Why I Became a Barre Instructor — and Why I Quit

Photo credit: bradleypjohnson, CC BY 2.0.

I remember two things about my first barre class. One is how impossible the class was, and how sore I was for what felt like a week afterward. The other was the instructor, and how incredibly relaxed and poised she seemed throughout.

The only thing that got me to my next class was the fact that I’d purchased a two-pack of classes, but I kept coming back after that, and it was because of the instructors. They weren’t like anything I’d ever experienced before (this was in 2011, before boutique fitness had become ubiquitous). There was no boot-camp-style yelling, there were no yogic mantras, just very precise instructions delivered in a soothing tone of voice. The instructors were calm, cool, collected, perfectly toned, and somehow able to motivate you to hold each position for just a little bit longer. These women (and one man) seemed like they had it all figured out, and I wanted to be one of them.

At first, this desire was nothing more than an idle fantasy. I’d spent my entire life as a noted non-athlete, and could barely make it through a barre class, let alone teach one. Fast forward two years, and whether it was a bad breakup, my Equinox membership, or the fact that boutique fitness was starting to explode, but I’d somehow become that person who’d tried every new fitness class at least once and seemed to always be training for a half marathon. I still loved barre, and had tried all of the studios near me, from the local places to the big national brands. While I loved the classes, I didn’t love the price — at $25+ for a single class or nearly $200 for a monthly membership, it just wasn’t something that was practical in my budget on a regular basis. That fact, combined with my uncertain feelings at the time about my day job as an aerospace engineer, made me seriously consider becoming a barre instructor. What could be better than getting paid to work out?

When I got an email about instructor auditions at a studio I’d attended, I figured it was worth a shot. There were about twenty other women at the audition, which consisted mostly of proving that you could count to ten in time with music. My counting skills must not have distinguished me from the crowd, as I never heard back. Undeterred, I kept looking for opportunities and eventually discovered via Craigslist that a franchise of my favorite barre brand was opening near me and looking for instructors. After meeting with the studio owner and submitting an audition tape to corporate headquarters, I was selected to join the instructor training program. Training consisted of an exhausting week of learning the ins and outs of leading a class from a “master teacher,” followed by six months of teaching practice classes and taking written exams on anatomy and a 300+ page manual of all things barre. It turned out the confidence and control exuded by my instructors came from spending hours and hours studying the exact anatomical positions people should hold to maximize the effectiveness of a given exercise.

For me, the most interesting piece of the training was learning that my favorite instructor now owned her own studio. Maybe that could be me, I thought. The boutique fitness trend showed no sign of slowing down, and I figured with what places were charging for classes, they had to be wildly profitable. Training with a franchise location that hadn’t yet opened, I got a glimpse into the owner’s process of opening up her studio. It turned out that it wasn’t as simple as slapping a ballet barre up in a big enough room; the corporate office was involved in every step of the process and wanted a say in everything from the location you chose to the carpet you selected to the spacing of the actual brackets you installed the barres on. Once the studio was open, there was even more to do — sales, marketing, maintenance, customer service — studio ownership was a full-time job and then some, not the relaxing “sipping a latte in the latest Lululemon” lifestyle I’d imagined.

Just being an instructor was a little more than I bargained for. The actual teaching part was great; I loved introducing students to the workout. I was less in love with the hours. I was still working a full-time job, so I taught in the early mornings or late evenings — and often ended up teaching until 8 p.m. while having to return to the studio the next day to teach at 6 a.m. Because we were required to stay after class and clean up, as well as to arrive at least 15 minutes before class to greet students, this often meant I was just getting home at 9 p.m. and needed to immediately fall into bed so I could be up again by 5.

The other challenging aspect of the job was sales. All the teachers were expected to sell class packages to new clients, and while I had no problem mentioning our current specials to clients after class, I wasn’t particularly good at convincing reluctant clients to part with their hard-earned money. As someone who was teaching mostly because I wasn’t interested in paying full price for classes, it was difficult for me to convince others to do the same.

Then there was the money. I’d gotten lucky; my $1,800 training fee had been covered by the studio. I was making $30 per class, which is a pretty good hourly rate, until you factored in arriving 15 minutes early and leaving 15–30 minutes after class had ended. There was the increased amount I was spending on coffee and takeout since I felt like I was barely ever home. I’ve never done the math on how many pairs of $13-a-pop “sticky socks” I purchased from the studio after I forgot to pack a pair as I dashed out the door at the crack of dawn, but I know it’s a lot. Staff got a 40 percent discount on retail in the studio, 30 percent off at Athleta, and 15 percent off at Lululemon, but it turns out that a discount on $100 leggings still means you’re paying an awful lot for leggings.

Eventually, it all got to be a little too much. Instructors were required to teach six classes a week and attend at least three, which hadn’t seemed like a lot when I started, but things changed over the two years I spent as an instructor. Emboldened by my unexpected success at teaching a fitness class, I applied for a position at my day job that I didn’t think I’d get, and then did. The stagnation I’d been feeling in my career was gone, but it also meant I was working more hours and just didn’t have the time to teach, take class, and devote the appropriate amount of time to learning the latest technique updates sent out by corporate. I wasn’t calm and composed like the instructors I remembered; I was frantic and frazzled. It got to the point where I was too tired to take classes (the whole reason I started teaching in the first place!), and because teachers didn’t actually do the workout with the class, just gave instructions and offered corrections, I basically wasn’t working out at all.

I ended up quitting after two years of teaching, but I learned a lot along the way. If you’re considering fitness as a side hustle (or full-time career), here’s my advice:

Think about where you want to teach.  

Brand name or generic? A lot of national brands (barre or otherwise) have their own training programs, which is great. I didn’t come from a fitness background, but felt incredibly well prepared to teach by the program I went through. That said, these don’t come cheap — training at the brand I worked for ran about $1,800 at the time, though I was lucky enough to have my training costs covered by the studio. The downside is that these brands are often teaching their own proprietary method, so after you’ve trained you’ll probably be asked to sign a contract with a noncompete clause — which means that you can only teach for that brand. If you take a more generic training (think yoga, pilates, personal training) you’re more likely to have the option to work at a variety of gyms.

New or established? There can be a lot of growing pains with a newly-opened studio, but if you don’t have a fitness background it can be a great way to get started; places that are just opening may be more flexible with who they’re willing to hire and train. It’s obviously a little harder to find these places since they don’t exist yet, but look at online job postings. If there’s a particular brand of studio you’re interested in working for, check the national website as they’ll often list locations they’re planning to open in the future. At an established studio, you have a better idea what you’re getting into, but you may also need to invest more up front — some studios will only select instructors from their existing client base, so you may be looking at a few months of shelling out a few hundred dollars to take classes before they’ll consider training you.  

Consider the compensation.  

I started out getting paid $30 a class, which sounds like a lot, but once you factor in that teachers were expected to be at least 15 minutes early to greet students before class and stay after to answer questions and clean up the studio, plus the time spent outside of class putting together choreography and staying up to speed on the latest techniques, the hourly rate drops way down. If you find yourself needing to stop for coffee or takeout more often because you’re teaching class at the break of dawn or until 8:30 at night, those extra costs are also going to cut into your income. On the flip side, if you’re mostly in it for the free classes, take that into account too, as that’s a benefit likely to be worth a couple hundred dollars a month.

Know your duties.  

There may be studios where you just get paid to teach the best class you can, but there will likely be more to it than that. At smaller studios, you may also be responsible for front desk duties like fielding client questions and taking care of retail sales. At newer studios, if clients aren’t coming in and buying classes, it’s awfully hard to pay the instructors — so sales and marketing may also become a de facto part of your job. If those are your strengths, great! If they’re not, be prepared to get outside your comfort zone.

Be realistic about your schedule.  

If you’re teaching as a side hustle, make sure your day job is flexible enough to handle it. There is no staying late at work to finish that last-minute project if you’re scheduled to teach at 5:30 and then again at 7. If you’re considering making fitness your full-time gig, scheduling can still be an issue. Newer instructors often get the less desirable time slots, so make sure you’re willing to work Monday at 5 a.m. or Sunday at 3 (which I’ve learned the hard way can really hurt your brunch game). If you’re thinking about studio ownership, be prepared for the amount of work involved. Others who are more small-business-savvy probably know this, but I’d assumed having a studio was a “set it and forget it” situation — pick a location, hire some great instructors, and watch the money roll in. The reality is, there’s always something: the front desk worker’s car breaks down, a toilet gets broken, someone has to tell a client they can’t bring wine into class (and those are just the things I’ve experienced in my own career).

If I can do it, anyone can. 

If you’re thinking about becoming a fitness instructor but are unsure about the time commitment or if the cost of training is worth it, those are valid concerns. If you’re holding back because you’re afraid you won’t be good at it, then go for it anyway. It’s great if you’re naturally coordinated and outgoing, but those things can be learned. As long as you’re passionate about the workout and excited to teach it, the rest will come together with practice. If I can teach a barre class despite having never taken ballet and having no sense of rhythm, then I’m pretty sure anyone can.

Andrea Greb is a full time rocket scientist and part time fitness enthusiast. She has written for HelloGiggles and Bustle.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Career Change series.

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