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Where’s Joe?

March 21, 2015

This is an article I wrote for PilatesIntel.com to be published in early April 2015.

I came to Pilates in (what I thought was) the “usual way”.  The year was 1995.  The place was Drago’s Gym in New York City.  Pilates was still beneath the radar in the US so most people had never even heard the word “Pilates”.  Fast forward 20 years, and we can see today the “usual” experience for becoming a Pilates teacher is quite different.  The world today is different.

I’ve been following the last few blogs from PilatesIntel.com and was not only impressed, but personally touched by how Brett Miller zeroed in on the importance of including Return to Life and Your Health (Joe Pilates’ books) as required reads during teacher training.  Maybe Brett will re-title his series to “Finding Joe…” 

I took for granted that Pilates educators would make the only books Joe Pilates penned a required reading.  I also took for granted how the history, real life stories from Romana, and the richness of Joe’s legacy shared through Romana and other teachers who studied with Joe impacted me and would be woven into the fabric of who I am as a teacher today.  Words can’t express what it was like to be around Romana and I am ever grateful for the layers of life lessons that filled my days under her mentorship.  Perhaps they can best be shared as stories.

One of my favorite stories, told over and over, was about how Joe ran his studio and how he introduced students to the method.  This story (and many others) helped shaped my philosophy about Pilates.

Students coming to Joe’s studio found a no nonsense atmosphere where the expectations were clear and studio policies strictly enforced.  For example, the men’s “uniform” was a pair of shorts with no shirt; women wore a dance leotard with (or without) tights.  Joe wanted to see how the body was working without the hindrance of unnecessary fabric.  There was no socializing and Joe made sure the studio was dedicated as a place to “work”.  You would never see people lounging on apparatus and chatting. 

Each person was expected to remember the exercises shown them, and be able to practice basically on their own.  Framed photo strips of the exercises hung at the back of the reformers for study and reference. When you showed a degree of mastery (and not until then) and Joe saw you were ready to learn more exercises, he would add onto your program.  He sometimes pulled over an easel which had a list of exercises written, and told you to come and get him when you arrived at a particular exercise.  At that point he would introduce a new exercise.  New exercises were like getting a gift.  And everyone learned his or her mat work!

New students would tell Joe all about their ailments, and Joe would nod and show interest (perhaps feign interest?) until they were finished speaking.  Then he would start them with the heart and soul exercises, now referred to in some schools as the introductory system.  Everyone got those exercises.  They were to be done in that order and they worked for everyone.  If an exercise needed to be omitted out for now, he would add it in later.  The point here is that Joe knew the work properly done, works!  And it works for everyone.  After a few sessions, students would come in and practice on their own, in a supervised setting, with Clara or whoever was teaching in the studio that day walking around to give an appropriate or well-needed push or pull.

Mat “classes” didn’t exist in Joe’s studio.  Mat classes were reserved for the dancers at Jacob’s Pillow or the teachers.  Your workout was a personal experience, a time dedicated to working on yourself to the best of your ability that day.  Joe ran a disciplined studio, he made you want to try your best, and you benefited by seeing real results.  It was simple.

My, oh my! The landscape sure has changed.  Where’s the work?  Where’s the discipline?  What’s happening to Joe’s lifetime of work? He was a genius of the body (Romana’s words).  Isn’t it fascinating how very same person who complains about their undisciplined children, are actually himself or herself undisciplined?  Proof that the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree.  They come in for a workout but where’s the “work”?  They don’t remember the exercises, the order, the transitions, the spring settings etc. 

But wait a minute… the blame needs to be shared with us, the teachers!  My questions is this:  are we opening the door for real learning and expecting our students to take ownership of their body and mind, or (sorry if I offend) are we making sure we set up a relationship with our “clients” to ensure they continue to “need” us so we can pay our rent?  It’s our job to help our students become more independent so they can be more self-reliant.  Let me illustrate this in a different way.  When a child is small we show them how to tie shoes, brush teeth, bathe etc. so they can do it for themselves, right?  Similarly, if we continue to change the springs, tell what exercise comes next, neglect to show the transitions, how can we expect our students to learn? Imagine tying your teenagers shoes?  We wouldn’t get anywhere as a society if we continued that type of behavior into their young adult life. 

We all get to decide what kind of teacher we want to be.  There are ample learning opportunities for us today, yet ultimately it’s up to us to cultivate ourselves into the type of teachers we want to be. 

Thank-you Brett Miller for allowing me to share my thoughts with your readers at PilatesIntel.com.  I hope it sparks some open, honest conversation and perhaps some more stories in the future for everyone to enjoy.

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