Exercise takes artistic twist with ballet

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People who attend the ballet go for the art, not to watch magnificent athletes perform. But except for gymnasts, no athletes exhibit so much strength, flexibility and balance as ballet dancers do.

Chris Labishak, managing partner at Club One, has teamed with Maria Caruso to offer the fitness benefits of ballet and other forms of dance to health club members.

Ms. Caruso, 28, has been interested in ballet since she was a child and continued dance studies in college. In 2000, at age 19, she earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from Florida State University, one of the leading schools in the country for dance.

Though ballet dancers are magnificent athletes, they rarely are found in the typical gym. Maria Caruso is an exception.

"I did a lot of cross training," she said. "I was a runner, and I designed exercises with weights. That's unusual for a dancer."

After graduation, Ms. Caruso went to New York to pursue a career in dance. But her curvaceous figure didn't fit with the androgynous look most professional ballet companies seek. So she returned to Pittsburgh, earned a master's degree from Carlow College, and founded Bodiography Contemporary Ballet, which, she said, "focuses on the aesthetic of the technique rather than the aesthetic of the body."

While she was studying for her master's and getting Bodiography Contemporary Ballet up and running, Ms. Caruso worked at Club One, where she was one of the most popular group exercise instructors.

So last year when he was looking for something new to add pizazz to his exercise classes, Mr. Labishak went to Ms. Caruso with a proposition.

"My whole thing here is I don't want to be like everybody else," Mr. Labishak said. "We had to deliver on the fitness end, and I wanted to infuse the art side. [Dancers] are in tune with body movement the typical health club doesn't touch."

Ms. Caruso and the five members of her Bodiography company took over the group exercise classes at Club One and infused dance techniques into most of them. Club One offers about 30 different types of exercise classes at its locations in Shadyside, Fox Chapel and Castle Shannon.

"In the fitness industry, movements are very linear," Ms. Caruso said. "I'm offering an alternative that is non-linear. You engage muscles you don't commonly engage. It's great for joint health, it's great for flexibility, it's great for injury protection."

The partnership has worked out well for Club One. "We've seen about a 30 percent increase in group exercise participation since she came here," Mr. Labishak said.

One of the most popular classes Ms. Caruso teaches is the ball class.

"It's not a cardio workout like Zumba," she said. "It's a lot of flexibility training and a lot of strength training."

Brettlyn Toma, 31, of Edgewood, described the ball class as "a fusion of Pilates and dance. I've seen the most results of anything I've taken."

"She's very different from anyone else," said Michelle Williamson, 23, of Highland Park. "I never felt as good as I feel now."

"You're strengthening your core, toning," said Vicki Gerasole, 31, of Aspinwall. "I've got six-pack abs from doing this."

One of Ms. Caruso's biggest fans is Carmela Kesicki, 79, of Pittsburgh.

"Before I started with Maria, I couldn't even lift my arms (over my head)," Ms. Kesicki said. "Most of my friends, they take a bath, they can't turn over. Thanks to this, I can bend, I can move better."

The popularity of these classes has caused Mr. Labishak and Ms. Caruso to expand their collaboration. Beginning next month, Club One will open a fitness studio within Bodiography Contemporary Ballet's studio at 5824 Forbes Ave. in Squirrel Hill.

For more information, contact Club One at 412-362-4806, or Bodiography Contemporary Ballet at 412-425-3766.

Jack Kelly can be reached at jkelly@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1476.


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