by Jeremy Lewis
by Emily Trace
Barre Flow with Van Gogh
“I do see more gratitude and excitement than I think I maybe would have seen if it wasn’t a pandemic,” remarks the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit’s barre class fitness instructor Amy Walsh, who offers her participants the unique experience of warming up to Van Gogh’s sunflowers and lying down for a core workout to his famed Starry Night painting. With many Torontonians looking for safe ways to be together and transcend the stagnation of quarantine, Amy has developed an up-to-code experience in partnership with Lighthouse Immersive that offers physical, emotional, and artistic invigoration while also allowing participants some much-needed human connection.
A professional dancer and certified trainer, Amy worked as a full-time fitness instructor and part-time waitress when the fitness and hospitality industries swiftly deflated. “I kind of switched overnight from teaching tons of classes and working two shifts at a restaurant to having no work at all,” she shares. Like many Torontonians, she had to perform a quick rebalancing act to make ends meet while being unable to return home to Ireland. “I started teaching my own fitness classes just on Zoom, and then progressively outdoors once it got warmer with clients that had reached out and wanted to stay fit.” But she landed one of the plummiest venues a fitness pro can find in the lockdown landscape when contacted by Jonathan Holmes, an old client and ticketing manager for the Van Gogh exhibit. “He heard that the fitness studios were going to be able to reopen he asked ‘Well, technically that means we could teach fitness in here, right?’”
He gave her the playlist used in the exhibit and asked her to choreograph something that suited the space—preferably not a HIIT workout that wouldn’t blend with the atmosphere. Having visited the exhibit a few times, Amy used her background in dance to create a slower-paced barre class with a burn that allowed participants of all fitness levels to absorb the full effect of the exhibit’s 53 HD projectors. “Pretty much every movement that you do, you should be able to take in the art and it shouldn’t be moving so fast that you’re going to lose balance,” she explains about her process. “So, you’re not going to do a tabletop position for ten minutes and do a leg series… the only time you’re not seeing it is slightly in a Downward Dog series, but you’re still lifting into a Cobra.” They tested the class out with friends and family to troubleshoot the necessary safety measures, but once the tickets for the first three dates sold out and a waitlist of over three hundred people accumulated, Lighthouse Immersive made the class a regular offering and added a yoga instructor.
“I do teach yoga but I’m not a yogi,” she laughs. “If yogis come in, they’ll know if I’m doing it wrong.” Knowing that many lesser-known fitness professionals in Toronto were still struggling to find clients, Amy invited a yoga and pilates instructor that she’d done Zoom classes with to join the team. “We’re the little underdogs; we’re just trying to get by, so I really wanted to find somebody that needed a break as well.” Now a Vinyasa flow class is available on Friday along with three Thursday morning barre classes until the end of October. “I max the class at 18, both for safety measures and technically in a fitness class you should be 3-4 metres apart, just because if there’s sweat or you’re breathing heavily… and I also wanted everyone to be able to see me,” she says, describing how the pillars in the space required thoughtful placement of participants.
Fitness classes and gallery attendance are both activities that connect people while they have individual experiences, and Amy has continued to refine her classes so that the two integrate and enhance each other. Not only were the movements paced to blend with the atmosphere, but the timing of the songs and visuals factor into the structure of her class as well. “I like to move through so that you get to those points at the right time,” she explains. The warm-up begins in a darker space, ending in rolling up to standing right as the projections of Van Gogh’s sunflowers flood the gallery with bright golden light.
“When the classical music really hits its peak we start our second position plié series… I like to time it so I hit right when those sunflowers blast on and you hit your pliés right when the classical music and the lights come on.” Physically disarmed by the exercise and immersed in a wall-to-wall-to-floor painting, participants can become very emotional during some of the sequences. “When Starry Night comes on and they’re lying down and doing an ab series… they just say it’s an extremely out-of-world experience,” she relates. “I have a lot of people that come in who work in the arts. I think their appreciation goes a little deeper; they’re the ones who come out and are like, ‘I honestly just felt like crying during parts of that.’”
The common experience of the pandemic has factored into how participants engage in the class as well. “I think people are just more open now,” Amy surmises. “I mean, we have nothing—so anything you can get you’re just thankful for… they’ll smile at you or they’ll laugh at little things.” Used to conducting classes over Zoom with far less human interaction, she likes to check in with participants after their workout to find out what they liked about it and continues to adjust classes based on their feedback. “The good thing about the fitness classes in the exhibit is that it is more intimate,” she observes. “You come in and experience it together, and I do see people mingle afterwards which is nice. I think that’s what people are missing most in the fitness industry: having a studio that they build a community in.” When asked how lockdown measures have interrupted the usual mindset of people who attend fitness classes, she’s insightful about how the quality of being present has shifted.
“Before, I think we were in just such a wheel of ‘go, go, go’—you don’t even really stop to appreciate what’s going on. I think people have just slowed down a bit, and they’re like ‘This is an amazing experience that I wouldn’t usually get to do’, but it’s escalated by the fact that they haven’t been able to do anything in months.”
The model that Amy Walsh has created in the Van Gogh exhibit represents a concept that could be exported to other arts venues that have had to modify their offerings and implement safety measures. “I hope this inspires things to continue in this way, like the AGO or the ROM,” she says. “But right now I’m just interested in letting things grow organically and seeing how the October classes go.” With so much programming cancelled this season across Toronto’s arts landscape and city-dwellers struggling to prioritize their physical and mental health, the idea of the TSO pairing a yoga class with a string quartet or the ROM offering boxing amongst the dinosaurs is very appealing. Given the element of the unknown and the second wave of cases predicted for the winter, it’s difficult to plan too far ahead no matter how rewarding the classes have proven to be. But Walsh says this is a great time for people of all sectors to reach out, get creative, and envision how to approach wellness from a new perspective. “It’s tricky to plan those things, but I think if people are more open to ideas and collaborations, that’s how we get through it: it’s doing it together.”