I’ve been taking classes at Forme Barre in New Canaan, CT for over a year now. Going to barre class every week is my strength and sanity. It’s a seriously tough workout, but so incredibly satisfying. Forme Barre is a dynamic, 60 minute class that combines elements of classical ballet, yoga, pilates and strength training. I recently had the opportunity to interview Christina Schwefel, owner of Forme Barre Fitness. I met Christina Schwefel last winter at an event and was so very inspired by her.
Interview: Christina Schwefel
1. How did you get your idea/concept to start Forme Barre? And what distinguishes your technique from others?
Forme Barre is actually a re-brand — when I acquired the studios in 2016 they were under a different name and offered a similar barre method, of which I was a teacher! I had opened my own studio in Nantucket a few years prior and realized that while I loved barre fitness, a few key ingredients were missing for me in the offerings at that time — namely the approach toward training the core and lack of emphasis on biomechanics and alignment.
What distinguishes Forme Barre from other barre studios?
Forme Method is characterized by intentional movement. I like to refer to it as “informed fitness.” The positions, props, set ups/cues and sequences are all science-driven and backed by an understanding of biomechanics. This application of research to practice is rarely found in the group fitness arena.
We have avoided the prevalent industry trends of moving quickly from one exercise to the next or incorporating cardio sequences and instead focus on ways to innovate the pre-existing, foundational principles of barre: high repetitions, isometric holds, precise movement, and pristine technique. At Forme, we create new ways for clients to find their ideal postural alignment, activate and deeply engage under-trained muscle groups.
Let’s look at the core for an example. The transversus abdominis is the deepest layer, making it the hardest to access. It is a very underutilized muscle group that becomes weaker with age, particularly for women after childbirth. However, it acts as the main stabilizer for spine and core and is responsible for low-back health and abdominal strength. There is a plethora of published work on how to access and strengthen this muscle group from experts in various fields such as physical therapists, doctors, and medical researchers. There are important ways to properly train the transversus abdominis and just as many ways to incorrectly train. Over the years, we have consulted with experts on how to best infuse these findings into our class – this has resulted in refined verbal cues, informed hands-on adjustments (a pillar of the Method we look forward to returning to after Covid!) bespoke props, and exercise sequences to help clients successfully activate and engage this deepest layer of the body’s core.
At Forme, we believe that the combination of correcting one’s posture patterns while properly engaging and strengthening targeted muscle groups is an extremely powerful and transformative experience.
2. When did you first realize you wanted to pursue a career in the fitness world?
My journey in the fitness space started in 2004 while I was in graduate school for psychology. I was an avid yoga practitioner and also looking for an outlet from academic life, so I pursued yoga teacher certification. I am a Registered Yoga Teacher (RYT200) and trained in Mat Pilates which I taught for many years in New York City in boutique studios and large health clubs. When I moved to CT, I entered into a full time academic position and thought that my fitness career was over. A friend invited me to try a barre class with her – I was highly resistant because in New York, I had taken many. I found the “round back/flat back” section of the abdominal work to be impossible to execute at best, and painful at worst. It turns out that these exercises are orthopedically unsound for the majority of people and as a result many studios have phased them out. Barre class without this particular abdominal work was magical for me – it was like I had finally found my fitness home. I started training and became a teacher shortly after.
3. In your own words what is the Forme Method?
Forme Method is a dynamic, 60-minute class that combines elements of classical ballet, yoga, Pilates and strength training. High repetition exercises that target specific body parts are paired with recovery stretches to effectively and safely tone the entire the body. We strive to maintain the healthiest balance between strength and flexibility. I like to think of it as a form of Physical Therapy, but more demanding and intense in the moment, choreographed to carefully selected, compelling music and lead by highly competent, motivating teachers.
Forme is dedicated not only to changing the aesthetic of our clients’ bodies, but also to improving posture and helping clients get closer to their ideal biomechanics. We have seen clients change their bodies not only in terms of definition and sculpting but also in terms of alleviating back pain, hip, knee and ankle issues, as well as the neck and shoulder issues that plague so many people.
4. How is being the owner of Forme Barre Fitness today different from when you first started?
Our classes have evolved tremendously since 2016. The biggest area of change is by far the abdominal section. We now have our bespoke Alignmats – a prop we created from scratch to address alignment insufficiency in several foundational exercises. In general, we have found more efficient ways to train every major muscle group and have added props to intensify the work throughout the class. It’s safer than ever – with injury prevention always a priority – but also more intense than ever before.
In terms of the recent past, things have changed tremendously for anyone in the fitness industry. At Forme, we had to take hard look at our daily operations and practices and make sure that the studio space could safely accommodate small groups according to CDC guidance. We also had to pivot during the shutdown, quickly realizing that our clients needed a way to stay connected and continue to practice the Method that many were accustomed to taking several times a week. We offered complimentary Instagram Live classes for almost 3 months, got comfortable in front of the camera, and learned that our client base definitely wanted a virtual offering. We created a digital studio and currently have over 200 video on demand classes and live and Zoom offerings all week long.
5. What role do you think social media plays in the world of Forme Barre?
Social media has helped us to stay connected to our clients near and far, especially at a time when so many people are not exercising in group fitness settings. It was incredibly helpful during the shut-down as we were able to stream live classes through Instagram multiple times a day from our various locations and provide a way for clients to take Forme Method at home.
Outside of the pandemic, social media has been a powerful tool for telling our brand story and promoting our specific approach to barre fitness.
6. What was your biggest fear when going out and starting your own business?
I would say not having a business background – I felt unprepared in the area of developing a business model and creating a budget for the studios at the macro-company and micro-individual studio level. It was a true baptism by fire moment process, but I tend to learn best by immersing myself!
7. Your teachers at Forme Barre are all amazing. So motivating! Do they have to go through intense training before teaching the Forme Method?
In a word: “yes.” Our training is an in-depth process – it involves taking class, observing class, self-study, and small group training. It is a truly immersive experience and lasts anywhere from one month to one year depending on the trainee!
We are currently training a teacher for our Nantucket studio through Zoom and in-person learning and finding that this hybrid model works well. In the up and coming months, we will debut an entirely virtual training program for new and existing barre teachers! We recently brought Tyler Ingram and Mabel Modrono on board, two former professional dancers whose expertise is in kinesthetics. Tyler will continue to develop the training model and spearhead the virtual offerings.
Perhaps most important, being a Forme Barre teacher means that your training is ongoing and never really ends. Continuing education is the key to developing and maintaining expertise. We have quarterly meetings to review positioning, sequencing and choreography and bring in physical therapists and postural alignment specialists as consultants. In essence, each instructor continues to grow their knowledge base of barre fitness and postural alignment so that they can always deliver a class that is safe, effective, and challenging.
8. And lastly how do you balance motherhood and being a business owner. How do you do it all? Any advice for other Mom’s out there trying to balance their family and careers?
I find that it’s crucial to carve out space for the kids and time for the business – and to forgive myself when they inevitably overlap and I’m balancing a baby on my hip while taking a call to negotiate a studio lease. I set an intention daily to be more present in my family life – to be fully and wholly in the moment with them, and not eyeing my phone or responding to queries or checking things off my list while spending time together. I also have to do the same for the business — physically remove myself from the kids (sometimes hide in my dining room or closet) and focus entirely on the task at hand. Someone once told me, “you can do it all, but you can’t do it all at once.” At the time, I was 9 months pregnant and on a tenure track at a university with a full practice of therapy clients in NYC. I took great offense to what she said, feeling like she was saying to me, “Hey, something has to give – and it’s probably going to be your career if you want to be a good mom.” However, in the decade or so that has passed, I’ve re-interpreted what she said. I now understand it to be one my truths: I can do it all, but I can’t do it all at the same time [if I want to do it well and stay sane].
Just as I carve time out for our family and for the business, I have to carve out time for myself as well, and not feel guilty about it. I happen to be very lucky that Forme Method is an absolute passion and escape for me – my body and mind both benefit from teaching and taking class so I make a point to be in the studios for myself as much as I am for the business.