Health & Safety > Cross Training > Pilates


Why are so many dancers supplementing their studies with "Teasers", "Elephants", "Mermaids", "Long Spine Stretches", "Boomerangs", "Open-Leg Rockers" and other intriguingly-named exercises? Because these exercises and about 500 others are part of the Pilates Method of Body Conditioning - an exercise system that is loved by people of all ages and fitness levels and is especially beneficial for dancers.

Although Pilates (pronounced puh - la -tes) is enjoying a surge in popularity at the moment, it has been around for over sixty years. Martha Graham and George Balanchine were among the first in the dance world to recognize that the Pilates system, with its deliberate movements, controlled breathing and emphasis on alignment could improve strength and flexibility throughout the entire body without creating bulky muscles.

When Emily Gaynor was a teenager studying at the School of American Ballet she began Pilates work outs with one of its legendary teachers, Carola Trier. After one month, her equally legendary ballet teacher, Antonia Toumkovsky exclaimed, "Why Emily! Vhat you do? You look different! You so strong!"

What Emily and so many other dancers have done is cross-train with an excellent complement to dance. Pilates strengthens the dancer's "powerhouse"- her abdomen, lower back and buttocks - creating a super-strong core that supports all other movement. Instructors constantly exhort their students to "scoop" the stomach and "pinch" the buttocks; the results are soon visible.

Although Pilates excels as a torso toner, the precision and control needed for the exercises requires contributions from various muscle groups, so all-over strength and suppleness result. Pilates works deep, finding those hard-to-isolate muscles so essential to strength and control. It also discovers and corrects imbalances and misalignments that can hinder a dancer's progress, and it does so in a calm, supportive environment - an important factor given the intensity of some ballet classes.

We hope you never need to know this, but Pilates also provides an excellent supplement to rehabilitation after injury; Pilates equipment is often found in dance physical therapists' offices. The great ballerina Suzanne Farrell was able to return to the stage after a hip replacement by adding Pilates to her rehabilitation regime. It is gentle enough for pregnant women but rigorous enough for professional athletes, (such as ballet dancers and football players).

The cat was Pilates' favorite example of strength, flexibility and agility and he emphasized six principles in working toward feline power and grace: Control, Coordination, Center, Breathing, Precision, Fluid Movement. Strength develops by supporting one's own body weight or by working against spring resistance - no other weights are involved. Pilates is kind to the joints; it eliminates impact and compression from muscle training. You perform the exercises in a "neutral" supine or sitting position. The mind set during a Pilates workout should be calm, focused and concerned with the quality, not the quantity of each movement. You don't get points for squeezing out an extra repetition; in fact if you lose your form you will be corrected.

Some of the exercises can be performed on any soft surface, ideally a padded mat. This is called "the matwork"; some Pilates studios offer matwork-only classes. Matwork makes a perfect travel regime as the exercises can performed on a hotel room floor.

The other exercises require the special equipment that Pilates designed: the "Reformer", a sort of bed with footstraps and handles that slides against the resistance of adjustable springs; the "Cadillac", a sort of bed with an overhead framework of metal pipes from which one can rig numerous combinations of springs, bars and straps; the "Chair", just like it sounds but the footrest moves against the springs' resistance and you don't always get to sit down; the "Barrel", a padded, curved structure ideal for stretching tight backs; the "Tower", a framework for more springs, straps and bars; and the portable "Magic Circle", a circle with pads made from flexible metal strips about 18" in diameter - when held between hands, ankles or knees it adds pizzazz and extra challenge to any exercise.

Born in Dusseldorf, Germany in 1880, Joseph Pilates was interned in England during World War I because of his nationality. He became a nurse and developed exercises for his immobilized patients by rigging their hospital beds with various springs and straps. The hospital beds evolved into today's Pilates equipment; the exercises multiplied as Pilates brought his experience of yoga, boxing, martial arts and gymnastics to his system. When he returned to Germany after the war the German Army wanted him to train its soldiers. Instead, Pilates and his wife, Clara, moved to New York City. There his classes attracted dancers right from the start, and now his name draws a glamorous crowd from the fashion, business and entertainment worlds as well.

How do you start? First, find the right instructor. From the original Pilates studio on Eighth Avenue in New York City, there have sprung hundreds of locations across the country that offer Pilates instruction and training for students and prospective teachers alike. The offical Pilates website,, directs dancers and others interested in Pilates to locations near them where training is offered. The website writes: "No longer the workout of the elite, Pilates has entered the fitness mainstream. Today, five million Americans practice Pilates, and the numbers continue to grow."

What should you expect? The first few lessons should be one-on-one with your instructor. There is a lot to learn. Each exercise must be performed with attention to your alignment, your breathing, your gaze and especially your "powerhouse". You will only do a few of each one, but with so much to think about that will be plenty.

As you become more advanced you will be allowed to workout in groups, and eventually on your own. You will also learn new exercises and challenging variations on the old ones. Check it out. You will strengthen your center, tune in to your alignment, and master the "Grasshopper" before you know it.

For further information:

Call: The Pilates Studio (212) 875-0189

The Pilates Method of Physical and Mental Conditioning by Philip Friedman & Gail Eisen, Doubleday & Co., Inc., New York, 1980

The Pilates Method of Body Conditioning, The Core Exercises by Sean P. Gallagher and Romana Krysanowska