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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.
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
precision and flowing movement, Pilates has the best parts of my
— figure skating and dance — and maybe that’s why I am still
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
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
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
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 —
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
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
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
a correctly-done Pilates exercise has an esthetic aspect, whether
from the sweep of your arm, the rhythm of your breathing, or the
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
"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:
and out in a balanced way. Including interior muscles that you
never knew about, and that don’t get touched by other forms of
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
fix lots of back problems.
eight years ago — I am doing them at a deeper, more proficient
level today, and with each lesson I gleefully find some improvement.
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.
but for just four or five repetitions.
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
pumping. Because beginners generally use the wrong muscles, their
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
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.
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.
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
Pilates fans are Glenn Close, Julia Roberts, Madonna, and two NFL
football teams — the Cincinnati Bengals and the San Francisco
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
so that he was a good gymnast, skier, and skin diver. He went to
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,
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
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
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
you can learn in a year or two." At his own studio he has five
core teachers — Kim Cryan, Lucy James, Janelle Byrne, Linda
and Paulette Sears — and a handful of apprentices work there as
"Striving for perfection is part of the wonderful spirit of
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
Siegel does weightlifting and runs three to five miles, five to six
days a week. "I feel like the running sort of compresses
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
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
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
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
To meet this need, and because mat work is central to Pilates
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
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,
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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