Joseph H. Pilates was born in 1880 in MÃ¶nchengladbach, Germany, a small town near Dusseldorf, Germany. He was a small and sickly child who suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. His name had been spelled â€œPilatuâ€, of Greek derivation, but was changed to Pilates. He was so skinny that he couldnâ€™t fight back and it was these conditions that caused him to begin the journey to fitness and health.
His father was a prizewinning gymnast and his mother a naturopath. A family physician gave him a discarded anatomy book and as he put it â€œI learned every page, every part of the body; I would move each part as I memorized it. As a child, I would lie in the woods for hours, hiding and watching the animals move, how the mother taught the young.â€ He studied both Eastern and Western forms of exercise including yoga, Zen, and ancient Greek and Roman regimens. By the time he was 14 he had worked so hard he had developed his body to the point that he was modeling for anatomy charts.
Growing up in Germany, he achieved some success as a boxer and a gymnast â€“ in addition to being a skilled skier and diver. There are two versions of how he traveled to England. One version has it that in 1912 he decided to go there to work as a boxer and another, that by 1914 he had become a star circus performer and toured England with his troupe. In this version he and his brother were performing a Greek statue act!
In 1914, after WWI broke out, he was interned along with other German nationals in a â€œcampâ€ for enemy aliens in Lancaster, England. There he taught wrestling and self-defense, boasting that his students would emerge stronger than they were before being interned. It was here that he began devising his system of original exercises that later became â€œContrologyâ€. He was transferred to another camp on The Isle of Man where he became something of a nurse and worked with many internees who suffered from wartime diseases and incarceration. He then began devising equipment to rehabilitate them, taking the springs from the beds and rigging exercise apparatus for the bedridden! In 1918, a terrible epidemic of influenza swept the world, killing millions of people, tens of thousands in England. None of Joeâ€™s followers succumbed even though the camps were the hardest hit!
After the war Joe returned to Germany and began training the Hamburg Military Police in self defense and physical training as well as taking on personal clients. â€œI invented all these machines. Began back in Germany, was there until 1925 used to exercise rheumatic patients. I thought, why use my strength? So I made a machine to do it for me. Look, you see it resists your movements in just the right way so those inner muscles really have to work against it. That way you can concentrate on movement. You must always do it slowly and smoothly. Then your whole body is in it.â€ It was at this time that he met Rudolf von Laban, a famous movement analyst, who is said to have incorporated some of Joeâ€™s theories and exercises into his own work. Mary Wigman, a famous German dancer and choreographer was a student of Joeâ€™s and used his exercises in her dance class warm-up.
In 1925 he was invited to train the New German Army but because he was not happy with the political direction of Germany he decided to leave. On the urging of boxing expert, Nat Fleischer and with the aid of Max Schmelling he decided to come to the U.S. It was en route to America that Joe met his future wife, Clara. She was a kindergarten teacher who was suffering from arthritic pain and Joe worked with her on the boat to heal her.
Upon arriving in New York City they opened a gym at 939 Eight Ave, in the same building as several dance studios and rehearsal spaces. It was this proximity that made â€œContrologyâ€ such an intrinsic part of many dancersâ€™ training and rehab work and many were sent to Joe to be â€œfixedâ€. George Balanchine, the famous choreographer, studied with Joe and sent many of his dancers to Pilates for strengthening and â€œbalancingâ€ as well as rehabilitation, as did another famous dancer/choreographer, Martha Graham. From 1939 to 1951 Joe and Clara went every summer to Jacobâ€™s Pillow, a well known dance camp in the Berkshire Mountains. He was a friend and teacher to such renowned dancer/choreographers as Ted Shawn, Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham and Jerome Robbins and many required their dancers to go to Joe. Hanya Holm even incorporated Joeâ€™s exercises into her studentsâ€™ lessons. However, Joe counted many socialites as well as plumbers and doctors, to list a few, as his clients as well.
Joe felt his work was â€œ50 years ahead of (his) timeâ€. Joeâ€™s definition of physical fitness was: â€œthe attainment and maintenance of a uniformly developed body with a sound mind fully capable of naturally, easily and satisfactorily performing our many and varied daily tasks with spontaneously zest and pleasureâ€. Joe believed in â€œnatural movementsâ€ with the emphasis on doing and being. He has stated, â€ Everything should be smooth, like a cat. The exercises are done lying, sitting, kneeling, etc., to avoid excess strain on the heart and lungs.â€ Romana Kryzanowska, the heir to Joeâ€™s work is quoted as saying â€The key to working with the apparatus is they make you do the work yourself. The fewer springs, the harder the exercise. The springs provide or create endurance, not excess strength. The method is based on the movement of animals, everything about the method is based on moving naturally.â€
Carola Trier, a longtime student of Joeâ€™s and teacher of his work said â€œThe method emphasizes restoring the body to true balance, ease and economy of movement and a channeled flow of energy.â€
Although Joe Pilates was a health guru, he believed in fitness supporting your lifeâ€™s rich goals. He was renowned for liking cigars, whiskey, and women and was to be seen running on Manhattan streets, in the dead of winter, in a bikini!
In January 1966 there was a fire in their building. Joe returned to his studio to try and save anything possible and fell through the burnt out floorboards, hanging by his hands from a beam for quite some time until rescued by the firefighters. It is assumed that this incident directly led to his death in October 1967, at the age of 87. Clara, regarded by many as the more superb teacher, continued to teach and run the studio until her death 10 years later, in 1977. At this time Romana Kryzanowska took over the business and has dedicated her life to teaching Joeâ€™s work as he himself devised it.
â€œI must be right. Never an aspirin. Never injured a day in my life. The whole country, the whole world, should be doing my exercises. Theyâ€™d be happier.â€
While Joe was the outspoken force behind his method, his wife Clara, a trained nurse, quietly incorporated his concepts and exercises in ways that benefited more seriously ill or injured clients. Her approachable style and special techniques spawned a dedicated lineage of teachers whose work flows through and uniquely colors the landscape of the Pilates method today. It is perhaps because of Clara that Pilates is clearly recognized as a positive form of movement-based exercise that truly can be tailored to any level of not just fitness, but also of health.
First Generation Instructors, who knew Joe, maintain that he and Clara would be very happy and proud of the popularity and growth of Pilates.
Kathleen Stanford Grant (1921-2010), a first-generation Pilates teacher who studied directly with Joseph Pilates and taught the Pilates method for more than 50 years. Kathy â€œdedicated her life to making all others dreams come true,â€ as Sarita Allen, one of her students, said.
Kathy enjoyed an notable career as a dancer, choreographer and arts administrator long before she taught the work of Joseph Pilates, and adding her own spin on things. Ella Thompson Moore, Creative Director for the Charles Moore Dance Company, who met Grant in the 1950s, talked about their time together in New Yorkâ€™s nightclub scene, performing dances like â€œTrickerationâ€ wearing heels and three-foot-tall plume hats. Moore said Grant was a wonderful dancer, â€œa wild thingâ€”she could do anything!â€
Arthur Mitchell, founder of the Dance Theater of Harlem, also became friends with Grant in the â€˜50s. He talked about how Grant, who was underage at the time, was adopted as a mascot of sorts by the chorus girls at the Cotton Club and learned their dances by watching from the wings. He joked about once telling Grantâ€™s mother, who lived in Boston, that he would watch out for her in New York, â€œbut Kathy ended up taking care of me.â€ Grant and Mitchell danced together in â€œKiss Me Kate,â€ where they were the only two African-American cast members and thus were partners in every scene because mixing races onstage was controversial at the time. Mitchell turned to her for advice and help when he started Dance Theater of Harlem, where she served as its first executive director. â€œShe was always behind me, supporting me, pushing me, showing me,â€ said Mitchell. When Grantâ€™s dancing career was hindered by a lingering knee injury from a fall on a wet stage, it was Mitchell who referred her for rehab to Carola Trier, thus beginning her path as a Pilates teacher.
Teacher, Mentor, Grantâ€™s supportive side was a common thread throughout the evening. As a Pilates teacher at New York University, Tisch School of the Arts, for over 20 years, she taught thousands of young dancers about how to strengthen and protect their bodies, and how the Pilates principles could apply to their lives. Linda Tarnay, former chair of NYUâ€™s dance department, said, â€œShe never gave up on anybody, but sometimes you wished she would give up on you.â€
Grant said what she did was rehab in a time before there were physical therapists. She had a special gift for seeing what was wrong with a personâ€™s body and worked tirelessly to help her students and clientsâ€”often with her own signature exercises, creative imagery and props made from household objects. â€œI had to create things because people had problems and they had nowhere to go,â€ she said.
Grant worked extremely hard and expected the same from her students. She took the subway to and from her home in Brooklyn every day, was at her studio early every morning, and a single session with her could last two to three hours, said Blossom Leilani Crawford, who assisted Grant at NYU for 10 years. She took daily notes on her classes and typed them up for the following day on a typewriter, â€œuntil they stopped fixing typewriters,â€ said Crawford. Once, at the beginning of a new school year, Tarnay said she asked Grant how she could bear to teach something as basic as the head lift again to new students. Grant responded: â€œBecause I know if they get it, it will change their life.â€
Few would dare to cross Grant, but Crawford described how, on a flight home from a Pilates convention, she finally found the nerve to say to her, â€œYou know, you can be kind of mean.â€
â€œI know,â€ said Grant. When Crawford asked why, her mentor replied, â€œBecause people need to remember my voice when Iâ€™m not there.â€
Content credit: Amy Leibrock
There were just a few original students of Joseph Pilates who went on to found their own studios and teach the Pilates Method. Several of them are very well known names in Pilates today, and most Pilates teachers can trace their “lineage” back to one of these original students. Â Often called “the elders”, the people usually included in a list of the original instructors are:
Romana Kryzanowska: A close student of Joseph Pilates, Kryzanowska took over as director of Joseph Pilates studio a few years after he passed away. Romana is one of the most well known and highly regarded keepers of the classical Pilates tradition. She continues to teach Pilates.â€¨Read Romana on Teaching Pilatesâ€¨Review: Romana’s Pilates Powerhouse Mat Workout DVD Romana Kryanowska’s Website
Mary Bowen: Became a Jungian Analyst but continued to study Pilates with Joseph Pilates, and other of his students. She continues to teach Pilates.â€¨Mary Bowen, Pilates, and Psycheâ€¨Mary Bowen – Pilates on a Deeper Levelâ€¨Mary Bowen’s Website
Ron Fletcher: Ron Fletcher was a dancer with the Martha Grahm dance company. He opened a Pilates studio in L.A. and went on to develop his own Pilates style which is now known as Fletcher Work. He continues to teach.â€¨Ron Fletcher’s Website
Eve Gentry: Was a dancer who, like Ron Fletcher, brought her dance training into her work as a Pilates teacher thereby expanding the Pilates teachings. In 1991 she was one of the founders of the Institute for the Pilates Method.
Kathy Grant: One of only two students who was actually certified to teach Pilates by Joseph Pilates himself, Kathy Grant taught Pilates at the Tisch School of the Arts in New York City, holding a faculty position there since 1988. She passed away May, 27, 2010
Lolita San Miguel: She was certified to teach Pilates by Joseph Pilates and taught for many years. She founded Pilates Y Mas Inc. She continues to teach Pilates.â€¨Lolita San Miguel’s Masters Program Introduced â€¨Lolita San Miguel’s Website.
Jay Grimes: Another dancer, Jay Grimes studied extensively with Joseph Pilates and with Clara Pilates after Joe’s death. He also studied with Romana Kryzanowska and eventually taught with her. He continues to teach Pilates.
Robert Fitzgerald: Opened his own studio in New York City.
Bruce King: Was a member of the Merce Cunningham dance company. He opened a Pilates studio in New York City.