Who are the “Pilates Elders” ?

Let's meet the first generation of pilates teachers...

Carrying on from our previous post Lets get back to the roots...Get to know the story of Joseph Pilates, we decided to find out a bit more about those who studied with the man himself and kept his method alive for those of us today.

The term “Pilates Elder” applies to someone who trained extensively with Joseph Pilates at his 8th Avenue studio.  There is some discussion as to who makes the cut in the industry (for example, “How many hours did someone have to study with Joseph Pilates to be considered an Elder? or “Did this person have to study with Joseph Pilates mainly or was it okay if they worked more with Clara?”) but more or less, the industry accepts ten or so individuals as deserving of this special title and so we did a bit of research on this first generation of pilates teachers.

You can’t be performing your pilates exercises today, without recognising that Romana Kryzanowska has a special place in our pilates history.  Her pilates story began in 1942 when she was referred to Joseph Pilates for rehabilitation. As a young, 17 year old dancer at the School of American Ballet, she suffered an ankle injury that prevented her from continuing to dance.  George Balanchine choreographer and “father or american ballet”, introduced her to Joe.  He had sent several of his pupils to Pilates over the years for rehabilitation and conditioning.  Pilates advised Romana to stop taking ballet classes for two weeks and start training with him at his pilates studio at least three times a week, or - if she wanted to heal faster, to come every day. Just after three sessions, Romana felt improvement in her ankle and amazingly, after the fifth lesson she was back on the dance floor. Romana admitted that she “fell in love with the man, the method and all going to Joe’s studio entailed".  Romana became a frequent and attentive student of Pilates' method. Not long after Kryzanowska's introduction to Pilates, she started to work alongside Joe and Clara with less experienced students, practicing and teaching his "Contrology" in their studio.

In the mid 1940s, she married a Peruvian and moved to South America for 14 years. During all this time she kept teaching her pilates exercises to family and friends from home and stayed in touch with Joe and Clara. Political unrest and/or the death of her husband led Romana to return to New York City with her two children in 1958.  She worked closely with Clara and “Uncle Joe” at his 8th Avenue studio for almost a decade (click HERE to see Joseph Pilates and Romana original video).

In 1967 when Pilates died, Romana continued to help Clara with running the studio.  Eventually when Clara passed away, Romana took over and dedicated her life to continuing (and preserving) the work of Joseph Pilates.  

Eve Gentry with J. Pilates (1950s) photo from paleolates.com

Eve Gentry, was a modern dancer born in the early 1900’s in San Bernardino, California. Like Romana, she was also a dancer. She studied ballet, folk and ballroom dancing. In the mid 1930s, she was noticed by American choreographer Martha Graham, and offered a scholarship in New York City where she moved in 1936 to begin her dance career with the Hanya Holm Company. As a professional dancer, Eve suffered from chronic back pain and knee issues that led her to Pilates’ studio to work with Joe.

Soon after her introduction to Pilates, she started to work in Joe’s studio as a “contrology” teacher, in addition to directing her own dance company Eve Gentry Dancers. In 1955,  Eve discovered she had breast cancer and underwent a radical mastectomy, which greatly restricted her movement. Her rehabilitation process led by Joseph Pilates was so successful that she was able to return to her dance work just after one year.  She was quite an inspirational lady! In 1968 and she moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she founded a dance studio and a pilates studio with equipment Joe had given her. In 1991 she co-founded The Institute for Pilates Method with Joan Briebart and Michele Larsson. Eve died in 1994 at the age of 84.

Photo of Carola Trier from pilatesanytime.com

Another powerful woman, who contributed to preserving original pilates method as taught by Joseph Pilates, was Carola Trier. Carola was born in 1913 in Frankfurt, Germany to a Jewish family. She developed her interest in dance from a young age, (studying at Laban School with inspirations of becoming a concert dancer), until the political situation in Germany forced her to leave the country in 1935. In France, she fell in love with an acrobatics teacher Marcel Naydorf who made her interested in acrobatics and with time, she developed her own dancing show on roller-skates, which was a successful new venture in her life. Unfortunately, when Nazis came into power in 1942 she was sent to the Gurs internment camp in France.  She managed to escape and together with Naydorf, migrated to United States. Carola met Joseph Pilates in 1950's when she also became injured. She worked regularly with Joe and Clara for ten years until she opened her own “contrology” studio on the 58th street in New York City. Mrs Trier had two assistants working for her: Romana Kryzanowska and Kathleen Stanford Grant and she ran the studio successfully until she retired in 1986.

When writing about Joseph Pilates’ successors, there are two more women which have to be mentioned here: Lolita San Miguel and Kathleen Stanford Grant. Both professional dancers living in New York City, they met each other at Carola Trier’s pilates studio following knee injuries. Lolita had been recommended to start exercising with Carola by her doctor, whereas Kathleen was already teaching at that studio. After practicing with Carola for many years, Lolita has been offered an opportunity to become Carola’s apprentice to teach the pilates method. She apprenticed with her for 26 weeks for total of 520 hours and became the only person that Carola Trier ever certified. When Lolita found out from Kathleen that Joseph Pilates is still teaching at his 8th Avenue studio, she wanted to meet him personally.  Both of them wanted to become Joseph Pilates’ apprentices and applied to the State University of New York’s education department (division of vocational rehabilitation) for possibility to apprentice and certify at Joe and Clara’s studio. Each of them learned the method by listening, observing and practicing under close supervision of Joseph and Clara, following them like a “shadow”. They received their official certification in 1967 and are the only two people Pilates ever certified to teach his method. Lolita San Miguel is still teaching the method and running Pilates Master Mentor Program in her Lolita's Pilates Center in Florida (http://www.lolitapilates.com/).

Although the group of first generation pilates teachers seems to be very much dominated by strong women,  Joseph Pilates worked with two men that we shouldn’t forget: Jay Grimes and Ron Fletcher.

Jay Grimes began his training in Pilates’ studio in the mid 1960s and spent more than 10 years studying the method with Joe and then Clara and Romana once Joe had passed. He is an active and busy teacher today, and offers regular workshops and master classes for pilates enthusiasts.  He presents a “Masters Program” for certified teachers at his Vintage Pilates studio in Los Angeles (http://www.vintagepilates.com/) where you can learn more about how he was taught the pilates method by Joseph and Clara.

Ron Fletcher on Reformer, photo from laurenherrera.com

Ron Fletcher, as other professional dancers mentioned above, showed up in Pilates’ studio in 1948, looking for a rehabilitation treatment of his chronic knee injury. He studied on-and-off with Joseph and Clara Pilates for nearly twenty years. After years of work with Joe and Clara, he was offered to stay in New York and teach with Clara in the 8th Avenue studio, but he decided at that time to move to Los Angeles and open Ron Fletcher Company, Studio for Body Contrology. With the coming years, Ron developed his own pilates style, known as “Fletcher Work” or “Fletcher Pilates” which incorporated elements of movement and dance into the foundations of Joe’s work. His studio attracted influential members of Hollywood society (including actors, celebrities, film producers) and Fletcher quickly became known by his unique approach to the pilates method (based mainly on the floor work not on the use of pilates apparatus). In the late 1970s he appeared on the The Phil Donahue Show presenting pilates for the first time on television and published his book Every Body Is Beautiful. Writing for The Guardian (“Pilates is an Art”, 2008), Alice Wignal concluded:  “(…) if Fletcher hadn't come up with a way for people to practise the method without needing the equipment, you probably wouldn't have heard of Pilates at all.” (Link to the full “Pilates is an Art” article-> HERE).

Ron understood that his pilates lineage would be lost unless he develops a programme to pass on his work to future generations of teachers. Together with his primary student and dear friend- Kyria Sabin, he created The Ron Fletcher Program of Study, now known as the Fletcher Pilates Program of Study (http://www.fletcherpilates.com/).

What is interesting is that even though we can’t take lessons with Joseph Pilates or many of these Elders, it is not difficult to find teachers that worked with this first generation. Taking time to explore what each one took from their time with Joseph Pilates helps to enrich our practice and understanding of this amazing method for ourselves and our students. IN OUR NEXT BLOG POST, WE WILL HAVE A CLOSER LOOK INTO the DIFFERENT "branches" of pilates, WHICH ARE POPULAR NOWADAYS, SO IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO FIND OUT WHICH ONE IS BEST FOR YOU- CHECK this SPACE SOON!

References:

Fiasca, P. (2009), Discovering Pure Classical Pilates

Rincke, E. (-), A Strong WomAn: Carola Strauss-Trier. Available online: http://www.pilatesintel.com/carola/

Spotlight: Eve Gentry – Pilates Elder, Breast Cancer Survivor (2016). Available online:  http://lifeauthentica.com/spotlight-eve-gentry-pilates-elder-breast-cancer-survivor/