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Marnie Alton: The Dream Weaver
What did you think of Marnie? I want to ask you because I know what your response is going to be. I want to hear it.
First of all, I felt like I was with a drop-dead gorgeous celebrity. On the other hand, she made me feel like her best friend.
She has a magic gift of making you feel special, heard, seen, loved, nurtured and you never want to leave.
She had such a knowing about her too, her whole life and the way she knew that she was going to get out of Canada, her hometown. She was onto bigger and better things, but she had a path and to me, I never had that feeling so it was so inspiring to hear that.
I never knew what I was supposed to do. I still feel that way. The fact that she knew she had a purpose, followed it with such hard work. She is the kindest, most hardworking, beautiful and loving human being. She’s built an incredible business. Her studio, Barre Belle, is thriving in full. She’s a wonderful teacher.
The fact that she taught herself how to be this successful businesswoman. She is self-taught.
It’s pretty extraordinary. I hope you liked the episode. We have Marnie Alton of Barre Belle Studio. Prior to Barre Belle Studio, she was my Marnie, my friend. I know her. We should talk about you because it’s such a good story. Let’s dive right in.
I’m excited. I’m curious where we’re going to go.
You are from Canada, where?
I grew up in Edmonton, Alberta, which usually if I say, although it’s not that small of a town, people were struggling. I want to let everyone know that I love me some Edmonton, but it’s okay if you don’t know where it is. It’s north and I forgive people for that. I grew up in Edmonton, Alberta and my family are all still there.
Is it rural?
It’s not. Where my family is now, they’ve moved to a smaller town outside of the city. It’s much more rural now or where I go home to now is much more rural. Edmonton itself, it’s very much farmers and hockey players. It’s a cold town compared to Los Angeles. My mother is a tiny woman. She’s the tiniest. She’s freezing like anything. At 75 degrees, she’s got four sweaters on. I’ll sometimes say like, “Let’s talk about it. Maybe we should get you to Palm Desert. Maybe we should get you out of this place that you seem to be complaining about all the time.” She said she could never leave it because the people, an environment like that creates or breeds. She said, “As much as the weather is lovely there, the people are here.” I agree with that. Where I am from is a cool place.
Do you have a sister?
I have a sister and a brother. They’re both younger than me. They’re all still up there. I left home when I was seventeen and I went to Vancouver.
You were the oldest.
I love my family. It wasn’t something crazy like that. I always knew that wasn’t where I was going to stay.
Did you grow up with a single mom?
I did grow up with a single mom.
The three of us is single-mama raised.
There’s something very special about that and unique although it’s not unique in terms of numbers, unfortunately. It’s a unique way to grow up as a woman.
I’m the oldest also.
Are you the oldest?
I’m the only.
You become like your mom’s best buddy when you’re the oldest.
For the first almost eleven years of my life, it was my mom and I. My brother also came. I moved in with my dad later at eleven. For the first eleven years, it was us. It’s a little sorority. At seventeen, you left and went to Vancouver.
I did. I was one of those kids who was singing, dancing and acting her whole life. I’d always wanted to do that. I thought that was my path. That was something I was going to do.
Did you do a dance class?
I did it. Do you know who Stacey Tookey is?
No.To be brave, you have to feel scared. Click To Tweet
Stacey Tookey is a beautiful dancer. She was a judge on So You Think You Can Dance and stuff. She and I went to the same high school. Her mom, Shelley, had a great dance studio in town. From my perspective as a kid, that’s where you could go. I could never do that. I would research myself and make my mom sign me up for things at the community center. It was like that terrible jazz class and I don’t know, some office or something at the community center. That’s where I went. All my friends went to Shelley’s and I would come home and be like, “Teach me the stuff.”
That shows your love for dance though, the willpower.
We’ve discussed before, my mom did not have a lot of money and your mom didn’t.
Not at all.
Definitely, the lessons are a lot.
I will say this and it’s one thing that I was grateful for in Canada because although I was super aware of where economic plays in the world and it showed up. I hated Christmas because I hated the friends who would call after and they’d all talk about. You feel like you had to talk about it. It’s silly, but it was sincerely anxiety-inducing as a kid, shame-inducing and all that’s ridiculous. It’s not like my family shamed me. I felt shame in the world because of it. There were certain things that I never worried about. I never thought about it. If I was sick, I went to the doctor. I always knew that one of the ways for me to get out was to make sure that I went to university. The idea of people saving for children’s college is hilarious to me. I got a job when I was eleven because I knew that if I wanted to go to a university, I was going to pay for the university.
What was your job?
The first thing I started doing was babysitting on the street, which now if I look at an eleven-year-old, it’s crazy.
I like how you said babysitting on the street.
On the street, because they get up and down. Everyone who was younger I would babysit. As soon as I turned fourteen, I remember being so excited because where I grew up, at fourteen, you could get your Social Security or whatever it is. Social Insurance number is what it is in Canada. Here in the States, I think you’re born with your Social Security number.
In Canada, you have to apply or at least when I was fourteen, you had to apply for it. You had to have it before you could work. You couldn’t apply until you were fourteen. I was excited to get it and right away, on my fourteenth birthday I was there. I started working at a convenience store.
As a cashier?
It’s all things. When I look now at fourteen, a grown up going, “Here are the keys to my business.” That did not teach me business skills.
No, I babysat when I was too young. I also worked in a bakery. I had random jobs. I worked in college in a bra store.
I sold shoes for a minute.
It’s very important to put your kids in the job world.
Did you work too?
At fifteen, I started working.
What was your job?
My mom worked at a dental office so I helped her in the office. I worked at Circuit City.
That must’ve been hard for you the maroon shirt.
I talked my way out of wearing a maroon shirt because I was so tiny back then. It didn’t fit me even the smallest size. I kept working through college. I paid for college myself too. I love that work ethic.
Work ethic is a big important thing. You’re saving for university. You turn seventeen. You finished high school. You go to Vancouver to go to university.
No, I didn’t. I was going to do my year off. I had earned a bunch of scholarships. I knew they had a one-year leeway. I could apply them to the following year. I gave myself that moment because that was when I wanted to get into acting. I had already been acting and doing shows and theater and all that stuff all throughout my childhood and through my teens, but I wanted to do the film. There was a film shoot that came to Edmonton. It was a mini-series or something. Nathan Fillion is from Edmonton as well. He randomly was a kid. They were doing something. It was like in the newspaper. Every kid auditioned for this one thing they were filming in Edmonton, which they would never have filmed. I got one line. He had a small part. It gave me the taste for it.
You were the one kid that got the part?
He definitely had a bigger part. I was a little bit younger than him. I had one line, which to me I was basically a superstar. I was ready.
In that context, you really are.
Here’s the big deal. We got to stay up all night. It gave me the taste for film so I went to Vancouver.
You went to Vancouver. You did your gap year and you worked more presumably.The world is so much more of a tapestry. It's so much more of a windy path. Click To Tweet
I joked at one time I got a little studio apartment. I had four jobs because Vancouver is a lot more expensive than Edmonton to keep saving. That was the idea I was saving for school the next year. I got a roommate to try to save some more money because she was also going to go to university in the fall. She worked at the restaurant I was working at. She had three jobs. We always joke between the two of us, we had seven jobs.
Were you a waiter?
I was a hostess because I was too young to be a waitress. I was a hostess at two different places. I said that I was a nanny, but I was fully a house cleaning. I full lied because I was too ashamed to say that I was cleaning houses. I did errand work for one of them.
Was that a fun job?
None of them were fun. They’re all fine.
I’ve been a PA, errand runner, nanny, all those things. I never minded the errands when they’re not my own. I’m like, “It’s cool. Someone’s paying me.” I get to drive around and do these things. That’s fine. It’s like you’re outside a lot. You’re not sitting in an office. Those didn’t bother me. There have been jobs I’ve had right there. I did not like a lot of the work, but that was not one of that. Where did you go to university?
I went to UBC. I took Arts and did the theater program there. I did one year. It was so exhausting because I kept my jobs and I did a full-course load. I always liked school. I assumed I was going to be in it for the long haul. I was exhausted and it seemed for what I was going towards it, it didn’t make sense. I didn’t have a social community in university because I lived off campus. I had all these jobs. I was taking the most general of first-year courses. Nothing was super exciting or inspiring me. When I started zoning into wanting to be in film and television, I realized that for a while I spent my early twenties, which are your most employable years going to school.
My thought was when I went to the end and was tired and decided to quit after the first year is I thought, “If I want to go back and do a Fine Arts degree, I can do that in my late twenties. I can do that in my early 30s.” If I’m going to go out there and try to hustle in film and television, it was time to do it. I started doing that. I took another year off and worked. I tried to figure out what I wanted to do and got accepted into the Canadian College of Performing Arts on a full scholarship. That one was easier for me because it was a nine-month, what they called a professional program.
I knew it wasn’t going to be this four-year because also you start meeting the kids who are in the four-year fine arts program and they are exhausted, which is it’s fine to be exhausted. They come out in crazy debt and trying to get maybe like a non-equity gig. It seemed crazy to me. I got the full scholarship for this college and I did that program. While I was in that, there was another production that came. It’s a traveling production. Another production came to town and I got cast again. I vetoed a bunch of girls from LA according to the people. I got to make out with my childhood crush. Did I tell you this?
My favorite movie is The Princess Bride. The show is the 100th episode of the Outer Limits. All my scenes were with one guy. It was this guy and me, I had five days of shooting. They didn’t have the actor confirmed yet. The night before the car was supposed to pick me up to drive to set, I got the final pages, the final cast list and he was on it. My first scene the next day was we make out, but then I turn into an alien and I kill him. It was a lot of stuff happening. It was Anna Cockney with a cockney accent in full periods, a wig and the whole thing.
It was giant and my little eighteen, twenty-year-old brain went like, “We’re going to fall in love and we’re going to get married. This is the beginning of it all.” He’s a nice guy. We didn’t fall in love. He doesn’t remember who I am in the world despite the fact that he made out with me. He was a nice guy. It was a fun shoot and about halfway through that theater program, I thought, “I made enough to pay my rent for the rest of the year.” I know what you make on even a good equity gig. It’s not this. There’s always been a little bit of practical artist inside of me.
There should be because when you look at how hard theater actors work and how little they get paid compared to four days of shooting, it’s exponentially different.
After that, I got an agent in Vancouver because that came pretty quickly after that experience. I started traveling back and forth between where the school was back to Vancouver, auditioning for film and TV and I slowly started working. I realized this a few years back when they sent out some alumni thing. I wasn’t there the day they took the final graduating class picture. I was at an audition. I didn’t even go to school.
That’s the best reason not to be in a graduation photograph.
The school is very centric. I felt like a bit of an outsider. Most of the people who came on out of it got great jobs on Disney cruise lines. It was a musical theater oriented.
You’re already singing then.
I sang my whole life. That was my main gem.
Even before you left Edmonton.
That was my main thing.
Did it come naturally to you?
It was something I always loved and did.
If I could have a dream, it’s to sing.
Just do it.
Did it come naturally?
Do you sing in the shower?
No, because my husband is a very good singer. He has a very good voice I mean, to me.
I feel like this is something you need to discover, putting a pin in that, talking about it later. This is important. It’s the vibration in the body. It’s an important thing to do if you’re drawn to it.
You graduated even though you’re not in the picture, you have an agent. You’re going back and forth between school and Vancouver. When does LA start to come into the picture?
As I worked in Vancouver, I realized the only parts, even Vancouver was flourishing in terms of film and television at the time that I was there because this would be like the early 2000s. Everybody was there for a second. It’s pre-writer’s strike. That one that brought all production back. People were working. I was working. It was great. I couldn’t believe my luck. I didn’t have four jobs. I remember the day I quit my waitressing job at the pub. I was like, “I’m never coming back,” and I didn’t. For better or worse, I haven’t come back. That was cool. I started immediately. I was looking one step ahead, but getting frustrated and feeling that all the good parts, they weren’t even reading for me here.Your best doesn't always mean pushing harder all the time. It could be circling back and learning how to find the balance. Click To Tweet
Was it more the smaller roles?
It was always the best friend. It wasn’t an option. There was a stigma around local hire. Immediately I felt like, “Don’t put me in a box and I’m going to LA.”
You’re not in even better roles.
I started going back and forth. I would do movies over in Bulgaria and crazy stuff like that. I’d save all my money and come and spend pilot season when there was a pilot season.
It used to be before television changed, Netflix, HBO. It was January through March or April.
I would come down and do that, spend my money, go back to Vancouver, earn money and straddled that back and forth. I had a few close but missed some of them based on not having immigration papers. That became my whole world now feeling I couldn’t get a job because I was Canadian. That was the next three years of my life trying to figure out how to make that happen.
When did you move to LA permanently?
I booked a television show and I got my O-1. That was when I legally moved.
My friends from England, it’s one of the hardest things to get that O-1 visa. It’s a visa where you’re legal to work here?
It’s called an alien of exceptional ability or an exceptional talent or something crazy.
How long is that visa good for?
It always depends. It’s one of those situations where they grant it and there’s some flexibility around how long they choose to give you. It can be between eighteen months and three years. Sometimes it’s what the guy at the borders’ mood is. That’s my understanding. I lucked out and I ended up getting three years.
That must have been when I met you in this time period. You were here. You’re auditioning. You have a great agent. You’re booking roles. You’re also always incredibly fit. You have always danced. I know you always make that weird face, but you’re going to have to accept it. You have this gift of a body, not in a weird way, in a fit, graceful, athletic way. I met you because you were my Bar Method teacher. That’s how we met. You were doing that to supplement everything.
Bar Method was a cool thing for me because it was this world outside of the constant hustle. It was this space where I had this idea like, “I basically get to work out for free plus I get paid to do it. That’s great.” When I started, nobody knew what the discipline was. I was hired to help up in West Hollywood.
I went to West Hollywood as a student. I had danced a lot. You were most people’s favorite teacher. They loved you. There are still incredible Bar Method teachers but you were one of the OG, originals. It was so good. I started in 2006.
My training was in 2005.
You’re auditioning and you’re a Bar Method instructor. When I met you, you were singing. Did you put out an album?
I put out a self-produced EP. Let’s not get fancy.
It’s cool and special. How many songs were on it?
I honestly can’t even tell you, six or seven. That was something as well that I started doing in my apartment by myself. It was trying to teach myself guitar because I’ve missed singing. I was too embarrassed to ask anybody to play guitar for me because I wanted to get back into it. I have my own private feeling of it. I thought I have to have some accompaniment, so I better teach myself guitar. That’s where that started.
Just a small interjection, I love Brené Brown. She’s wonderful. One of the things that she said about living a wholehearted life was about creativity. She said that, “Unexpressed creativity is not benign.” Anything that you feel that you want to pursue, if it never goes anywhere, you should definitely pursue that in whatever capacity that means like on the side, at night or on the weekends. I’m so glad. Mondi singing lessons for you.
It’s inspiring. It’s like everything that you’ve said so far, “I went there and I went to Bulgaria.”
When I think about the decisions that I made, that may be as we look back or in like storytelling recollect, you say, “You were seventeen and you didn’t know anybody. You hopped in your car and you moved.” That certainly sounds like, “That’s brave,” or something. That sounds like it could be but it did not feel that way. It didn’t feel brave because I didn’t feel scared about it. Does that make sense? It’s like to be brave, you have to feel scared. To me, it felt there was something so clearly like, “I’m doing this now.” Everyone started moving down to LA. My agent was the best agent at the time in Vancouver, arguably in Canada. He said, “You’re an idiot. You’re working here. You don’t have papers to work there. Why would you leave and mess this up?” It wasn’t fearless. It was like, “I have to because that’s what I’m doing.” What I think is now I’m starting to feel in different aspects of my life that I have to learn how to be brave. There are things now that I have comfort, but I know I could do this or I see this as a possibility. I’m more scared now.
There are things that I did without a shred of fear when I was in my early twenties that I’m so glad I did. Now I’d be like, “No, I could get sick and I could die.” I never thought about those things. You’re here. You’re teaching Bar Method. You’re auditioning. You’re making an album. I meet you at this time. You fall in love. I feel like we need to talk about Josh. He’s wonderful. He’s amazing. You have been together for how long?
We’re coming up on our eleventh-year wedding anniversary. We’ve been together for thirteen years. He’s a good guy.
He is an Oscar-winning animator. I feel Josh is wonderful. We can table him for a second because you have a whole other career that emerges.
It’s cool what you said about Brené Brown, this not being benign is that so many of these things that felt like a scary burden or the opposite, that thing I had to do. When you look back and you weave back, you see what stepping stones or what talisman they were or how important they were to do, even if at the time they didn’t seem to be on this track or whatsoever. This idea when I was young especially, I started planning out my life as a kid. My mom told me a couple of years ago, she found a notebook that I’d started when I was about six and it was like how I was getting out. There wasn’t the internet like the way there is now. I called tourism boards. I would look in the newspaper. I was ready to go. I kept it all in this little spiral notebook over the years, as my plan. It sounds like I had a beautiful, lovely sweet home, a normal upbringing. I knew that I wanted to go somewhere. I always had this linear like, “I do this, I’m going to work hard and this is going to happen.” The world is so much more of a tapestry. It’s so much more of a windy path.
Life is not linear and that is definitely something that I have now become more comfortable with because you do think, “There’s this, I’ll do this and this will happen from these things,” and it never goes that way.
The quicker that you can start to come to terms with the fact that’s cool, probably the better off you’re going to be. I remember when I was twenty. I would think that I blew an audition. You couldn’t get me out of bed for 48 hours. It’s no joke. The self-deprecation and restudying of what I did wrong and you look back and you go, “I didn’t get that gig and that got me this.” You start seeing that it’s weavy.
You do start to be able to take a much broader, bigger picture of you.Our body speaks a language. We need to get to know that language and be able to converse. Click To Tweet
As I’m doing all this stuff, the truth is I started falling out of love with acting, which was crazy for me because it was my driving force from probably my first memory was that idea of being in that realm to some capacity being on stage, television or whatever. I wanted to participate in that. I did come from a place like this makes me feel things. I want to help people make feel things. I like telling stories. I loved the performance. I loved using my body and those kinds of things and embodying other people. I started hating it. I would get good auditions. I would get an anxiety attack the moment I got them.
I remember driving to Fox studios for a callback and hoping I got into a car accident so I wouldn’t have to go. That’s some real stuff. My brain was frustrated with it. I’m not showing up in their room as probably very well at all. It all became a self-fulfilling prophecy. I stopped. I didn’t work as much. I didn’t know what to do. I threw myself into therapy. For a year, every week it’s what I talked as if I was going through a divorce. I couldn’t understand. I thought I was going crazy, “How is this thing that I did my whole life that all I’ve loved, why don’t I like it anymore? Why am I avoiding my agent’s phone call? What’s going on?” At that point, we had an opportunity to go to England for a year.
What was this for?
It was for my husband’s work. He has a project that they’d offered to bring him over. We discussed and we were like, “I have a whole life. I have auditions and jobs like this. I can’t leave for a year. That would be suicide for my career.” One particularly bad day after not feeling it after an audition, I called him up and said, “Is that still available? Can you check it out?” He said, “Yeah,” and we were gone three weeks later. I knew it was finite. I also knew that it was going to be the end of it. That was my way out.
I feel when you came back is when everything shifted.
That was, and it was a tough year. I wrote music and stuff. That was cool, but it was a hard one. It was dark there and I wanted to be alone. I was processing a lot of stuff. I came back. I knew this is where I wanted to stay.
You decided that you wanted to open your own studio?
When you came back?
To be honest, it came to me because this had always been something that I had positive feedback from. People thought the classes were great. I happened to be good at this thing. Honestly for me, I was like, “I’m teaching a class.”
You always had a holistic view of it. You had a deep understanding of the anatomy of what muscles were working.
I loved it though. I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this, but I was like a total biology nerd in school. I was obsessed with biology for some weird reason. Everything was art except for biology. That’s all I wanted to know all about it. It fused it all strangely in this manageable space. People had asked me for years, “Are you going to go into fitness?” To be honest and this was also pre-Instagram, I was almost offended by people, “I have much bigger goals than teaching fitness. Do you think I’m a stupid Pilates instructor?” That sounds so derogatory. I say this with the caveat that’s exactly what I do and I’m living my dream life. At the time, I was offended by people asking me. It’s not like it hadn’t been on my radar. When I moved back, I hate to sound so cliché, but a-ha moments happened from tons of processing that occur earlier. There is the moment where it all seems to come together.
It’s usually after very dark times.
After a lot of work consciously or subconsciously or whatever, I had an a-ha moment. It almost felt like it brings me to tears that this is what I want to do and I want to open my own place. I want to create my own voice. It was crazy. I saw it like this is exactly what it has to feel like. This is exactly what it has to look like. I have to do this. How am I going to do this?
Your studio is stunning. Every single detail of it is beautiful. Mondi went to school for business. She studied business and I know from having had my own studio, it’s so hard. You did it by yourself, with Josh, with your husband’s help. You guys built it out yourself. You went to lumberyards with chainsaws.
I got into power tools like, “I get it now.”
You weren’t somebody who was like, “I have this huge nest egg or this cushion and I’m going to see what happens.”
When I say self-educated in business, I use it loosely. In the time of walking the dogs or multitasking, I’m constantly reading books or listening to podcasts or having conversations or seeking out people who knew more than me because I need to educate but I also need to run the business 24/7. As I was doing all that, it wasn’t hard to find cool, inspiring stories about people who did some stuff, but there always seemed to be this missing middle part. They didn’t mention that their father was a millionaire. They did it all themselves. I didn’t know. It would always seem like they worked hard and it happened. I was year three of working my ass off and I’m like, “Why isn’t it happening?”
Barre Belle is so good. I’ve been to a few classes there. I always go to yours because you’re my girl.
We did it with hard work. We took out our savings, which wasn’t a lot.
You went to a smaller apartment.
We went to a small one-bedroom apartment and created a space where we devoted everything to the business. I was so excited when I went to Chase and they gave me a $25,000 credit card. That’s how it happened for me.
I’ve always loved your ethos. You have always maintained the integrity of your brand. You have one studio. You don’t have tons of studios. You did various different like the deal-based program. It’s always, “This is the studio. You can come here. Here’s what we’re about.” Your lighting is gorgeous. Your music is beautiful. It’s a super thriving studio now.
It’s doing well and the people who come there are cool.
You have a lot of very well-known and not well known but popular, big, exciting people who love your stuff. I love that, Marnie, you’ve never been about being skinny. Skinny is fine if that’s your natural body, but you don’t even let your instructors say that.
We’re not allowed to use that word. It seems like a derogatory, harmful word.
I love that because I do feel that you celebrate everybody. The older I get and I’ve always been into fitness, I love the Bar Method for that reason, everybody can do it. I love Barre Belle for that reason. Lauren Roxburgh, I’m a big fan of hers. She’s all about wherever you are in your life, whether you’ve had a hip replacement, you can do this. It’s not about pushing your body and weighing no pounds.
Your best doesn’t always mean pushing harder, faster or more all the time. Your best is almost circling back. It’s confronting the thing that seems scariest too at the moment and learning to have the conversation and learning how to find that balance. I always say we’re trying to create a conversation with the body. Our body speaks a language. We need to get to know that language and be able to converse.
Go into class at Barre Belle. Are you on Instagram as Marnie Alton or Barre Belle?
Thanks for having me. That was fun.
About Marnie Alton
Marnie Alton, founder and creator of the BARRE BELLE technique, has studied dance and movement since the age of 8. She moved from Canada to Los Angeles almost 10 years ago and was immediately drawn to ‘barre fitness’: a workout that builds strength and flexibility based on many of the same disciplines she learned as a dancer. Marnie was one of the original instructors at the Bar Method, and has spent the last decade training hundreds of celebrities, athletes and fitness enthusiasts alike. Marnie believes that feeling powerful and confident in your own skin is what it’s all about. She developed BARRE BELLE as an effective way to achieve this goal.