Raising the barre: New downtown studio aims to make fitness more approachable

Hanna Dobbels founded barre.[d] studio in hopes of cultivating “a diverse student and teaching group, people of all ages, shapes and sizes,” she said. Photo: Martyn Kyle Hanna Dobbels founded barre.[d] studio in hopes of cultivating “a diverse student and teaching group, people of all ages, shapes and sizes,” she said. Photo: Martyn Kyle

It’s easy to make assumptions about boutique fitness studios. And before she moved to Charlottesville from D.C., barre.[d] studio owner Hanna Dobbels found a lot of those assumptions to be true—workout classes were pricey and exclusive, and not entirely welcoming environments for anyone who wasn’t a size two with an extensive Lululemon wardrobe.

“My whole goal is to squash that conception,” Dobbels said. “I want a diverse student and teaching group, people of all ages, shapes and sizes.”

Dobbels opened up the studio, located downtown near Hot Yoga Charlottesville at 216 W. Water St., in February of this year. A long-time outdoor and fitness enthusiast with a knack for business management, the 27-year-old said that opening a fitness studio just made sense to her. She started teaching cardio classes before she even went to college, and as a pre-med biology major she’d always been drawn to the human body and the way it works and recovers.

Despite looking the part of a classically trained barre instructor with a ballet background—tall, lean and graceful, with long hair piled into a bun—she said she’s never danced in her life. In fact, up until an injury about six years ago, her preferred exercise was more high-impact, like running, backpacking and CrossFit-style workouts.

“I separated my back because I dropped a canoe on it,” she said, recalling the accident that ended her career as a wilderness instructor. “The only thing I could do after that was physical therapy and small movements, and that’s when I started learning about barre and I just fell in love with it.”

Now that her own recovery process is behind her, Dobbels said she wants to draw on the experience and the knowledge she absorbed teaching at and managing a studio in D.C. to make barre.[d] a place for everybody.

“My passion is really people with injuries, and runners and people in the outdoor world,” she said. “And I really wanted to bring that here and make it community-focused.”

She said she also wants to cultivate diversity, and offer classes that serve different purposes. There’s a classic, hour-long full-body class that includes isometric movements, weights, stretching and ab work, plus an evening option for beginners, which reviews form, technique and lingo at a slower pace. For those of us who can’t sit still, Dobbels introduced a run-to-barre.[d] class, which starts with a 30- to 40-minute run around town and ends at the studio for strength training, thigh work and a core set. Dobbels and her team of instructors also offer prenatal and postnatal classes, plus cardio and workouts that incorporate yoga and pilates moves. The drop-in rate is $20, which is comparable to other local studios, but class packages and auto-pay memberships can reduce that cost significantly.

“I want to cater to the likes of everybody, so you don’t get bored,” Dobbels said.

As someone who frequents local studios and has spent the last three years building relationships in the fitness community in this town, I know the stereotypes surrounding boutique gyms aren’t entirely true, and that workout facilities are not all the same. But even so, I’ll be the first to admit that I was skeptical when I entered the narrow, mirrored room for the noon 45-minute express class last week.

Like other barre classes I’ve been to, we cycled through several mat exercises before beginning the standing sequence. New to me was a set of weighted exercises—simple arm movements reminiscent of ballet moves, with an extra layer of intensity added on by small hand weights. I found myself wondering how effective such a short workout could be, with fewer reps of each set than I was used to. But halfway through the leg series at the barre, which involved small, tight movements that are only as easy as they look for the first four seconds, every muscle from my hips to my ankles was burning. 

The workout was short but intense, and what I appreciated most was the emphasis placed on stretching. After every move, whether using our own body weight or the brightly-colored dumbbells, Dobbels led us through gentle stretches for the muscle groups we’d just worked. As a runner who’s sustained minor knee and hip injuries, I’ve learned first-hand that the post-workout stretch is just as essential for the body as the exercising itself. I haven’t come across many cardio or strength training classes that emphasize stretching, so after the class I found myself less sore and very appreciative—because let’s be honest, the chances of me rolling out my mat in my living room to do the stretching that an instructor neglected to lead us through in class are slim to none. 

Dobbels isn’t the only one bringing new barre classes to Charlottesville. MADabolic owners Dar Malecki and Valerie Morini having been making strides toward opening b:core, their adaptation of a barre studio that will combine cardio, strength training and barre. According to a recent post on Morini’s blog (www.fuelsweatgrow.com), she and Malecki have been trying every barre class they can find, absorbing as much knowledge as possible so they can introduce a studio this spring that complements the local fitness marketplace but doesn’t oversaturate it.

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