When I initially walked into my very first Femme! class, I didn’t know what to expect or do with myself. I was late, for one, carrying a soggy umbrella, and I was super skeptical about the description I was sent of what I was about to experience. But within seconds of walking into the space at Pearl Studios in Manhattan, I was met with a smile. Not only by the woman taking attendance, but the women in the class and the instructor. Unlike most encounters, none of the smiles seemed fake. Everyone was genuinely happy to be where they were, in the presence of Bernadette Pleasant, the creator of Femme! The 53-year-old (you read that right) Maplewood, New Jersey native and grandmother (of three wonderful grandsons) stood in the front of the class and the huge mirrors in a free-flowing and yet hugs-you-in-all-the-right-places outfit I’d never seen before but loved. She was confident with a chic low haircut. Encouraging. A therapist of sorts who didn’t need to know your business, but wanted to see your feelings as she sauntered around the safe space she created for them to dwell.
The class is billed as a “fusion movement experience,” and I realized the fusion is the movement of the body mixed with the working out of your emotions. It is a place where you are asked to embody the joy you felt at certain moments in your week, the rage, the grief, and more, and then asked to release it — no judgment. Scream, laugh, whatever. Within 15 minutes of my participation in the 90-minute experience, I was wiping away tears because I had never been asked by anyone, aside from my therapist, to openly feel. Let it loose.
I posed in front of the mirror, encouraging myself to be more confident. I would dance to the beat of drums in a circle. I paid an honest compliment to another woman who told me my eyes were so deep, big and beautiful that she wanted to jump in them. I shared opinions about my experience as the women in the class, in unison, encouraged me to share it and listened intently in a huge circle. By the end of it all, I was blown away by the experience. I felt like I’d done away with pent-up aggression and let out everything without having to say very many words.
I had to know more about the woman who created this experience, which is available in more cities than just New York, and thankfully, I was given the access to learn a lot. I spoke with Pleasant about how Femme! was born out of her decision to break free from a strict religious upbringing, how she maintains her body and emotional well-being to stay flawless in her 50s, and why more people need to allow themselves to be “too much” in order to truly feel their best.
MadameNoire: How long have you been engrossed with health and wellness? Have you always been active or was there a catalyst that spurred your interest?
Bernadette Pleasant: No, not really. I always did movement, things that I enjoyed doing on the side, but I owned a bridal shop in the city, I worked for The Economist and New Yorker magazines doing research. I had a finance background in reinsurance. So my work background in corporate America did not lean itself to this. I would say, privately, what I was doing was moving through a lot of shutdown. And that’s my personal experience. I come from a very religious, stringent background — Jehovah’s Witnesses. And having gotten kicked out of that many years ago — it was just debilitating, quite honestly. Married at 17 because you didn’t have boyfriends. You dated to marry. Yeah, so I was doing a lot of what I did not desire to do and I had to come away from that for my own personal survival. And it was in doing that, and realizing that I was living in that narrow margin of range and not being true and honest to myself, that I started to do self-care in ways that felt good to me. That took a lot of courage coming from that type of background. And it was in doing that, that I found more and more freedom. That was actually where I was happier living and I felt like my entire life took an exhale as I stepped away from that more and more.
I did read though that before you created Femme! you were teaching a few different modalities. What were they?
Before teaching Femme! I did some training in Nia, the Nia technique. Pole dancing, which I happen to love. I’d taken some African dance classes. But I became interested in other things focused on healing. Somatic movement work, sort of body reading. Reiki, things like that. Ways of meditation, things that created more calm and relaxation in the body.
So how did Femme! come to life?
Femme! came to life because what I realized I needed to do was stop the negative self-talk and the judging of myself, trying to fit into a mold. And when I found myself in the presence of live drums, that happened for me more readily. I wanted to be more expressive, more free. I always say, the healing I needed had to happen on a primal level. That’s why I loved those drums so much, because they just helped with all of the structure, meaning I have to get it right. I had to step this way, or look that way. I really wanted to invite a bit of freedom and wildness into movement so that I just didn’t care. Because I found in spaces like that, I personally felt better about myself. So I found that while I was teaching these other things, they weren’t quite nailing it for me. I didn’t feel good when I left. I found by bringing these elements into the room that I trusted worked so well for me, and it was providing that experience for others. I realized I was on to something and it was working and it was working for all kinds of folks. The hypnosis that the drums allow for, it just allows us to get out of our heads and feel held by those beats of the drum.
Why do you feel it’s important for people to have this safe space to really exercise their emotions, per se? People think of physical classes and options that are all about burning calories and getting sweaty, but don’t often consider the need to get pent up emotions out there.
I’m careful to make reference to this body of work as a healing modality as opposed to a workout, because I can go and sweat. I can go to the gym and get it in during a Zumba class or something that might really get the heart up. What I was looking for with Femme! was emotional freedom. I was looking for a way for people to use what they learn in class outside of class. You’ve exercised this muscle of expression in an emotion so that when life finds you a few days away and you might find yourself upset about something, grieving or even feeling joy, that you are more inclined to express that the way our bodies were created to do so. And to feel so good about being able to do that so you’re not walking around with the emotional baggage that’s stifling it. So while we exercise it in the classroom, it’s my desire, and I’ve gotten feedback — the feedback that I get is so incredible as to how this affects people in their everyday lives. There’s a gentleman who once shared that because of the safety of the space to exercise rage, he no longer beat his wife. So this is far-reaching. This is not a Zumba class. This is about emotional healing and acknowledging that there are pent-up emotions, whether it’s joy, grief or rage or more. Or one can just act as if they’re more confident about those poses we go into in class. So it’s something they can tap back into when they’re dealing with their everyday life.
Nice! People definitely felt so much more free when they left class. They kept saying that because they could dance and feel and do all of these things and not be judged, since everyone is doing it with them.
I think encouraging people to be “too much,” I love that doing that in class because what I realized I was doing years ago was living smaller than I am. And, there is a propensity for that kind of living to be okay. This is what’s okay. And so everyone falls in line with that, rather than be too much. But what would it be like to celebrate that and not feel like you’re too much? And if it is too much for somebody else, they need to get themselves in a class so that they can expand their capacity. The too much is often said as a negative as opposed to encouraging that out of people, and that’s what I want to do. I want to encourage people to bring all of that life force they have without feeling like they have to dim that light.
So your body is amazing and I am here for the free-flowing outfits you wear.
I wear those outfits so I can live during those classes because I’m a hot flashing 53-year-old and that’s real [laughs].
[Laughs] But what is your personal diet and fitness regimen to maintain your body at this age?
My regimen consists of, I do get to the gym at least once or twice a week. I don’t love it, but my ego will get me there [laughs]. I gotta get into those outfits. But really, other than that, I’m not heavy with that, but I do it. I’m big on stretching, I do that at home. But other than that, quite honestly, I’m grateful for genes that make this possible, but for me, it tends to be things that are more soothing and healing. Mediation, writing.
I wanted to ask, because during the sharing portion of class, a woman opened up about feeling confident enough to finally go bra-less in your class. I know you do the same. Is there a story behind that?
No. I don’t have a story behind that. I remember her saying that, and I’m thinking, “Oh ok.” [laughs] I try to just be open, but I remember her saying that and just thinking, “Well, good for you.” But no, whatever restricts people, whatever feels confining and restricting, if at all possible, start to remove that. Whether it’s a person or a philosophy or a bra. I often say that I think with emotions, it is “acceptable” to act emotionally like you’re wearing Spanx. It’s like you’re trying to operate but you’re wearing emotional Spanx. But what happens when people start to feel more freedom in there body is, they’re more inclined to notice what feels restricting. Whatever that is.
Got it. So I’m assuming that’s why you wear the outfits you do, correct?
Yeah. It’s important to me to look good. But honestly, I work up a sweat leading and doing those classes. Quite honestly, I was very honest when I said I’m a hot flashing 53-year-old. I need some place where air can get in. But also, just the freedom of knowing that’s important to me, so what can I find that I can wear that I can feel unrestricted, physically, and live through that 90-minute experience with drums playing? [laughs]
It’s been amazing and inspiring to see, via social media, so many women “of a certain age,” being their most active and living their healthiest and happiest lives. As a woman over 50, what encourages you to continue maintaining yourself both physically and mentally?
It’s interesting. I’m a proud grandmother of three. I am a proud mom of a 33-year-old amazing woman. I don’t want to look like that person in the club who’s really trying to hang on [laughs]. Trying to hang onto Forever21. I’m not. I’m not that person, so I’m really okay with 53. I do get asked a lot, “What is it like to be 53?” I don’t know. I’m just living. All I know is that there is a lot of life force here. I’ve seen the alternative at my age. I’ve seen folks who really look like they’ve lived hard and I’m just not here for it honestly. Eating well, getting much needed sleep, saying I’m tired and going to bed after, deciding not to have something that’s just not good for my body, doing that works. I’m a big, firm believer in the power of yes or no and what that means for my body. I’m a huge proponent of self-care, meaning, the rest that I need, the time of day that I can and do work, I want to do it when I’m at my best. So just tuning in and seeing what I need for this day, and doing that on an ongoing basis. Taking care of myself.
For those who may have not heard about Femme! How would you summarize it and what would you want people to know is the purpose and takeaway of your class?
I’d like people to know that there is a safe place where all are welcome to have this experience, feel so deeply held and cared for. Where they’re not going to be judged. In fact, I ask people not to judge themselves, that’s where judgment begins. This is a non-judgmental zone, and it begins by you not judging yourself from the moment you step in the door. I want people to come in and feel like there is a place for them to release. There is nothing to “get right.” They can just come and leave feeling more expanded, better about themselves, better about the people whom they have to interact with. That’s what’s being offered here, and all are welcome.