“You should be shaking!” Physique 57 co-founder Tanya Becker belted out to her grimacing class. A chorus of socked feet swanned through the air like a synchronized swimming formation poised for an aerial view. Instead of Esther Williams, Ms. Becker led the herd.
On a recent weekday, the 44 feet, angled toward the skylights in the clean, carpeted studio on 57th Street, were uniformed in black ankle socks with ocean blue anti-slip dots, making the soles look like sheets of single-color dot candy with the curling script insignia, “Physique 57,” in matching blue anti-stick across the arch of the foot.
The feet jackknifed in rapid, machinelike alternations as the muscle-quivering women lay against the floor, lifting their head and shoulders, trying to engage their core rather than their neck muscles.
Finally, after much visible suffering, Elton John’s Levon wafted out of the stereo, signaling to the class with its slow tempo that the hard part was over. Indeed, during Levon‘s two-minute run, the class slowed to a halt before erupting into relieved applause.
Many women actually pay good money for this 57-minute-long, ballet-barre-steadied agony. In fact, the evolved Lotte Berk method, a new kind of exercise masochism, has swiftly established itself as the go-to power workout for the highest-class clientele. With a recently opened studio in Beverly Hills and the Soho and Bridgehampton satellites packed to the gills, bicoastal power players are signing up to squat and squeeze a handball between their thighs. Kelly Ripa has long acted as a de facto spokeswoman for the exercise strain, calling it the “great love of her life,” after her husband and children. Other lean luminaries include Parker Posey (who called the workout “insane, it’s so hard”), Zooey Deschanel, Christy Turlington and Sophia Vergara.
“Burning is good. Shaking is good,” Ms. Becker barked mid-class to the roomful of contorted women, as they lifted their bent legs behind their hips in a pretzeled arabesque, a handball perilously wedged between calf and thigh behind the knee.
“I guess it’s kind of ballet on steroids,” Ms. Becker admitted to the The Observer later, with a laugh. “But the only thing we really have in common is a barre.”
Physique 57 was opened nearly five years ago by former Morgan Stanley investment banker and Lotte Berk devotee Jennifer Vaughn Maanavi upon the shuttering of the Lotte Berk studio on 67th Street. “When it closed, I was so upset I quit my job at Morgan Stanley and started this,” said Ms. Maanavi. “I couldn’t exist without it.” Ms. Maanavi and Ms. Becker rejuvenated Ms. Berk’s strenuous strength-training regime, originally targeted toward healing injured dancers.
“They’ve been successful because women don’t want to get bulky,” Jeanine Detz, fitness director for Shape magazine, told The Observer. “They’ve sold women on this lean dancer’s look.”
Ms. Maanavi explained proudly how Physique 57 conducted a study with Adelphi University. Thirty-eight women took four Physique 57 classes per week four weeks in a row while maintaining a healthy but normal diet. “They all lost weight!” she beamed. Because even though the class isn’t traditional fat-burning cardio, “you’re overloading your muscles to the point of excitement.”
The women who pay $35 per session for 57 minutes of muscle-overloading are the kind of women who carry two bags with them every workday: a designer carryall and a tote for overflow. One woman in a navy blue puffer coat held a Louis Vuitton tote on one arm and a Lululemon reusable shopping bag on the other, the words “Unwrap your superpower” scrawled across the side. As Ms. Becker waited for the previous class to finish, she chitchatted with regulars who were gathered in the reception area.
“I’m from a big Italian family, so we had 17 desserts at our Thanksgiving,” Ms. Becker said. Gasps erupted from the gaggle of woman surrounding the lithe teacher and her BlackBerry, on which she showed photos of said desserts.
“And you lost weight!” said class regular Jenny Preston, a retired freelance editor.
“No, no, no, look.” Ms. Becker lifted her pale periwinkle Lululemon tank top to show her flat midsection as proof of the fact that she has, indeed, not lost weight.
The ballet-barre baroness is long and lean, but her body type is not slight or unrealistic in its firmness. She looks like your well-kept tomboy older sister who always stayed in great shape without really trying. She wore loose black Lululemon workout pants, and her spaghetti strap tank top was decoratively ruched across the bust, her accessories a thin choker of tiny midnight blue crystal bicone beads around her neck and diamond stud earrings.
Ms. Preston, a petite, middle-aged woman with lower-back problems and incredible muscle strength (“Jenny is just so strong,” Ms. Becker said, as if complimenting a preschooler’s precociousness), told The Observer, “It’s the only class I can make myself go to three times a week because it’s so hard for me, I’m never bored.” Actress Parker Posey admitted to The Observer, “Sometimes I leave before they get to the core stuff. I do the old,” she gestured toward an imaginary watch on her wrist. “It’s just too hard for me. … The hour class is torturous.” Kerry Wellman, a tall, handsome British woman in her early 30s who works as an investment manager for the World Economic Forum, explained that she uses the workout as a complement to cardio at the gym. “It just gets the areas you want it to get,” she said.
Another perky participant, an investment banker named Michelle, said she comes every day, or at least six days a week. “It’s the strongest I’ve ever been,” she noted intensely.
In the locker room after class, Anne Mansfield adjusted her cream ruffled blouse under her beige cashmere sweater after wiping herself down with a wet wipe. “I can’t do cardio in the middle of the day. This is great because I can go back to work after,” the head of marketing for the Four Seasons Hotel told The Observer while pulling on her pantyhose under a brightly colored brocade skirt. “I did Pilates, but I’ve been doing this for almost two years now and I gave up my gym membership. I have osteoporosis, and it builds bone density. It keeps up your cardio while also stretching you.” Ms. Mansfield said she has tried other core fusion classes but nothing really sticks like the Physique 57 routine. She even tried to do a team-building activity at the studio with her employees (everyone had the flu, so she needs to reschedule). “It’s amazing.” She sighed. “It’s a bit of a cult but it sticks.”