Early Tuesday morning, I walked down the quiet streets of Soho with my coffee to a classic loft on Greene Street. It was the first step in my latest fitness goal - the pursuit of a long, lean and regal dancer's body. Inside the sunlit studio of Ballet Beautiful, one instructor lies on the floor with two Mac computers giving a virtual lesson to jet-set clients, in the next nook a private session is taking place and past the kitchen filled with fruits, nuts and spa water is Mary Helen Bowers, the lithe beauty behind the method that so famously transformed Natalie Portman into prima ballerina shape for Black Swan. But can she work miracles on real women? Yes, she says to me, having recently recovered from knee surgery and looking to get back on track, "This method can really change your body. I have so many success stories from women of all shapes, sizes and goals." After a half hour of butt-toning, arm-burning, core-sculpting moves - demonstrated with Bowers' perfect grace, learned from a successful career as a professional ballerina - I sat down with her to discuss her new book that pens her en pointe method for getting a sleek physique.
By Joyann King
Harper's Bazaar: In your book you speak of success in threefold: the mindset, the method and then lifestyle and nutrition. Tell me about mindset.
Mary Helen Bowers: I think everyone knows that you should work out and you should eat well. Most people have a pretty good idea now of what that entails, but why aren't people doing it? Why do you start a program and then fall off or get too busy or life gets in the way? I think women especially have this tendency - I certainly did in the past - to be very extreme, a sort of all or nothing. You're either being really good and you're going to the gym everyday and you're eating salads and doing all the right things, or you're eating cheeseburgers and not working out. So the value I've learned was that when I started getting into the right frame of mind it was so much easier to take care of my body and stay connected. For most women I think it's about getting into a more positive frame of mind where you're setting more realistic goals.
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HB: I think that's a huge thing that women struggle with, wanting a quick fix.
MHB: It's so important to understand its danger. Could you physically lose 10 pounds in 2 weeks? Maybe. But there's no way you could do that in a healthy way or that you could maintain it.HBZ
HB: Looking at what you did with Natalie Portman, that must have been at least a year in the making?
MHB: Yes, and that was an extreme case that was very role-specific. When you start thinking about your goals in terms of your health, happiness, satisfaction and balance. that's a much better approach than 'I need to fit in my skinny jeans fast.' There are a lot of ways to take weight off quickly but I think the real measure of success is how you can maintain it and make it a part of your life. You may be out with friends and have one drink too many or you maybe overeat, but to over-correct the next day and say 'I'm not going to eat' is not healthy. You have to be more flexible about it and be forgiving and know that sometimes life gets in the way and you can't workout as much and you do what you can. That's why Ballet Beautiful also offers 15-minute workouts.
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HB: It's safe to say that anyone can find 15 minutes a day to workout.
MHB: Exactly. I don't think it's helpful to tell someone that they have to work out for 2 hours a day, 6 days a week. No one has time to do that and I want to help women be stronger, healthier, more confident and feel more beautiful. I think to do that means including great exercise and balance as part of your regular life. You need to find 3 hours a week and then everything extra from there is a bonus.
HB: Do you have a sweet spot ratio between your signature strengthening exercises and cardio activity?
MHB: I think that toning is really important. I always start people with the mat exercise - especially women because the way that our bodies are designed, when we start to build lean muscle, we will burn more fat. These exercises will transform the parts of your body that you want to target, like your inner thighs and your butt, and the back and the outside of your legs, and the low muscles through the abs which makes your waist stronger and your posture better. Cardio is important too, but I don't think that you need a lot of endurance. I think too much cardio makes your metabolism more efficient which can make you hold weight. I like a lower impact version that's not going to hurt your knees and your joints. I think it's great to get 30 minutes in 3 days a week if you can do it. I think that's ideal.
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HB: Moving on to nutrition, what are your hard and fast rules about eating?
MHB: My approach is really about balance and so I aim for a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains. I try to avoid white flour when possible. It's not realistic to say, never eat sugar, but I try to limit my sugar as much as I can to buckwheat honey and dark chocolate, which I love. That's what really, really satisfies me is dark chocolate. But that doesn't mean I'm not going to have ice cream once in a while.
HB: Any super-foods that you just can't live without?
MHB: I love berries, greens and salmon.
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HB: Are you a juicer at all?
MHB: No, no. I like a green juice as a snack, I think it's great. I always see a difference in my skin, which is really nice. It's good in the afternoon. I'll have it with a boiled egg, or some nuts or popcorn because I just generally feel like I need a little bit more. But my approach is about balance, so I wouldn't cut out all food in exchange for juice. And I also really, really like fruit, so I personally would rather eat whole pieces of fruit than drink them.
HB: Do you have any tips for restaurant dining?
MHB: My biggest tip is to drink a lot of water and always start with a salad with oil and vinegar. Get your sauces on the side. One of the big things, especially if you're eating out frequently, is either splitting an entrée with someone or ordering a protein-heavy appetizer for an entrée, like a salmon or steak tartar. If I'm dying for a burger, I'll get the burger but have it with salad instead of fries and a glass of red wine instead of a beer.
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