Pilates these days has been modified to such an extent that it is no longer what the founder has intended it to be, says the last of the instructors taught by Joseph Pilates.
By Cheah Ui-Hoon
SOME forms of Pilates being taught around the world today – Singapore included – would have met with the approval of the late Joseph Pilates, who devised the exercise method, but some would not.
‘He’d be absolutely livid with some of them, and then others he’d be happy with,’ says Jay Grimes, in his 70s and the last of the first-generation Pilates teachers who had learnt the exercise directly from Joseph and Clara Pilates.
A former contemporary ballet dancer, Mr Grimes had learnt it from the 1960s onwards for more than 10 years, and is pretty much the last one among his cohort who is still teaching – as he realised recently. Ron Fletcher, another first-generation Pilates teacher who had visited Singapore years ago also to teach at Pilates Bodywork Studio, has passed away.
Mr Grimes, who started teaching Pilates in the 1990s, points out that Pilates isn’t something one could learn in a few months or years. ‘To really know and understand it, you’re looking at a minimum of five to 10 years,’ he says. ‘Someone had once said that it’s like peeling an onion – but in this case, the more you peel the more there is to explore.’
The problem with Pilates getting hip these days, and becoming so widespread since a certification came into place, is that instructors are giving twists to the exercise so that they can stand out among the crowd. ‘They learn the mechanics of the exercise, do gimmicks with it and call it Pilates. And even if some are doing wonderful things with it, they should call it another name rather than Pilates,’ says Mr Grimes.
That’s because each time the regime is modified, he notes, it detracts from the way that its founder had intended it to be – which is to work the body from inside out: the organs and bones; and for people to be aware of their bodies, and use it correctly, to have energy and vigour and be resistant to disease.
The first time Mr Grimes learnt of Stott Pilates, he relates, he was horrified. Later, he was even more flabbergasted to learn that it was one of his students who had devised it. The Stott method has more to do with therapy than exercise, he points out, so it takes a different approach. ‘Pilates wasn’t meant to replace physical therapy, for example.’
Mr Grimes is resigned to the fact that Pilates may not mean the same from one instructor to another now, but still thinks that if people want to use it differently from the original intention, they should call it by another name.
There is a misconception that Pilates had devised the exercise for dancers. Far from it, says Mr Grimes. Joseph Pilates first taught boxing and self-defence, but when he was interned on the Isle of Man during World War I because of his German nationality, he started working with patients in hospital beds.
‘At that time, the mentality was to keep the patients in bed and as inactive as possible, so they weren’t allowed to get up to exercise,’ explains Mr Grimes. Joseph didn’t agree with that idea, so he started devising a system of springs to work with patients in bed. ‘And that was the basis of the cadillac that you see today in Pilates studios,’ he adds.
As for himself, he has the most cliched story of how he started learning Pilates, he admits. He was keen to embark on a professional dance career in New York City and at his first ballet class there, the ballet master immediately spotted the effects of a mild childhood polio case. ‘Go and look for Joseph Pilates at 939, 8th Avenue, she told me,’ he recalls.
He stopped by to check out the studio and thought it was a medical torture chamber and was about to hightail it out of there when Clara Pilates caught hold of him. ‘Can I help you? She says,’ Mr Grimes relates as if it happened yesterday.
They were very disciplined in those days, he laughs, so he signed up. ‘I was also willing to do anything to be able to dance better,’ says Mr Grimes, who later joined the renowned American Ballet Theatre.
Pilates changed his body and dancing tremendously, but as a dancer, he had looked at the exercise as a means to an end, and never thought of being a full-time instructor. ‘Plus you couldn’t make a living from teaching Pilates, not until the 1990s,’ he says.
The confluence of two events worked in his favour: it was time to retire from dancing, and by the 90s, Pilates was well-known enough for him to teach it full time.
Mr Grimes had learnt from Joseph for about three years, and then after he passed away in 1984, he learnt from Clara for about 10 years. He had also learnt from John Winters, Joseph’s right hand man.
Mr Grimes now teaches at a studio in Los Angeles, but has also embarked on a project with two teachers to photograph and film his exercises. ‘That’s an interesting project – as they are also filming other students and second-generation teachers and making it available online,’ he says.
Pilatesology.com was designed for teachers and students alike – with some clips done as demonstrations and others as instructional. Mr Grimes is very much behind the project because it’s like a repository of the best Pilates knowledge, he adds.
For those keen on learning Pilates, his advice is to look at the teachers’ lineage – ‘You should look for a lineage which is as close to Joseph and Clara Pilates as you can, so that it’s ‘purer’,’ he says. It’s inevitable that teachers will bring their own personalities into it, but at least it won’t be too diluted, he concludes.
Jay Grimes was in Singapore last week to give classes at Pilates Bodywork Studio, at 1 Finlayson Green and Holland Village, run by Alvin Giam, the only Gold Certified teacher by the Pilates Method Alliance International in Asia, and who had studied with many first and second-generation Pilates instructors.