In the 50s, women rarely exercised except when they bore children or were conceiving them. Exercise? To most back then, the idea was a bit embarrassing. Lotte Berk, the London-based dancer and exercise pioneer, wanted to change this. Her mission, she said, was to give women back their physicality by, as she put it, advancing the “state of sex” in her time. To this end, she invented an exercise technique that women could relate to, namely one that celebrated their sexuality; she packed it with the most sensual exercises she could think of; and she gave those exercises playful names that would help to embolden her students’ spirits. The Bar Method’s “leg lifts” exercise was, for example, “the prostitute.” “Back-dancing” was “naughty bottoms.”
Lotte was a true-believer in free love and carried on many love affairs, even while married. Later during her classes she used her experiences as material for nuggets of wisdom on men and love, and doled them out to her students as they worked out. Her discourses could be shockingly direct about the similarities between her exercises and sex. According to Bazaar Magazine who interviewed her in 1994, Lotte would say to her students, “If you can’t lift your bottom, how can you enjoy sex?” When I visited Lotte during the 90s, she gave me the uncensored version of what she really told her students, something more along the lines of “if you can’t tuck, you can’t f—!”
Like other innovators who happened to be born into the right era, Lotte came into her own when the time was ripe for her ideas. The sexual revolution of the 60s set the stage for Lotte’s more athletic kind of sexiness to catch on. Actresses Joan Collins, Britt Eland, Barbara Streisand and Lee Remick started to go regularly to Lotte’s little basement studio where they got sex-ready bodies while listening to Lotte’s delightfully frank, eccentric lectures on love.
In 1970, one of Lotte’s disciples, Lydia Bach, opened “The Lotte Berk Method” on the Upper Each Side of Manhattan. No one in this country had seen anything quite like this kind of exercise class, and the press was all over it. “We’re talking about the Lotte Berk Method,” Look Magazine wrote in 1971, “a body-toning system for women in London, now taught in a Manhattan studio…The exercises ostensibly improve a woman’s sex life and Mrs. Berk receives many thank-you notes from grateful husbands.”
Throughout the 70s, people continued to be taken with the notion that exercise’s sole purpose was to make women sexier. Those people included Lydia. In a 1972 New York Times article she describes the Lotte Berk Method as “a combination of modern ballet, yoga, orthopedic exercises and sex.” “Sex?” the Times asked. “Sex,” Lydia explained, was the name of one of her exercises (our “knee-dancing”).
The women’s magazines, of course, loved this idea. During the 70s, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Mademoiselle and Women’s Wear Daily ran articles titled “Exercise Your Way to a Better Sex Life,” “Shape Up Your Pelvic Area and Shape Up Your Sex Life,” “Exercises for Loving Making,” and “Sexercises” In 1979 Vogue showed a completely naked model doing the pretzel, round-back and other Lotte Berk moves. The women photographed in these pieces were gorgeously feminine in a way you don’t see today. These women wore their hair long, dressed in sheer, soft leotards, and exuded a mysterious dreaminess.
By the 80s the innocent idea that sex could be a path to freedom and enlightenment had run its course. Women had tasted strength and realized there was more to exercise than sex. They could be strong, stronger in some ways than men, and that discovery, I think, helped them launch the Women’s Liberation Movement. The WLM had started in the 70s, and by the 80s was calling on women to seek empowerment and independence and no longer to be caught up with being sexual objects or needing men to be fulfilled. These enlightened women included Lydia who updated her message accordingly. “Women” she said in an 80’s Vogue article, “…want to regain power and control over their lives. Exercise is the first step towards regaining that control.” Like Lydia, I’m committed to the Women’s Movement. Still, I wonder if in our zeal to be superheroes we might have sacrificed something in terms of our the way we view our femininity. Having become recently engaged, I’m not in the frame of mind to believe that men are superfluous, and when it comes to body image, I’d like to think it’s not necessary for us to hone our bodies into, as Tom Wolfe put it in his novel on the 80s, “boys with breasts.” We’ve shown the world that we’re amazingly strong. Now it might be fun for us to do some playful remastering of that vintage sexy spirit from the 60s and 70s.