Pilates, Dance, and a Slice of History

When you arrive on the 6th floor of Cowles Center for Dance, tip toe through dance students lounging on the marble floors, and hear the pianos echoing from the cavernous dance studios, do you ask yourself how on Earth did this Pilates studio get here?

 Lunchtime outside the Pilates studio

Lunchtime outside the Pilates studio

You know all that ballet-y stuff you walk past to get to the Pilates studio? That's Minnesota Dance Theatre, a ballet school and company that has been in Minneapolis for 50 years.

Pilates and ballet have been inextricably linked since Joseph Pilates brought his method, Contrology, to 8th Avenue in New York City in 1928.  By the 60's his neighbor, George Balanchine (School of American Ballet and New York City Ballet) was a client and often sent his dancers to Pilates' studio for rehabilitation and strengthening.  One of those dancers, Romana Krysanowska, took to Pilates and his method and can be credited with keeping Pilates' vision, and gym, alive after Pilates' death in 1967.

 Romana Krysanowska from Jennifer Kries

Romana Krysanowska from Jennifer Kries

In the late 80's, two ballet dancers, Amy Taylor Alpers and Rachel Taylor Segel, began their studies with Romana and with her permission started The Pilates Center in Boulder, CO in 1990. Amy and Rachel's work has been very influential to my development as a teacher and I credit their work as inspiration for some of what I do today with my clients.

My first exposure to Pilates was in a mat class at a dance camp in my early teens (and later as a student at the University of MN) with Marjorie Thompson, a former Balanchine ballerina and a student of Joseph Pilates and Romana Krysanowska. Marjorie continues to teach as program director of Pacific Northwest Ballet Company's conditioning.

For a period of time Marjorie Thompson was director of the school at Minnesota Dance Theatre. She used to sit in that office you see when you leave the elevator. In class she'd make you do the belly buster, series of 5 at break neck speed until you thought your guts would explode. I also recall this inner thigh exercise that I will be giving to my more flexible clients tomorrow...

Minnesota Dance Theatre is Lise Houlton. Lise is the artistic director and lifeblood of MDT and an accomplished dancer. Her story on how she came to value Pilates as a conditioning system for dancers is remarkably similar to most dancers' Pilates' stories. Early in her career she developed painful back spasms and was encouraged to take Pilates. She was able to sustain a successful 11 year career with Stuttgart Ballet and American Ballet Theater with Pilates.

 Lise Houlton and Patrick Bissell by Daniel Sorine

Lise Houlton and Patrick Bissell by Daniel Sorine

Lise's insight into the benefits of Pilates for dancers is what brought me to MDT. I was a new teacher, committed to the Pilates practice from my own dance related injuries. Lise's invitation to teach on the 6th floor was an offer I couldn't refuse because I too knew the benefits of Pilates.

Notably, Lise worked with two popular Pilates teachers in the New York City dance world: Robert Fitzgerald, a student of Joseph and Clara Pilates, and Fran Lehen, a student of Carola Trier.

Carola Trier found Joseph Pilates after sustaining a knee injury that threatened to ruin her performance career. With Pilates' blessing, Carola started the first Pilates studio outside of Joe and Clara's studio. It was quite popular amongst ballet and modern dancers. One of those dancers, Deborah Lessen (a Martha Graham dancer), became a teacher at Carola's studio before opening her own place, Greene Street Studio, in 1983.

 Carola Trier from Jillian Hessel

Carola Trier from Jillian Hessel

I have had the good fortune of taking a lesson from Deborah. Her top notch teaching style is inspirational. Deborah still uses some of Carola's choreography. It has been a fun addition to my repertoire. I look forward to working with her again next March.

Another dancer who found Joseph Pilates after persistent, dance related injuries is Eve Gentry. Eve studied many years with Pilates. In fact, after a radical mastectomy that removed so much muscle tissue that she was left unable to lift her arms, Joseph Pilates helped her recover. The remarkable film footage of her recovery exists and is riveting. 

 Eve Gentry

Eve Gentry

One of Eve's students, Debora Kolwey (a former dancer as well), will be visiting Milwaukee this April to present a workshop on Eve's methods.  I can't wait to attend.

Pilates is an incredible conditioning program for dancers but its enduring appeal for folks young and old from all fitness backgrounds and physical abilities is what makes it so exciting and keeps it relevant 49 years after the death of its creator. There is little doubt that a faithful group of dancers have kept it alive. My little studio at MDT stands as an example. 

I hope this post helps place your Pilates practice on the 6th floor into historical perspective. Let's keep passing on the work!