Joseph H. Pilates was born in 1880 in Mönchengladbach, Germany, a small town near Dusseldorf, Germany. He was a small and sickly child who suffered from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever. It was as a result of his sickly conditions that he began his 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 “I 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.” 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. He achieved success in Germany as a boxer and gymnast, a skier and a diver.
In 1912, he traveled to England. In 1914, after WWI broke out, he was interned along with other German nationals in a “camp” 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 “Contrology”. 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 Joe’s followers succumbed even though the camps were the hardest hit! He attributed this fact to the effectiveness of his system.
After his release, Joseph 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.”
In 1925 he was invited to train the German Army but was not happy with the political direction of Germany so 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. Clara was a kindergarten teacher who was suffering from arthritic pain and Joe worked with her on the boat to heal her.
Upon arriving in the U.S., Joseph and Clara married and opened a gym at 939 Eight Ave, in the same building as several dance studios and rehearsal spaces. It was this proximity that made “Contrology” such an intrinsic part of many dancers’ training and rehab work and many were sent to Mr. Pilates to be “fixed”. George Balanchine, the famous choreographer, studied with Mr. Pilates and sent many of his dancers to Pilates for strengthening and “balancing” as well as rehabilitation, as did another famous dancer/choreographer, Martha Graham. Every summer, from 1939 to 1951 Joseph and Clara went Jacob’s Pillow, a well known dance camp in the Berkshire Mountains. Mr. Pilates was a friend and teacher to such renowned dancer/choreographers as Ted Shawn, Ruth St. Denis, Martha Graham and Jerome Robbins. In fact, many of these people required their dancers to work with Mr. Pilates. Hanya Holm even incorporated Mr. Pilates’ exercises into her students’ lessons. In addition to the dance community, Mr. Pilates counted many socialites as well as plumbers and doctors, to list a few, as his clients as well.
While Mr. Pilates was still alive, only two of his students, Carola Trier and Bob Seed, are known to have opened their own studios. Trier, who had an extensive dance background, found her way to the United States by becoming a performing contortionist, after fleeing a Nazi holding camp in France. She found Mr. Pilates in 1940, when a non-stage injury pre-empted her performing career. Mr. Pilates assisted Trier in opening her own studio in the late 1950s. Joseph and Clara remained close friends with Trier until their deaths.
Bob Seed was another story. A former hockey player turned “Pilates” enthusiast, Seed opened a studio across town from Mr. Pilates and tried to take away some of Mr. Pilates’ clients by opening very early in the morning. According to John Steel, one day Mr. Pilatess visited Seed with a gun and warned Seed to get out of town. The story was that Weed left.
When Mr. Pilates passed away in 1967, he left no will and had designated no line of succession for the “Pilates” work to carry on. Nevertheless, his work would remain. Clara continued to operate what was known as the “Pilates” Studio on Eighth Avenue in New York, where Romana Kryzanowska became the director around 1970. Romana had studied with Joseph and Clara in the early 1940s and then, after a 15-year hiatus spent in Peru, returned to renew her studies.
Several students of Joseph and Clara went on to open their own studios. Ron Fletcher was a Martha Graham dancer who studied and consulted with Mr. Pilates from the 1940s 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 enamored with Ron and she gave her blessing to him to carry on the “Pilates” work and name. Like Carola Trier, Fletcher brought some innovations and advancements to the “Pilates” work. His evolving variations on “Pilates” were inspired both by his years as a Martha Graham dancer and by another mentor, Yeichi Imura.
Kathy Grant and Lolita San Miguel were also students of Joseph 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, Puerto Rico. In 1967, just before Mr. Pilates’ death, both Grant and San Miguel were awarded degrees by the State University of New York to teach “Pilates.” These two are believed to be the only “Pilates” practitioners ever certified officially by Mr. Pilates.
Other students of Joseph 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-1960s, 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.
Mr. Pilates’ definition of physical fitness was: “the 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 pleasure”. He believed in “natural movements” with the emphasis on doing and being. He has stated, ” Everything should be smooth, like a cat. The exercises are done lying, sitting, kneeling, etc., to avoid excess strain on the heart and lungs.” Romana is quoted as saying ” 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.” Carola Trier said “The method emphasizes restoring the body to true balance, ease and economy of movement and a channeled flow of energy.”
Although Mr. Pilates was a health guru, he believed in fitness supporting your life’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. Mr. Pilates 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 took over the business and has dedicated her life to teaching Mr. Pilates’ work as he himself devised it.
In the 1970′s Hollywood celebrities discovered Pilates via Ron Fletcher’s studio in Beverly Hills and wherever 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. “I’m fifty years ahead of my time,” Mr. Pilates once claimed. He was right. No longer the workout of the elite, Pilates has entered the fitness mainstream. Today, over 10 million Americans practice Pilates, and the numbers continue to grow.