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This article by Barbara Figge Fox was prepared for the June 13,

2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Once Weird, Pilates Is Now the Fitness Fad

When I went to check out the buzz about the Pilates

Method, it was just new from New York. All the dancers in town were

doing it, I had heard.

This "new/old" form of exercise devised by Joseph H. Pilates

had been a favorite of New York dancers since the 1930s, when George

Balanchine and Martha Graham took lessons and their companies followed

suit. But unless you lived in Manhattan, you probably didn’t know

about it. Only in the last decade did the Pilates Method (pronounced

pih-LAH-tees) move from the whisper stage ("it’s that weird class

that dancers take in New York") to be a nationwide vogue, touted

in glossy magazines, with machines and accessories sold on television.

In 1992, when I got the word, the only available Pilates instruction

in Princeton was tucked into a corner of Alt’s Gymnastics on Alexander

Road, where Anthony Rabara had opened a struggling part-time

operation. In a noisily cavernous room dominated by the cavorting gymnasts, he

worked with a handful of clients and one Pilates Reformer machine.

Six moves and nine years later, Rabara is ensconced at Research Park

in his own 1,400-foot studio, with 120 clients, a trained teaching

staff, and a seven-day schedule.

For good or ill, Pilates is the hot "new" fitness craze.

Thanks

to a court decision erasing the copyright protection on the Pilates

name, more than a dozen studios and gyms in greater Princeton now

offer Pilates or Pilates-style classes. But popularity does have a

downside — those who have roots at the original New York studio

oppose the dilution of the method.

All I know is what works for me. In the years since Rabara opened

his studio, I have breached the decrepit age of 60. Sometimes my back

hurts. Sometimes it’s my knee or hip that hurts. Yet thanks to weekly

Pilates sessions with Rabara and his teachers, I feel stronger, more

limber, and more resilient than I did in my younger years.

Other exercise choices abound. I could work out in a

gym on weight machines. I could take yoga, aerobics, or Tai Chi. I

could play tennis or golf or go biking or do folk dancing or run or

walk or skate or do ballet or modern dance. And in fact I have tried

them all but the one I keep is Pilates. With its combination of

controlled

precision and flowing movement, Pilates has the best parts of my

favorites

— figure skating and dance — and maybe that’s why I am still

at it.

When my mother took us to an ice skating club, it was way before Peggy

Fleming, more like the time of Sonja Henie. Not too many little kids

skated then, so the two Figge girls looked ever so cute in their

hand-sewn

matching outfits with carefully padded hats to protect against falls.

Compared to today’s young skaters, we weren’t terribly proficient.

We took lessons, passed some tests, and did some of the simpler ice

dances. Patch skating (practicing figures) offered early lessons in

precision: the "tracings" that you make on the ice reveal

success or failure. If you skate on your edge correctly, you can trace

the same arc over and over, but if you lose concentration, you wobble

and fail.

It was the same with ballet. "Poise and grace" was the goal

my mother had in mind for her eight-year-old, but I loved learning

exactly what I was supposed to do and being given the chance to do

it. After five years I had earned a pair of pointe shoes and my

teacher’s

assurance that I had a promising future in dance, but we both knew

better, and I stopped taking lessons.

In college I discovered modern dance, a giddy combination of precisely

controlled movements combined with the speed and freedom —

swooping

and turning across the floor — that I had enjoyed when I whizzed

across the ice.

These movement experiences forever ruined me for anything less. Ask

someone who has been a figure skater: They can’t stand just going

round and round the rink in a crowded public session. Ask anyone who

has taken dance seriously: They hate and despise aerobics. All that

flinging oneself around in a careless fashion is most uninteresting.

But if you try to "dance" an aerobics class, people look at

you cross-eyed.

Walking? I do it in spurts. My husband is a runner, so don’t lecture

me about cardio; he has. Pilates is not for cardio, but walking is

boring.

Gym membership? I tried working out with machines. But I was never

sure I was really doing it right. Sure enough, I wasn’t, and I ended

up with an injury.

Modern dance? Still my first love, though memories of how I moved

"in my prime" dim that joy, and finding a class to fit my

schedule is hard.

That leaves Pilates. Unlike weight lifting or training on gym

machines,

a correctly-done Pilates exercise has an esthetic aspect, whether

from the sweep of your arm, the rhythm of your breathing, or the

stretch

of your foot. Many of the exercises echo the ballet barre warm-up

routine, and transitions are supposed to flow smoothly. If you are

a dancer, you feel like you are dancing. Meanwhile the teacher makes

sure you don’t get injured and confronts you with ways to work at

deeper levels.

"Strength without bulk" is one Pilates mantra. Among the other

promised outcomes: better muscle and joint flexibility, relief of

back pain, correction of posture problems, healing of damaged tissues,

prevention of osteoporosis, and a sleeker but firmer body.

Pilates studio instruction is not cheap. It costs as

much as it would to hire a trainer, because you are getting personal

attention. You can take less expensive group mat classes — some

offered free at gyms these days — but in a group, you may not

be able to count on the teacher to protect you from injury; you must

watch out for yourself.

But as I age I realize that doctor bills are also not cheap, nor are

the pains of arthritis and sciatica triggered by the abuse I have

given my body over the years. I found I could walk into the studio

and say, "Anthony, my knee hurts today." Or, "Anthony,

my back’s out today." He would structure my workout to fix that

problem and I would walk out standing tall and feeling great.

Lots of other Princeton area people are now discovering Pilates. Among

them are Hank Siegel (of Hamilton’s Jewelers), David Cohen (a retired

manufacturing executive), Marcy Maguire (the Saturn franchise owner),

and Peter Hegener (founder of Peterson’s).

Just how does a Pilates workout work? If done correctly:

It works every muscle in your body — evenly. Inside

and out in a balanced way. Including interior muscles that you

probably

never knew about, and that don’t get touched by other forms of

exercise.

It concentrates on strengthening your

"powerhouse,"

the muscles of your abdomen, lower back, and buttocks. A good Pilates

trainer will help you "scoop" your stomach in virtually every

exercise. Pilates students are known for their abs, and strong

abdominals

fix lots of back problems.

It presents ever-new challenges. The exercises I tried

eight years ago — I am doing them at a deeper, more proficient

level today, and with each lesson I gleefully find some improvement.

It has the elements of a dance class. Most dancers don’t

like to work themselves out; they want to "take class." As

in dance, a Pilates session ends with graceful movements of the arms

combined with challenge for your balance. You test your strength,

and you feel beautiful.

It is not boring. You do each movement with absolute

precision

but for just four or five repetitions.

The most widely known Pilates exercise, called the Hundreds,

starts out every session. Lying on your back, you use your stomach

muscles to curl your head up off the floor, draw your knees to your

chest, and straighten your legs upward. Then you beat your straight

arms up and down 100 times. This gets your heart and circulatory

system

pumping. Because beginners generally use the wrong muscles, their

necks tire.

The mat exercise called Rolling like a ball is just what it sounds

like, and it tests your abdominal control. More advanced tests are

Open leg rocker (where you roll back and forth with your legs straight

while holding onto your calves) and Seal (where you hold onto your

feet and clap them like a seal, three times, at the top and bottom

of each roll).

Spine stretch forward looks like a simple little stretch over

outstretched

legs but is actually supposed to be an eviscerating scooping out of

your gut plus training in breathing. On the Reformer apparatus, you

do this with "Stomach massage." You sit uncomfortably close

to a bar and push the carriage away with your feet while you change

the position of your arms and back.

A good Reformer costs from $2,500 to $3,000, and the cheap ones shown

on television, flat to the ground, are useful only for an advanced

student. (Don’t try to buy one and teach yourself, because you need

to be proficient before you work alone.)

On the Reformer the "carriage" or "bed" is attached

to the frame by springs. You adjust the number of springs to provide

the appropriate resistance for each exercise. You lie or sit or stand

on the Reformer carriage with your feet or your hands on a bar.

Assuming

various positions, you push the carriage away from the bar. I like

to say that the Reformer makes you "not a prisoner of your own

body." Overweight people who are not using the machine are working

harder than someone who is thin. But on the Reformer, fat or thin,

you work with exactly the right amount of resistance.

Everybody’s favorite Reformer exercise is Short spine massage.

Starting

with your feet over your head you roll down ever so slowly, vertebra

by vertebra (Hank Siegel does this on the cover of this issue).

Sprinkled through both the mat and the Reformer programs are some

benchmark tests of strength and balance, such as the Tendon stretch.

You start in a jack-knife position with your heels hanging off the

edge of the carriage and your hands behind you on the bar. You let

the carriage swing out so now you are in a V shape. That’s the easy

part. Now you scoop up your abdominal muscles to come back to the

jacknife position. Beginners need an instructor standing by for this

one, but doing it right is exhilarating.

Side splits, my favorite, requires strength and grace. You hold the

carriage away from the frame with your feet and use your inner thighs

to try to maintain your balance as you bend over to gather imaginary

flowers with your arms and then toss them over your head. In dance

terms, this is a port de bras in second position. On the cover of

the U.S. 1 Health & Fitness Directory (inserted with this issue),

Beth Van Hoeven is doing the Side splits.

Dancers love this form of exercise because, as Pilates developed the

method, he tailored it to the New York dance crowd. That’s how he

got started in this country, hanging around the dance studios and

giving out his card. More recently, Demi Moore drew attention to the

method when she made the movie "Striptease" and attributed

her long-leg-look to Pilates. Some other national celebrities to

become

Pilates fans are Glenn Close, Julia Roberts, Madonna, and two NFL

football teams — the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Francisco

49ers.

Joseph H. Pilates had started out by working on his own body. Born

in 1889 in Dusseldorf, Germany, he was troubled by rickets, asthma,

and rheumatic fever; he used university libraries to do research for

a self-training program based on yoga, Zen meditation, anatomy, and

various Greek and Roman moves. By the age of 14 he had developed

himself

so that he was a good gymnast, skier, and skin diver. He went to

England

to train as a boxer but, when World War I began, was interned as an

"enemy alien." Because he kept the other inmates healthy by

teaching them exercises, he was sent to the Isle of Man to minister

to those injured in the war.

To help the bedridden, he attached bedsprings to the walls. Using

straps on their arms or legs, patients pushed and pulled against the

resistance and recovered from their injuries with record-breaking

speed. Thus encouraged, Pilates came up with a set of 500 controlled

exercises focusing on abdominal muscles but increasing the flexibility

of all the muscles. "Complete coordination of body, mind, and

spirit" was his version of the Roman motto, "a sound mind

in a sound body."

When the German government wanted him to train its new

army, he emigrated to the United States. He and his wife, Clara,

opened

their first studio at 939 Eighth Avenue in 1926. In his 1945 book

"Return to Life Through Contrology," Pilates wrote, "Never

do 10 pounds of effort for a 5-pound movement," and insisted that

to concentrate on the quality of movement rather than mindless

repetition

would produce sleek, strong bodies with the natural grace of a cat.

All this I learned from my teacher. Anthony Rabara, 51, grew up in

California, where his late father worked in agriculture, and he has

a bachelor’s degree from the conservatory of music at the University

of the Pacific in California and a master’s degree in dance from Ohio

State University. He danced professionally in ballet and modern

companies

in the United States and Europe, is trained in massage therapy, and

worked in Manhattan as a corporate chef. Rabara came to the Pilates

studio in New York in 1979, after Joseph Pilates died and the mantle

had been passed to a doyenne, Romana Kryzanowska, and he was one of

seven teachers featured in her 1985 videotape that is still used for

teacher certification. He continues to work with Kryzanowska to train

other teachers and refine the syllabus.

"We know Joe Pilates was a genius, ahead of his time," says

Rabara. "I have seen Pilates, when it is taught well, work on

people who would have given up on themselves, people with multiple

sclerosis and fibromyalgia. I have a young client with a severe muscle

defect who learned to walk by using Pilates’ principles. I don’t know

of any other movement exercise that does what Pilates does."

The core of Pilates, he says, is trying to understand as much of your

body as possible and learning how to integrate your body with the

help of an instructor. "The training is rigorous. It is not

something

you can learn in a year or two." At his own studio he has five

core teachers — Kim Cryan, Lucy James, Janelle Byrne, Linda

Mannheim,

and Paulette Sears — and a handful of apprentices work there as

well.

"Striving for perfection is part of the wonderful spirit of

Pilates.

It is up to us to carry on that message and spirit," says Rabara.

"In the studio, people come into an atmosphere that has the spirit

and soul of Pilates. It’s a big interesting bag of people — people

acting like artists and giving of themselves, with lots of networking

and sharing. It makes for a rich experience."

"I find Anthony and his staff to be excellent instructors,"

says Siegel, the 43-year-old president of Hamilton Jewelers on Nassau

Street and Brunswick Pike. "They care deeply about their clients’

well being and are very generous with their time and their

expertise."

Siegel does weightlifting and runs three to five miles, five to six

days a week. "I feel like the running sort of compresses

everything

in my body and leaves it pretty tight. Sometimes one side or another

hurts. The Pilates helps to stretch, expand, and balance my muscles,"

he says. "My favorite is long spine massage. To put my feet in

the straps and stretch back over my head — I could stay there

all night. I feel like I am three inches taller when I leave."

Nancy Warner, owner of Pennington Dance, has been doing Pilates since

1992 when she fell and injured herself and had to stop dancing for

a while. "I took Pilates twice a week for six weeks and thought

I would be horrible when I went back to dance class. But I was better

than before, I had all this upper abdominal strength I couldn’t

believe.

Anthony helped support the injury but also corrected minute things

in my stance that helped overall." After three years she bought

her own Reformer machine to work out at home.

David Cohen, president of Springdale Golf Club and a retired

manufacturing

executive, came to the Rabara studio five years ago to get greater

flexibility and improve his golf game. "The atmosphere is very

relaxed, and he is very professional," says Cohen. "You worry

about something when it gets to be trendy, that a lot of people are

doing what they shouldn’t be doing. Here’s a guy who really knows

and insists that all his instructors go through the proper training

and are fully conversant with the original Pilates Method."

Cohen says he has always worked out but that after long car trips

he used to get sciatic pain in his leg. "Now I don’t. And I feel

my posture is better. As you go up in the levels of Pilates you work

much deeper and I found that I don’t need as much work in the gym.

It is not about building muscle but about keeping everything moving.

I find Anthony is very sensitive to individual bodies. If you have

something that is not quite right, he adjusts it. He makes it

enjoyable.

You are really never doing everything the same."

Cohen and Siegel have Pilates lessons once or twice

a week, but other motivated students may not be able to pay the $30

to $35 fee for a semiprivate lesson (private lessons from $60 to $75).

These lessons employ the Reformer and the other special pieces of

studio apparatus.

To meet this need, and because mat work is central to Pilates

training,

Rabara also offers $15 45-minute mat classes, seven days a week, at

his studio. Instructors associated with the Rabara studio are also

giving group mat classes elsewhere (see below).

Area gyms are also offering mat classes, free to members or at low

cost (see list below). Some the classes are "real Pilates,"

while others take Pilates-style movements and add other exercises

to make an eclectic class, sometimes composed by the instructor, often

taught as a package that is called "Mat Science."

Rabara says the difference between a Pilates workout and a

Pilates-based workout, whether on the mat or using equipment, is that a trained

instructor is working with the student to coordinate the principles

of Pilates — the movement, the breath, and the alignment.

"Other methods are a washed-out version that scrapes the surface of

Pilates," says Rabara.

"You have to really be careful as a consumer," agrees Donna

Longo, Pilates instructor and owner of Integrated Fitness Inc. on

Route 27 in Kingston. A former dancer, she started Pilates to recover

from an injury. Then she took Kryzanowska’s 600-hour certification

program, which costs about $3,200 plus the cost of personal private

lessons. "Doing Pilates healed my Achilles tendon when nothing

else was working. It helped realign my body and keep me in shape.

I like that you can work your whole body in one hour and be done with

it. I like the idea it can help change people’s bodies, and that

anyone can do it, even if you are not a dancer."

"Now that there is no trademark on the word," warns Longo,

"people can get trained in a weekend and teach a mat class, say

it is Pilates, and can injure people. You need to know you are getting

trained the way Joe Pilates intended it to be, not by someone who

learned it for their own body and changed it `to make it better.’"

Phil Macias, who teaches the popular Mat Science class at Gold’s Gym,

says the Mat Science I classes use the simplest Pilates moves, plus

some yoga, some dance, and standard (non-Pilates) abdominal crunches.

"The focus is on mindful movement, core stabilization technique,

and unified body movements," he says. He took the certification

from AFAA but can also draw on his mat work study with Donna Longo

of Integrated Fitness.

What gave Pilates its sudden prominence? Partly because a

profit-minded person took charge and did some intensive marketing. But when he

failed to get a copyright, that opened the field to all comers. Now anyone

can pay $100 for a one-day workshop in Atlantic City and get a

"certificate"

to teach Pilates mat and equipment classes.

My theory also takes into account the readiness of the American public

to embrace something so complicated. In the 1950s Joe Pilates had

predicted, "People won’t understand the brilliance of my work

for 50 years." Dancers, athletes, and soldiers, were the only

ones paying serious attention to their bodies at that time, and when

Pilates died in 1967 the American public was still not very exercise

conscious. Yoga had yet to sweep the country and aerobics awareness

was several years away.

Thirty years later, limping and sore from treadmills, bicycles, and

Jazzercise, the baby boomers are ready to lavish some careful,

protective

attention on their bodies. Like golf, Pilates is an equal opportunity

activity for all ages.

In fact, one of the satisfying aspects of Pilates is that older people

can work out alongside of 16-year-old ballet dancers and 22-year-old

hunks. And though one is never ever supposed to compare one’s

prowess to the next person’s, how can someone like me NOT be pleased

when — for a brief Pilates moment — age 60 can do as well

or better than 16 and 22?

I still have pounds to shed, and my bones complain when I get up in

the morning, but I walk taller and am told I "move" younger.

I’ve tried ignoring my Pilates fix. It takes time and money to go

every week, sometimes twice. But whenever I stopped, my body began

to grumble. No amount of time and money saved, I decided, is worth

my health. And anyway, I’m working on my Tendon Stretch.

To paraphrase the well-known axiom: If you have strong abdominals,

you have it all.


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