From Ducks to Swans, An Interview with Mary Helen Bowers
Mary Helen Bowers is without a doubt a Ballerina. In her presence, it’s hard not to feel like a duck gazing up at a swan: her long neck and straight shoulders a constant reminder of your own curving spine; and her concentration so focused that even her rambling is poised. But Miss Bowers, the woman who trained Natalie Portman in her award-winning role in Black Swan, has an individuality about her that shines in the structured, tight-bun, old-school world of ballet. Through her ballet inspired online fitness program Ballet Beautiful, Bowers has succeeded in bringing beauty, confidence, and strength to women all over the world, no matter how much of a duck you think you might be.
What was your first experience with dance?
As a little girl, probably like many others, I took a ballet/tap class when I was three years old. I went with my best friend and I have a vague memory of being up on stage and not really knowing what I was doing, but I loved it. The next year I went back but my friend wasn’t in class anymore and it wasn’t fun, so I stopped. But when I was eight I had some friends in the neighborhood, in Charlotte, NC, that were taking ballet and I went back to it. From there it was a really natural progression. The classes build as you get older, and get more serious, and by the time you’re twelve or thirteen you have to decide if you want to pursue it. It’s a physically demanding sport and you really have to be dedicated to it, so I decided that ballet was what I wanted to do with my life.
I was doing it six days a week, with my heart really set to coming to New York. And when I was fifteen I got accepted into the School of American Ballet with a full scholarship. It’s designed to be a feeder into the New York City ballet and when I was sixteen they accepted me into the company!
When was your first time on stage for the NYC Ballet?
It was a gala performance in the fall and we were doing the Snowflake dance from the Nutcracker. I remember being shocked at our first on stage run through in full costume, with the orchestra, and no breaks, how aerobic it was! I was so terrified and tired, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to get thought the real thing. But when it happened, the lights and the adrenaline, it felt so good to be on stage.
What lead you to start Ballet Beautiful?
When I was younger I was never athletic. I was never good at sports, you know, in gym class I didn’t want to kick the ball because that could hurt my foot. I was a ballerina! But early in my career I got an injury and for the first time I wasnâ€™t able to dance or be on stage. Injuries are tough, both mentally and physically, because you can’t do what you love, and someone may be taking your place while you’re out.
I really wanted to make sure that when I came back I would be strong, so for the first time I joined a sports club and started working out. I modified the classes to fit what a dancer needs, to build lean muscle instead of bulking up. For example, instead of jumping jacks in a kickboxing class I would do jumps into grand plea. When I came back from the injury I was so much stronger and more confident on stage and I realized I had to do more than just dance. I started coming up with stretches I could do back stage or, if we were traveling overseas, movements that I could take with me. The Ballet Beautiful workout came from those stretches but now it’s tailored to women who aren’t dancers, those who just want to be strong and fit but also feminine.
I’m really interested in sharing fitness, especially with people who might have had bad experiences and connect working out with drudgery, and make it into something beautiful, a sort of artistic but still athletic thing you can do at home. I think it’s really important to be healthy and take care of your body, and do everything you can do to feel great, and looking good is something that comes on the side of that. I wanted a workout to make people feel elegant.
You teach people Ballet Beautiful through a series of online videos and live streaming classes, what made you take your classes to the Internet as opposed to a gym?
I had been working on starting the Ballet Beautiful business but then I got the opportunity to work with Natalie Portman while she was filming Black Swan and I had to be on the road a lot. The only way I could keep it alive, and be there for Natalie, was to do it online. I think for a lot of women, for moms and working women, their lives are just slammed and they have no time to work out. It gives them a lot of options. They can have the social option of taking a streaming class or creating their own workout, and all they have to do is open a computer.
Also we have gained a lot of popularity overseas. You don’t have to explain to people what ballet is. There is an international understanding of what it is, and it’s something that is attractive to women from many different countries, and with our workout, you can enjoy it no matter where in the world you are.
The most important thing for me is making a workout accessible and helping women make time for fitness and pull down the barriers of what is getting in the way of you and your work out. For most people it’s time: that’s what we all need more of. Giving someone the ability to have more time in their life is really rewarding.
How is this practice different from other workouts? What sets it apart both physically and mentally?
I think the mental side of fitness is really important and something that most people don’t talk about. You have to get into the right head-space because that’s what will help you stay with the program and really connect the dots. Everyone knows you should work out and you should eat well, but a lot of times itâ€™s not happening. What gets in the way are the bad feelings and negative thoughts. That’s what I suffered from, this all or nothing mentality. You know, you are either working out all the time and only eating salads, being super healthy, or youâ€™ve fallen off the routine and havenâ€™t worked out in weeks and aren’t eating well or treating your body right. I think the big part of Ballet Beautiful is getting some balance in your life, integrating the workout as part of your lifestyle. My approach to fitness is really about pampering the body, and thinking about fitness as an indulgence.
Same with eating well. You should eat great food because it makes you feel better and look better, too. It’s very motivating when you see the results. Healthy food shouldn’t be a punishment; you should delight in it.
I believe that your workout should be thought of as magical me time instead of beating yourself up in the gym. I really don’t like the whole boot camp mentality, getting in your face and screaming at people. It’s negative and bad for your psyche, and in the end I don’t think it helps. Ballet Beautiful is very much a female-driven brand. A lot of fitness comes from a masculine approach, about getting big and getting muscles, but our workout is a mindful way of shaping the body.
What is there too much of, too little of?
I think life is hard and stressful, and difficult for everyone in different ways, so I feel like there could always be a little more magic in the world. Performance and the arts can bring that.
What is your WILD Wish?
It would be something involving an island, and lots of pineapple!