Classical Pilates: History of Joseph Pilates

Joseph Pilates was born in Germany in a town called Monchengladbach in the year 1880. As a child he suffered from rickets and asthma, which were common illness in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The young Joseph Pilates grew up in a time when staying healthy and alive meant a person had to develop a fit and strong body and as a cure for poor health people were often encouraged to visit the spas and take part in exercise as a prescription to combat poor health.

Coming from a family where his mother was a naturopath and his father a prize winning gymnast it can be assumed that Joe was exposed to the exercise regimens of the day which were prevalent in Germany and Scandinavia at that time, these systems were loosely derived from the gymnastic systems of the ancient Greeks and the training regimens of the circus "strong men"of that time such as Professor Attilla and Eugen Sandor. These systems were the forerunners of what we now know as modern Gymnastics, body building and strength training. It was from this background of the importance of a healthy strong body and mind achieved through vigorous physical activity that the roots of his own system of exercise; Contrology were put down.

By his teenage years Joe had developed his body through regular exercise becoming an accomplished skier, diver and gymnast. He later went on to box professionally in travelling circuses all the while refining his knowledge of the body and its workings after being given an anatomical text book at an early age and pursuing his interest of exercise theory. 

Upon the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 Joe, who had been working in England was interned as an enemy alien with many other Germans and people of German origin. It was while he was in the internment camps especially when on the Isle of Man that he encouraged his fellow internees to participate in his exercises using minimal equipment. The results of following Joe Pilates exercise regime seem to lead to a general improvement of health and well being.

After the war Joe returned to Germany and worked with the Hamburg Police teaching self-defence while at the same time he taught private clients as. During this time one of his clients at that time was Rudolf Laban, creator of Labanation, which is still a widely used movement system in dance. It is believed that Joe was asked by the Kaiser to work with the German forces in the role as a trainer in recognition of his work he carried out in the internment camps during the First World War, however Joe seems to have refused and in 1926 left Germany this time for good; bound for a new life in the U.S.A.

On the voyage over the Atlantic Joe met Anna Clara Zeuner, who he later married. Joe and Clara Pilates opened their first studio called the Body Contrology Studio in a small former boxing gym on 8th Avenue 56th Street, New York. The studio was in a building with several dance studios and across the street from the American Ballet. By the end of the 1940’s and it didn’t take long for the dancers and people of the performing arts community to discover the benefits of Joe Pilates Method. Joe developed a close relationship with the New York dance community even though it has been reported that he wasn’t too pleased with some of their interpretations of his work. George Balanchine, one of the most important and influential choreographers of his time referred to Joe Pilates as “the genius of the body” and would regularly send his dancers to Joe to be “fixed”.

Unlike today where Pilates certification courses abound, some good, some bad, Joe Pilates only officially trained two teachers, Bob Seed, a hockey player and Carola Trier, a German contortionist. Training was done on a loose apprenticeship basis with the apprentices working along side Joe and Clara as assistants where they learned the Method. These assistants and teachers who worked with Joe are considered to be first generation Pilates teachers and among this generation of teachers are: Romana Kryzankowska, Jay Grimes, Eve Gentry, Kathy Grant, Lolita San Miguel, Eve Gentry and Ron Fletcher. It was these teachers that kept the method alive after Clara Pilates died in 1977. Of these first generation teachers Romana Kryzankowska and Jay Grimes were among the teachers who remained true to the Joe Pilates original teachings whereas some of the other first generation teachers interpreted his intentions to how they thought the method should develop mainly to suit their own needs and egos.

Joe Pilates died on October 9th aged 83 after operating his studio with his wife Clara for over forty years. He left his behind his legacy, Contrology, an exercise system which, he considered to be 50 years ahead of its time consisting of over 600 hundred exercises to be performed on mat or apparatus originally conceived, designed, built and patented by Joe Pilates. Today, just as in Joe’s time there is still a place for regular Pilates practice givng stretch, strength and control to an individual’s fitness regime allowing them to perform their daily tasks with the vigour and vitality that having a strong, healthy and supple body brings.

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The Green Room was created to deliver the truest form of Pilates to the North of England, adhering to the original form and teachings of its creator, Joseph H Pilates.

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