Ms. Lotte Berk, the real person, lived life large in London, had abs of steel even at age 81. She was the originator of today's popular transformational exercise method.
In time, other topics entered our conversation, reminding me that Lotte had experienced more of this century than anyone else I knew. She mentioned, for example, that her mother did her shopping from a horse-drawn buggy. That she was among the first to "take off her shoes" and perform the new, revolutionary modern dance in her hometown of Cologne in the early 1930s. That, as a Jewish performer living under the Nazi regime, her assets were frozen and her performances banned. Because her husband, Ernest Berk, was English, the couple and their small daughter were able to leave Germany for London.
There Lotte modeled and taught dance, and the couple did "lowbrow" dancing parts in BBC movies, like the 1937 Cafe Continental. But there were not enough of the barefoot movements that really moved Lotte's soul. "London wasn't ready for it," laments Lotte.
Lotte suffered a back injury from a fall onstage and, in the aftermath, much sadness. "Sheerly out of unhappiness I opened the studio [in 1959]," says Lotte, who developed her new technique, with the help other orthopedic physician, partly as back therapy and partly as a commercial, exercise version of the modern-dance movements she so loved.
Lotte talks wistfully of the studio's glory days in the '60s and '70s, when the "in" ladies of London were queuing up in the yard to take one of the four classes she taught daily. "A tremendous crowd of theater people came," says Lotte, adding mischievously, "as well as ladies and baronesses, all of whom I addressed by their Christian names."
While Lotte has slowly turned more and more of her classes over to instructors trained at the studio, not that much has really changed. The former dancer has continued to show up daily at the "deliberately shabby" Manchester Street studio for 35 years and has lived in the same Deco building, the Grampians, in the west of London, for 51 years. (No one wanted the penthouse flat in 1943, given the bombing of London. No one, of course, but Lotte.)
Over the years Lotte has watched, sometimes mystified, as her ideas mutate and flourish in the hands of her students. There is Lydia Bach, who lived in London and studied with Lotte in the late '60s, and later brought the method to New York under Lotte's name.
"I underestimated the ego of a dancer," says Bach, herself a vibrant woman in her mid-50s, a testament to the anti-aging power of the Method. "Lotte didn't want new blood. She didn't want new ideas. She came to New York City and couldn't understand why we had showers and a separate room for the toilet."
Then there were hard feelings when another former student, Callan Pinckney, struck out on her own with Callanetics, a popular exercise technique of the '80s that reminded many of Lotte's own method.
Sitting across from this elegant, eccentric woman, it's hard not to think about her missed financial opportunities. Lotte, the true bohemian, has more important things on her mind, such as the state of sex today, what new movies to rent, or what new books to read. Or she talks about her "young" friends. "All my old ones are, well, so old," she explains. She hates going to the country and isn't terribly keen on family conventions. Strong opinions come naturally to Lotte.
I feel protective of her as we leave the restaurant and cross the street in search of her car (she often forgets where it's parked). I think I am reacting to her advanced age. Then, as I spend more time with Lotte, I realize it is precisely the opposite. I feel protective because other blithe spirit and childlike innocence. Along with her timeless bob and red lips and teenage stomach, these are what keep her so very young.
Originally written by Annemarie Iverson for Harper's Bazaar, circa 1994.