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The Pilates Method - a Living Legacy


Updated October 08, 2012

The Pilates Method - a Living Legacy

Attendees at the 5 Lineages Conference, at the Pilates Center of Boulder, CO, experiment with archival Pilates exercises.

(c)2012, Marguerite Ogle

It might be convenient if the history of Pilates were set in stone and we could pass it like a static thing from one person to the next. But the history of Pilates is more complex than that. In this article, we will look at one significant aspect of Pilates history which is how it came to be that Pilates moved into the world through a number of lineages. And we'll appreciate how those lineages contribute to the richness of the Pilates method as a living legacy.

One of the dynamics in that history is that while Joseph Pilates (1883 - 1967) was very clear on the relevance of his method (which he called Contrology) for the generations to come, he did not package his work. He wrote two books, but he did not write out all of the exercises and movement knowledge that he had. Also, while Joe had students who became dedicated teachers of his work, he did not create a teacher-training program or a certification program (he did sign a vocational certificate for students Kathy Grant and Lolita San Miguel in recognition of their apprenticeship through another institution). He did not specify how his work was to be carried on.

So, the Pilates method has continued as a living system that, for the most part, has been taught directly from one person to the next in a kind of oral/visual/kinesthetic tradition. Joe had students who went on to become primary teachers of his work (now referred to as the Pilates Elders), and his method has spread world-wide through these individuals. As Joe's work was passed along by his students, it naturally became infused with the intelligence of their bodies, minds and spirits. Therefore, we now have a number of unique lineages of Pilates - founded on Joe's work but carried, to varying degrees, into new expressions.

Life moves and changes, and everything we experience is colored by the times we live in and who we are as people. These truths are reflected in the way the Pilates lineages evolved through the Pilates Elders. Consider for a moment that by the time Joe died, he had been teaching for at least 45 years. The people who studied with him met him at different phases of his life and in different phases of their own lives. Additionally, the students who became the Elders all had very strong personalities of their own. They were fearless movers and passionate people who brought to the work their own particular interests, injuries and life experiences. Many, but not all, were dancers. One, Mary Bowen, is a psychologist. Carola Trier escaped Nazi Germany. Eve Gentry's later work was greatly influenced by how Joe helped her recover from a mastectomy. Joe related to each gender differently. The point here is that all kinds of influences inevitably shaped the way each Elder experienced and reinterpreted Joseph Pilates and his work.

We must also acknowledge something deeply integral and inherently creative in the Pilates method, which is that Joe taught for the body he was working with. He gave each person what they needed and he made things up for them. He taught his students, the Elders, to do the same. There is no way to get a cookie-cutter method out of that.

This is not to imply that the Pilates method has been treated lightly. Joe's students were entirely devoted to him and his work. Even as each Elder has lent his or her special genius to the legacy of Pilates, there has been a conscientious effort to preserve and respect the integrity of the method.

We do have a huge body of tangible work that represents what Joseph Pilates did and taught. We have his books, archival video footage and the exercise equipment he invented. We also have his students and their students. Lending their flavor to the work, they have carried forth hundreds of exercises and profound insights and principles of movement from Joe.

Pilates is much like a tree where Joe is the trunk and the Elders are the big branches. Things have grown and differentiated from there. The challenge for us now is not to get so far out in the leaves and twigs that we lose our connection to the core. One answer is to take advantage of the fact that we are at a very potent point in the history of Pilates. We are a few generations out from the founder, but not so many that we can't track back to the source.

Some of the Pilates Elders are still teaching, and their students and apprentices are teaching as well. While you might have inherited a specific lineage and you might resonate more strongly with one or another, it is enriching to expose yourself to different ways of experiencing Pilates and the particular brilliance the various Elders brought to the tradition. We, as Pilates teachers and students, now have the opportunity to recognize ourselves as part of the living history of the method.

It is also in the sharing of exercises, ideas and information that come from as close to the source as possible that we maintain the essence of what Pilates is, even if we can't put it in a neat package. In that spirit, I want to invite those of you who have learned from the Elders to share a story or two from your experience. It can be anything from an insight about an exercise to a personal experience that was meaningful to you.

I've set up an online form where we can bring the Elder stories together. Joe's legacy is really inseparable from the people who carried his work forward.
Share Your Story

To learn who the Elders are and to find links to information about them, see The Pilates Elders.

The author's reflections on the Elders and the dynamics of the Pilates lineages were greatly informed and inspired by the teachers at the 5 Lineages conference of 2012, in particular by Rachel Segel and Amy Taylor Alpers who hosted the event at the Pilates Center of Boulder, CO.

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