THE HISTORY OF PILATES
JOSEPH HUBERTUS PILATES was born in Monchengladbach Germany in 1883. As a child he suffered from several illnesses including asthma and rickets. One day Joe’s doctor gave him a book on anatomy which changed his life forever. He resorted to exercising and athletics to remedy his own physical conditions. Joe continuously studied exercise regimens to expand his abilities and knowledge base on the matter. He actually cured himself of rickets by wearing shorts year round exposing his legs to direct sunlight and triggering the skin to produce large amounts of vitamin D. Thanks to his mother's love for holistic healing and his father's dedication to athletics, Joe developed a passion for the human anatomy and wellbeing, especially for the classical Greek ideal of a balanced body, mind and spirit. This passion, undoubtedly lead to the creation of his own exercise system: “The Art of Contrology.” Growing into adulthood, Joe was no longer the sickly child he had once been. He loved skiing and being outdoors. He studied bodybuilding, yoga, martial arts and gymnasts. He became a semi-professional boxer and even ran away and joined the circus.
OFF TO THE UK
In 1912 Joe went to England, where he worked as a self-defense instructor for detectives at Scotland Yard. At the outbreak of World War I, Joe was interned with other German nationals. During his internment, Joe refined his ideas and trained other internees in his system of exercises. He fixed springs to hospital beds, transforming them into exercise equipment enabling bedridden patients to workout as well, an innovation that later led to his renowned apparatus designs like the Cadillac and Reformer. An influenza epidemic struck England in 1918, killing thousands of people, but not a single one of Joe’s trainees died. This, he claimed, showed the effectiveness of his exercise system.
After his release, Joe returned to Germany. His exercise method gained favor in the dance community, primarily through Rudolf von Laban, who created the form of dance notation most widely used today. Hanya Holm adopted many of Joe’s exercises for her modern dance curriculum, and they are still part of the “Holm Technique.” When German officials asked Joe to teach his fitness system to the army, he decided to leave Germany for good.
PILATES MOVES TO THE USA
In 1926, Joe emigrated to the United States. During the voyage he met Clara Zeuner whom he later married. Joe and Clara opened a fitness studio in New York, sharing an address with the New York City Ballet.
By the early 1960s, Joe and Clara were training many of New York’s finest dancers. George Balanchine studied “at Joe’s,” as he called it, and also invited Pilates to instruct his young ballerinas at the New York City Ballet.
Pilates was becoming popular outside of New York as well. As the New York Herald Tribune noted in 1964: “in dance classes around the United States hundreds of young students limber up daily with an exercise they know as ‘a pilates’, without knowing that the word was actually the name of the founder of this discipline.
TRAINEES BECOME TRAINERS
While Joe was still alive, two of his students, Carola Trier and Bob Seed, opened their own studios. Trier was a dancer and found her way to the United States by becoming a performing contortionist after fleeing a Nazi holding camp in France. She found Joe Pilates in 1940, when an injury halted her performing career. Joe and Clara Pilates assisted Trier in opening her own studio in the late 50’s and remained close friends with her until she passed.
Bob Seed was an entirely different story. Seed a former hockey player and Pilates enthusiast, opened a studio across town from Joe and tried to take away some of his clients by opening earlier in the morning. According to their business manager, John Steel one day Joe visited Seed with a gun and warned him to get out of town. After that Seed left town and was never heard of again.
Joe Pilates continued training until his death in 1967. He was 87. When he passed away, he left no will and no line of succession for his Pilates legacy to carry on. Before his death Joe became a member of the free masons of New York who collected most of his possessions after his death and buried him at the Ferncliff Cemetery in New York where many other famous personalities lay to rest. No testament was ever found. Nevertheless, his work would continue and eventually flourish all over the world thanks to his protégés, referred to as the Elders.
ABOUT THE ELDERS
The Elders really start with Clara.
Clara Pilates (1883 -1977): Wife of Joseph Pilates.
No one worked closer to Joe then her. It was said Pilates was the inventor but Clara, she was the kind and patient teacher.
Romana Kryzanowska (1923-2013): Probably the most famous student and instructor who worked and taught with Clara and Joseph Pilates. After Joe’s death she kept “The Pilates Studio” running for years to come. She was known for teaching Pilates as Joe would: strict and to the letter.
SHORT VIDEO: HISTORY OF PILATES
Mary Pilates (1920- ) is the only living Pilates family member to have actually taught in the New York studio. She is the niece of Joseph Pilates and she was an apprentice under him for several years before returning to her father’s Pilates studio in St Louis, Missouri. Her father, Fred Pilates, was a carpenter and he helped design and manufacture the Pilates equipment. Mary taught and trained at the studio and was also involved in making the apparatus. Mary has been teaching Pilates in south Florida since the 60’s.
Carola Trier (1913 - 2000): Was the first person to open her own Pilates studio with Joseph Pilates’ personal blessing.
Mary Bowen (1930 - ): Actress and comedienne who started doing Pilates in 1959 at the age of 29 and still teaches today. She also studied Jungian Psychoanalysis which became a parallel professional pursuit with Pilates.
Robert Fitzgerald: (1940’s - ?) Was a successful dancer and serious student who worked with both Clara and Joe in the 60’s he also opened a studio in New York after Joe’s death.
Ron Fletcher (1921 - 2011): Danced with Martha Graham. Later opened a studio in L.A. He had a very elite clientele .Barbara Stanwyck was among one of his clients.
Eve Gentry (1909 - 1994): Like Ron Fletcher Eve was a dancer and choreographer for MGM Studios. She also comes from the Pilates on Elmwood's lineage. She developed the Eve Gentry Method and was founder of the Institute of Pilates.
Kathy Grant (1921 - 2010): Kathy Grant was one of only two students certified to teach directly by Joseph Pilates himself.
Lolita San Miguel (1934 - ) Still teaches today. She was certified by Joseph Pilates
Jay Grimes: (1940’s- ) Owns a studio in LA.
He Studied extensively with Joseph, Clara and
Bruce King (1940’s- ? ) Opened a Pilates studio in New York. He danced with Merce Cunningham dance company.
THE ELDERS CARRY THE TORCH
After Joe’s death Clara continued to operate what was known as The Pilates Studio on Eighth Avenue in New York until Romana Kryzanowska became the director around 1970. Kryzanowska had studied with Joe and Clara in the early 40’s and then, after a 15-year hiatus spent in Peru, returned to renew her studies. Along with Carola Trier, several students of Joe and Clara decided to open their own studios. Ron Fletcher was a Martha Graham dancer who studied and consulted with Joe from the 40’s on, in connection with a chronic knee ailment. Fletcher opened his studio in Los Angeles in 1970 and attracted many Hollywood stars. Clara was particularly fond of Ron and gave him her blessing to carry on the name and work of Pilates. Fletcher brought some important innovations to Pilates with his spirit of evolving ideas and new variations inspired both by working with Martha Graham and Yeichi Imura.
Lolita San Miguel and Kathy Grant were also students of Joe and Clara who became teachers. Grant took over the direction at the Bendel’s studio in 1972, while San Miguel went on to teach Pilates at Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rico in San Juan. In 1967, just before Joe’s death, both Grant and San Miguel were awarded degrees by the State University of New York to teach Pilates. These two are the only Pilates practitioners ever officially certified by Joe Pilates himself.
Other students of Joe and Clara who opened their own studios include Eve Gentry, Bruce King, Mary Bowen and Robert Fitzgerald. Eve Gentry, a dancer who taught at the Pilates Studio in New York from 1938 through 1968, also taught Pilates in the early 1960s at New York University’s Theater Department. After leaving New York, she opened her own studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico. A charter faculty member of the High School for the Performing Arts, Gentry was also a co-founder of the Dance Notation Bureau. In 1979, she was given the “Pioneer of Modern Dance Award” by Bennington College
Bruce King trained for many years with Joseph and Clara Pilates and was a member of the Merce Cunningham Company, Alwyn Nikolais Company and his own Bruce King Dance Company. In the mid-1970s King opened his own studio at 160 W. 73rd Street in New York City.
Mary Bowen, a Jungian analyst who studied with Joe in the mid 60’s, began teaching Pilates in 1975 and founded “Your Own Gym” in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Robert Fitzgerald opened his studio on West 56th Street in the 1960s, where he had a large clientele from the dance community.
PILATES GOES TO HOLLYWOOD
In the 1970s, Hollywood celebrities discovered Pilates via Ron Fletcher’s studio in Beverly Hills. Where the stars go, the media follows. In the late 1980s, the media began to cover Pilates extensively. The public took note, and the Pilates business boomed. No longer the workout of the elite, Pilates has entered the fitness mainstream. It is not only featured in fitness facilities all over the world, but has become a crucial training adjunct to elite athletes all over the world including the NFL, NBA, MLB, MLS, NHL and many Olympic athletes. Today, over 10 million Americans practice Pilates, and the numbers continue to grow.
“I’m fifty years ahead of my time,” Joe once claimed and I believe we can all attest that he was right.
Article by, Joe Sopala
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