Lotte Berk (1913 – 2003)
In 1959 Britain was buzzing. In that year the first motorway was opened. The first Mini went on the market and Juke Box Jury and the Barbie Doll were launched. Vidal Sassoon started his first hairdressing salon on London’s Bond Street, showcasing his ground-breaking five-point-cut, tights began to replace stockings and fashion label Jean Varon shortened skirts, bared the midriff and offered the bra-less silhouette. Women’s bodies were in the limelight. Seizing the moment, former dancer Lotte Berk devised an exercise system which would give London’s ladies what they most wanted – a lithe, toned body without the indignity of aerobics. The rich and famous, as well as the not-so-rich and famous, beat a path to Lotte’s scruffy and rather damp basement in Manchester Street, to bend, stretch and groan their way through pliés and pelvic tilts, in pursuit of the perfect figure. If the new trend was a bit slow to start, word-of-mouth soon ensured that by the mid 60’s the Lotte Berk exercise regime was up and away.
Lotte was born Liselotte Heymansohn in Cologne in 1913 – her father a Russian jew and her mother, who died when Lotte was 8, German. Despite her father’s disapproval, Lotte pursued her passion for modern dance, marrying a fellow dancer, Ernst Berk, along the way. Fortunately Ernst had a British passport. In 1938 the couple had to flee Nazi Germany with their baby daughter, and came to London. Money was tight, so Lotte modelled at the Heatherley Art School, before joining the Ballet Rambert. During the war she toured Britain with ENSA, entertaining the troops, and went on to dance in musicals, at Covent Garden, Glyndebourne and the Edinburgh Festival. Although married, she enjoyed an unconventional bohemian life-style, with countless lovers and a racy sex life. She wasn’t the only one.
In the 50’s, aware that her dancing career was coming to an end, Lotte started to develop with the help of an osteopath, a series of exercises which would strengthen the stomach muscles and protect the back, as well as working almost every muscle in the body. But if these exercises sounded boring, they were given a boost by Lotte’s unconventional approach with names like ‘The Peeing Dog’, ‘The French Lavatory’ and ‘The Banana’ – names which still exist today. And if someone shuddered during a plié, they could be rewarded with a sharp jab in the bum by Lotte’s trademark whip.
Throughout her life as an exercise teacher,Lotte was an icon. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, she must have been very flattered, but she ignored those who tried to steal her ideas, and concentrated on training teachers who would carry on her good work. Until she was in her 80’s she continued to supervise classes, always immaculate in her Jean Muir and Armani clothes, her red lipstick and never losing her inimitable chuckle.
She died in 2003