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Wednesday, Feb 28, 2024

Raising the Barre

Richard Giorla was the kind of teenager who dreamed big and wasn’t afraid to pursue it. He saw “Flashdance” seven times in one week and moved to New York City at age 19 because he wanted to learn how to break dance and become even better than the pros. He might have later learned the movie was actually filmed in Pittsburgh, but it didn’t matter. He landed a ton of commercials, appeared in movies such as Disney’s “Newsies” in 1992 starring a young Christian Bale and even appeared as a backup dancer on MTV with the late King of Pop Michael Jackson. But after sustaining an injury at 35, his dance career was suddenly over – though, as it turned out, he was only starting his successful business career. In 2001, he took over a small Studio City dance studio and developed an exercise routine that blended ballet with cardio. He called it Cardio Barre, the latter word a nod to the handrails used in ballet studios. The chain took off and is now in four states with an international expansion coming next. It’s also spawned several competitors, such as Pure Barre and The Booty Barre. Giorla, 51, met with the Business Journal to talk about the wonder of dance, the prospect of opening in Kuwait and what keeps him so young. Question: So what makes Cardio Barre stand out among other fitness routines? Answer: If you want the ballet body, and most women love the elegance and grace and it taps into that fantasy of being a ballerina, you’re going to get it here. How so? A lot of programs are great, but what type of body develops? You swim, you get a swimmer’s body. You box, you get a boxer’s body. You want the dancer’s physique, the elegance of the ballerina? You must dance, get dancer techniques. That’s what we offer. Are you worried Cardio Barre is just a fad? Ballet’s been around for more than 100 years. It’s a classic form of art. It will never go away, same here. You know, results are the number one reason it’s not going away. If you want a dancer body, you need to dance. It’s cutting edge in fitness. These pole dancing things are just gimmicks and flashy trends. Do you have to be a real ballerina to be a teacher? Our (teachers have) four years of classical ballet dance training, six week boot camp training and you’re still not guaranteed to pass. And then we come back in two months with continuing education. It never ends with us. Is your dance background primarily in ballet? I was well-versed in everything, which really led me to a big career. I started with gymnastics when I was younger, so I had a lot of tumbling. I saw “Flashdance,” moved to New York and learned how to break dance with the guys who did the movie and were street dancers. I became one of the top break dancers in the ’80s around the world. Then I thought, “Break dancers are not going to have a great dance career. It’s limited. I have to be classically trained.” Where did you learn ballet? I got on scholarship at Steps in New York, the dance school, and studied five years, every day five classes a day, jazz, tap, ballet, studied everything. Year after year, day after day, lived in a dance studio and got well versed in everything. Did it help your career? Ballet dancers usually get these jobs, break dancers get that: I got all the jobs. I had such versatility. I loved to dance. That was my passion. I danced around the world. I danced with Michael Jackson, Ann Margaret, Barbara Streisand. I trained some of the most iconic people. I had the most amazing dance career. So when did you work with Michael Jackson? I did an MTV 10th anniversary with him. I danced with him on stage, I worked with him for a week. That was the highlight of my career in the ’90s when Michael was his biggest. He’s the ultimate entertainer and back at that time, he was the best of the best. And he still is. How did you feel getting that job? You have to be a certain level to even get hired, to audition for choreographers to send you on that. To get picked, to work with Michael, you have to be what I call world class. Sometimes I have to say to myself, “As a dancer, you made it, you worked with Michael.” You have to be among the best in the world to even get thought of to work with him. He only gets the best dancers. Was it intimidating working with such an iconic performer? He’s a perfectionist, so he’s tough, which is great because everybody had to be on the top of their game. But we’re the best, so we’re all extremely professional. Everybody knows what it takes to be at that level. You have an expectation of yourself, and his of you. He was amazing to work with. When did you stop dancing? When I was 35, I tore a groin muscle. It took me out of my dance career permanently and that was it. I was walking around wondering what I was going to do. How did Cardio Barre come about? Someone asked me to teach this ballet class at this small little studio called The Class. I was reluctant but I was so broke, $80,000 in debt. Here I was dancing with Michael Jackson and then I’m going to teach an aerobics class? Then I took The Class and I loved it. Six months later, the owner was going bankrupt so I bought the studio from her. Where did you get your entrepreneurial spirit? When I hit 30 years old, just something innately said to me I can’t dance forever. The span of a dancer is short lived. I said I better start thinking about my future. How did you make Cardio Barre different than the former owner’s class? I kept a lot of her format, but I changed a lot of it. Barre method has been around for 20 to 30 years, but I turned it into my own thing. Cardio Barre was my own name. I went and trademarked that and it hit big. It’s hit big with celebrities too. Laura Leighton attended your class today. It’s celebrity-packed. We’re very protective of the integrity of celebrity. We don’t bring in the paparazzi. I have TMZ calling all the time: “Can we do a story? Can we come down there and take pictures?” I don’t let them. Celebrities feel protected and they love it. We have a lot of celebrities all the time here. Such as? Paul Stanley from Kiss just gave me a testimonial – our first guy testimonial. He comes in almost every day, loves it, even brought his friend. There are quite a few celebrity testimonials on your website – Dakota Fanning, Amanda Bynes, Jenna Elfman, Ashlee Simpson. Are these paid endorsements? Those 30 A-list celebrities we have on there give it to us for free. This is how much they believe, their testimonials are gold. They can charge tens of thousands of dollars to put their picture and name on our website. They love it so much they say we’re willing to put our name behind it. And that’s valuable. What makes it so valuable? That’s really been a big key to our credibility. No matter where you are in the world, everybody wants to know what Hollywood’s doing. And we’re in the fitness capital. So people look to see what celebrities are doing to keep their bodies. Are all of the studios profitable? Most of them are doing very well. Almost everybody in the company is, unless they’re about a month or two old. Our gross at my studio is over $1 million a year. You now have 14 Cardio Barre locations in L.A. County and others in Memphis, Dallas and Utah. Are there immediate plans for much more expansion? We’re going to have 20 in another month or so open and running, with plans to go international. We have some international contracts out there now. It’s interesting because we just celebrated our 13-year anniversary, and we’re going stronger than ever. How much bigger do you think Cardio Barre could get? Well, I can tell you a company has approached us about going public. Is that something you’re open to? I am still considering that option. If I can take a $5 million to $10 million company and turn it into a $100 company, fine. The sky is the limit. Where exactly are the new franchisees located? We have ones opening in Nashville and Dallas. Then we have plans in Florida and another in Utah and Virginia – even in Kuwait. I know that sounds funny, but we have a contractor supposed to be signing this week. They’re becoming Westernized. It’ll be a women-only gym. That’s the law there, so I’m not going to be able to teach over there, but they want all of the newest, hottest, latest stuff from Hollywood. Are there more international contracts coming? Possibly in Ireland and England and Australia. When you’re not doing Cardio Barre, how do you work out? I do yoga myself. It’s more a spiritual tapping into, and it’s more about stretch and core strength. Do you have other hobbies? I just love life. There’s so much that I’m open to. I used to ride motorcycles. I rode Harleys back in the day, but that’s really a pastime. What else do you enjoy? I love animals. In fact, I want to take a lot of my money and open up some sort of retreat or protection rescue for animals. I’m just kind of a big animal activist. I rescue and do a lot for animals. Animals are my love. Any family? My mother’s out here. She came out here as an actress. She came out here when I did. Yoshi’s my family, but I have my mom’s support because she’s here. Most of my family’s out in Philadelphia. So I still visit and I go see them. Is there anything else on your plate aside from expanding your business? I’m going into life coaching now. I like motivating people, and I have a lot of people who come to me with their ideas. They see me as a dancer who started and turned my idea into this big company. People kept coming to me, so I thought I better have a little side business on life coaching, just helping mentor and support people – a lot of dancers and startups that just don’t know where to go. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

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