of her career, she said, is that she was unable to help Sidney Poitier with his bad knees. He was made to sit outside in the holding room waiting for his wife.
Ms. Bach opened another studio in a converted potato barn on Butter Lane in Bridgehampton, near where she lives and where many of her clients summer. Mr. DeVito contends that she is essentially no longer minding the store. “The owner’s hardly ever there,” he said, calling en route to a Core Fusion outpost in Boston. “She spends half her time in India.”
Ms. Bach personally trained Mr. DeVito and Ms. Halfpapp, who arrived in her studio in 1984 and 1980, respectively. They were prize pupils: Mr. DeVito alone taught 36 classes a week in her studio, ran the staff while she was away, and oversaw the opening of a Los Angeles studio in the 80’s (it was later sold). “We became the fabric of the business,” he said. “She was more or less an absentee owner. She was there behind the scenes to answer some key questions, but we were the Lotte Berk Method.”
“They didn’t make my business,” Ms. Bach retorted crossly. “I was in the black in 1971; they were in grade school. The major, major, serious, important people, the well-known, established clients-you know, in one class I had all three generations of the Kennedys … in one class!-that was all me. They didn’t make my studio at all.”
Ms. Bach said she loved Ms. Halfpapp like a daughter (indeed, at one point she planned to will the business to the couple), but grew to despise her husband. So Mr. DeVito was relegated to the Hamptons studio whenever Ms. Bach was in the States. She called this “Siberia,” and it worked for a couple of years. Then the situation became intolerable. Ms. Bach said she pink-slipped the couple, giving them three months’ severance and tickets to Honolulu. “I terminated business relationships that were aging my spirit,” she said.
Mr. DeVito claimed that the split was amicable, that he and his wife left because they wanted to democratize and expand the Lotte Berk Method, which has an elitist reputation. Though admitedly derivative of Lotte Berk, Core Fusion incorporates Pilates, orthopedic stretches and savasana-a few minutes of quiet time at the end of the hour. “People of all professions eventually grow away from the mother nest,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any bad feeling there.”
“Ha!” responded Ms. Bach.
‘An Hour of Kick-Ass’
The Lotte Berk building differs from the exhale spas that house Core Fusion like a first wife differs from a second. The latter seem fresh and new-all good smells and better habits and no hair in the shower drain.
You enter the spa on Central Park South through one of two giant glass doors that let in daylight and views of the park. Immediately, two friendly male desk attendants welcome you, hand you a release form, and direct you to the “big comfy chairs” in the lobby down the hall. The Lotte Berk release form is filled with rules about how far in advance you must cancel classes, how much you’ll be penalized if you do not, and information requests such as the address of your country house. No such stresses appear on the Core Fusion waiver.
At Lotte Berk, you must bring your own combination lock. Not so at exhale, where the big white lockers have keys that come with their own wristband so you’re sure not to lose them. At Lotte Berk, used towels go into an old brown military-style laundry bag. At exhale, they have slick, discreet towel receptacles, and you can have a waffled cotton robe too if you want. You can get a facial after class or, if you’d like, select from a menu of other services, including vibrational healing, cupping, acupuncture, massage and detox. At Lotte Berk, dawdling is discouraged and you’d be lucky to find a bottle of Vaseline Intensive Care or a flowered plastic shower cap languishing on a rusted towel rack.
The showers at exhale are bright and wide. The products are herbal, unlabeled and plentiful. There are little dishes of free tampons in each of the bathroom stalls. Class takes place under a glass dome in a mint-colored exercise studio that is as warm as slippers. The room smells like a garden in winter, crisp and clean and vaguely like tea.
The workout chamber at Lotte Berk is pink and faded. There are shelves where people put their shoes and shelves that store red rubber balls, the kind you used in high school P.E. The place smells vaguely like feet.
And yet, the veteran Method has its loyalists.
Stacey Kluge, a 26-year-old who works in institutional bond sales, called Core Fusion converts “sissies.” Then she regretted it. “Just put in I say it’s not as challenging,” Ms. Kluge said. Lotte Berk? “It’s an hour of kick-ass.”
Frauke Mascali, who is 40 and works “in the healing field,” lives in Sag Harbor and attends class twice a week at the Bridgehampton Lotte Berk facility. She told The Observer that the Core Fusion people called and urged her to come in, so she went to a few classes. But it didn’t stick. “I’m staying with Lotte,” Ms. Mascali said. Why? “I have four kids, and I look like I have none. It’s true. I have never put weight on; I’m very fit. My clothes fit me from 12, 14, 15 years ago. “
Margi Gad, a 37-year-old private jeweler who has been attending Lotte Berk classes five days a week for 17 years, said, “I’m on autopilot-I go at the same time every day. I’m sort of like a die-hard. I’m a firm believer.” Literally.
Barbara Boolukos, 50, the new manager of the Lotte Berk Method, said that the company is responding to the Core Fusion challenge by adding new classes, including aerobic elements, more stretching and an invitation-only extreme Lotte Berk. Ms. Bach is also working to incorporate hip-hop and rap rhythms. “It’s business,” Ms. Boolukos said. “And it goes in cycles, and right now we lost some of our people. If you leave to go to another company, you’re going to take your client list and do whatever you can.”
Mr. DeVito denied any foul play. “How can you steal business?” he said. “These people have a choice. We just gave them a choice. How can you steal anybody? You can’t force anyone to go anywhere.” He and Ms. Halfpapp have opened a studio in Santa Monica and have plans to expand to 15 locations, including Atlanta, Miami and Dallas
With great reluctance, Lydia Bach has also surrendered to the gods of globalization after years of refusing infomercials, marketing schemes and plans for a bona fide empire. A representative of her new licensing group said that he hopes Lotte Berk will begin saturating the Canadian market later this year. Already, they have selected a site in Yorkville, “the Madison Avenue of Canada,” he said.
“I want to be all over the place,” Ms. Bach said. “Like the Gap.”