The story of Joseph Pilates is the stuff of legends. He was born in 1883 in Germany, into an impoverished family with many children. He was a sickly child, who was bullied and teased for having the same last name as Pontius Pilate. His father was a prize winning gymnast and his mother was a naturopath. As a child, he received an anatomy book from a family physician and learned every page. He would also lie in the woods for hours, observing how animals moved and especially how the mothers taught their offspring. The careful observation of animal movement, particularly that of cats, greatly impacted him. In addition to anatomy and animals in nature, Joseph Pilates studied a variety of exercise forms, including yoga, Zen, and ancient Greek and Roman regimens. By 14 years of age, his body was so well developed that he began modeling for anatomy charts.
In 1912, he moved to England to train as a boxer. He found a job as a circus performer and within a couple years, was touring with his brother Frederick performing a Roman gladiator act. Then in 1914, he was interned in England in a camp for Germans. There he taught wrestling and self defense and worked as something of a nurse. He began to develop his exercise method, which he called Contrology, as well as devise equipment to rehabilitate internees who were restricted to bed rest (by attaching bed springs to the bed post, the first Cadillac was born). In 1918, a flu pandemic struck, killing more people in one year than the bubonic plague killed in four. Although an estimated 30 to 50 million people died, many of them between the ages of 20 and 40, it is said that Joe prided himself on the fact that none of his trainees died.
In 1925, Joe traveled to the U.S. and met Clara, his partner for the rest of his life, on the ship. She was a kindergarten teacher whose arthritic ankle Joe helped heal. They opened a Pilates studio together in a former boxing gym on 8th Ave in New York City. It has been said that while Joe was the creator, Clara was the teacher, and without her keen ability to teach Pilates, it would not have endured the test of time. Joe and Clara's studio gained notoriety among dancers, many of whom came to see him to heal their injuries. Some of his most well known students, now called the Pilates Elders, came to him because of a significant injury, which he promptly healed through Contrology:
Carola Trier, a roller skating contortionist, saw him for an injured elbow.
Eve Gentry, a dancer who was injured and told by doctors that she needed surgery and would never be able to dance again, claimed that after one session with Joe, she walked out of studio free of the pain that had plagued her for three years. Years later she had a mastectomy and removal of her pectoral muscles. After a year of working with Joe, she could produce movements that doctors thought impossible without pecs.
Kathy Grant, a black dancer trying to make her way in a racially segregated New York City, injured her knee while performing. Joe was able to heal it and enable her to return to dancing.
Ron Fletcher, a dancer and choreographer, also injured his knee. He was advised to see Joe and sure enough, Joe rehabilitated his knee.
Romana Kryzanowka, a classical ballet dancer, saw him for an injured ankle. Joe told her he could fix it in five sessions or he would give her money back.
One of the most well known elders is Romana. Not only did Joe help heal her ankle in only five sessions, but he also took her under his wing. Her father had died when she was five and Joe, having no children with Clara, was like a father to her. She taught alongside him and Clara until his death in 1967, likely from emphysema related to his smoking of cigars. When Clara passed a decade later, Romana continued to run the studio. Gradually, the method’s name shifted from Contrology to Pilates, in respect of its creator.
In 1987, Rachel and Amy Alpers, my teachers, began studying Pilates with Romana in New York. In 1990, they moved to Boulder, Colorado to open The Pilates Center. It was amongst the first Pilates teacher training programs in the world and twenty-five years later, remains one of the gold standards for high quality, classical Pilates education. Rachel and Amy have made it their goal to continue the legacy of Joe’s work in its purest form.