Body Diva

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.

Lotte Berk Dancing
When asked how she would like to be remembered, Lotte Berk (above) was adament: "As a dancer."
Decades ago in a cramped, drafty basement studio on London's Manchester Street, Lotte Berk reshaped the bodies of Barbra Streisand, Lee Radziwill, and Edna O'Brien.

Later, in posher surroundings on Madison Avenue, in Greenwich, CT, Bridgehampton, Long Island, and Los Angeles, the Lotte Berk Method went on to stretch and tone the bodies of Caroline Kennedy, Kelly Klein, Kyra Sedgwick, Tom Wolfe, and thousands more. Most had never met Lotte Berk. Some had no idea that she was a real person who lived in London.

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 is the woman with long blonde hair who lives in Bridgehampton," explained one New York client. It was a common mistake: She confused Lotte with Lydia Bach, a former Lotte Berk disciple who came to own the rights to Lotte's name outside the U.K., bringing The Method to the New World in 1970.

"No, no, no," corrects another. "There is no single Lotte. Haven't you read the book?" she asks, referring to the illustrated exercise manual that features Lydia throughout and credits Lotte in the introduction.

Intrigued by this confusion and personally devoted to the Method, I set out to find Lotte Berk. And there she was, right where Barbra, Lee, and Edna left her-at the time 81 years old, instructor's stick in hand, still teaching her distinctive back-stretching, body-lengthening technique on Manchester Street.

A formidable presence, Lotte, dressed in black from head to toe, she had a shiny black bob, pale skin, piercing chocolate eyes, and red, red lips. Hers was the voice of a performer, the German accent seemingly studied and purposeful. "If you don't lift your bottom, how can you enjoy sex?" she chides a middle-aged student in the class before mine. Lotte, it seems clear, is not from the school of gentle encouragement.

I seek cover. Rather than undress in the open studio with a clique of happy regulars, I sneak into the water closet, where, I notice, there is no ceiling.

I can't help but think about the New York studio; the showers, mineral water, four floors of space, soft couches, carpeting, and telephone suddenly seem luxurious. There a newcomer was welcomed, signs a release, answers an instructor's polite inquiries about past injuries, then participates in exactly 60 minutes of intense body toning, and later, once at home, receives a smart-marketing follow-up telephone call.

In London there were no amenities and few formalities. Lotte seems most intent on doing the abdominal portion of the class, weeding out the obvious losers-and learning my astrological sign. She stares me down, ponders a moment, then guesses it. Like Lotte, I am a Capricorn. I am accepted. After class we have lunch.

Despite her rather daunting studio persona, she was a lot like other women I knew. She loved clothes (Nicole Farhi and MaxMara are among her favorite designers) and has, after years of experimentation, settled on a signature lipcolor (Borghese Bassano Red in the silver case).
Lotte adored her hairdresser (Frances Van dark of London's Van dark Studio) and her Honda Civic. She, like many of my friends, was obsessed with finding the perfect cappuccino and making her stomach flat. It's safe to say that Lotte lived her life on the girlish side of 80.

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.