For Nancy Norby, a barre teacher for almost three decades, core strength goes far beyond the physical. A solid center — whether in class, at the barre, or in life — is paramount for success in all things. This may be why Nancy’s creation, Yoga Barre, works on so many levels. On the surface, it’s a challenging workout that combines cardio, stretch, and strength training. When held in a heated room, where the temperatures can reach 95 degrees, it’s also a profound and cohesive muscle conditioning class that remains authentic to a variety of disciplines, including ballet, modern dance, cardio, and yoga. Yoga Barre demonstrates that all movement practices, regardless of distinction, share some common ground at their core with the mind-body connection, or the brain’s ability to “speak” to the muscles and create harmony. Peeling back the layers, while also celebrating the differences, is where Nancy thrives.
“I have a passion for getting to the origins.” A history major in college, Nancy divided her time between academics and dance, and eventually landed an opportunity to study classical ballet in Russia. Following graduation, Nancy continued her classical ballet training with Ehrling Sunde at the United States International University in San Diego. Her director, Paul Hart, was the former director of The Royal Ballet, and entertained his class with stories of the great Russian dancers, including Rudolph Nureyev and Natalia Markova. “Dance is very much taught through stories. The best teachers are always great storytellers.” said Nancy, who often weaves snippets of history throughout her own classes.
This background in ballet technique, along with meticulous alignment, is integral to Nancy’s creation of Yoga Barre. Throughout the class, Nancy includes dance fundamentals and utilizes ballet terminology, such as plie when the legs are bent and port de bras when working the arms. “After taking a ballet class, my body felt strong, but my mind felt at ease. I tried to duplicate this idea with Yoga Barre.”
Ballet led Nancy into her career as a barre teacher. While taking a ballet class in her twenties, Nancy noticed a classmate who looked particularly strong and centered. Intrigued, Nancy asked what she did differently, which was how she learned of the Lotte Berk method, a fitness regime that combined dance and conditioning to create long, sculpted muscles. Soon after, Nancy flew to New York City and trained with Lydia Bach to learn the Lotte Berk method. “It was very different from today,” Nancy recalls “There was no formal certification process. I simply trained day and night at an old brownstone on the Upper East Side, where three floors of classes were held simultaneously.” She smiled, “Back then, we taught with giant red balls and music on record players.”
The Lotte Berk technique contains its own interesting history, beginning with Lotte herself, a German modern dancer who studied with the legendary Mary Wigman in the 1930s. Lotte was an eccentric and flamboyant feminist who developed the technique solely for women in the spirit of liberation. Although svelte and muscular, Lotte faced physical challenges when a dance injury left her with eight fused vertebra. Her method was developed with the consultation of an osteopath. “The Lotte Berk Method is orthopedically designed to keep the core strong and the back supple. It’s ideal for dancers, but helpful for everyone.” Nancy explains. After studying in New York, Nancy returned to Hollywood to manage the only Lotte Berk studio in Sunset Plaza, which she later went on to own. At the time, Nancy was the only licensed instructor of the method, and owned the only barre fitness studio outside of New York City.
After decades of teaching the Lotte Berk method, Nancy was invited to create a sequence for Hot 8 Yoga, which granted her the unique opportunity to add Yoga to the blend of techniques. “I have a very choreographic mind,” says Nancy. “I love designing sequences, and then constantly improving them.” The use of asana in addition to cardio and stretching gives the class a meditative quality and yogic feel in the midst of fast-paced sequences. For example, Nancy uses downward dog to warm up the hamstrings, child’s pose to rest, and plank for arm and core strength. The class helps increase joint flexibility and enhances recovery time for weight lifters, runners, and elite athletes.
“The three components of stretch, strength, and balance develop an intelligent muscle.” Nancy explains. “The barre elements can be combined with any workout. Beginners are welcome as this class educates you and encourages you to go at your own pace.” In keeping with traditional yoga practice, Nancy leads a savasana at the end of class, which offers a final moment for reflection and peace, something rare for any cardio or dance class. “Any time you breathe, move or think, there is spirituality going on. You can’t separate your spirit from your body.”
Spirituality and breathing continually keep Nancy centered through trying times. She has six children, five of which were delivered at home. Her youngest daughter, Grace, was born with Down’s Syndrome, and underwent heart surgery at ten months. “She teaches me how to be comfortable in my own skin,” says Nancy. Motherhood has developed her perspective on her own practice and has given her new insights into her own body and capabilities. “Giving birth allowed me to experience an inner wisdom. It allowed me to let go and trust my body’s inherent wisdom. That has changed my teaching, too.”
Today, Nancy stays busy with Yoga Barre, which she teaches at Hot 8 Yoga in Santa Monica, and also at Revolution Fitness. She practices hot yoga regularly and also enjoys traditional ballet class after she drops off her children for school in the mornings. She enjoys traveling and spending time with her husband, Felix, and her children, who are also involved with dance and yoga. She is currently holding Yoga Barre teacher training workshops at Hot 8 for anyone looking to learn this unique fusion of disciplines, and also to find strength at their core.
Kiara Kinghorn is a writer and dancer who lives in Santa Monica. She holds a BA in English and a BFA in Dance from UC Santa Barbara, and is also a 200-hour Sphota Yoga Teacher Trainee.