Pilates Style magazine
March/April 2010, pp. 70-74
Pearls of Wisdom
Few instructors are as fortunate as I was, studying with not one but two Pilates masters, first-generation teachers Kathy Grant and Carola Trier.
BY JILLIAN HESSEL
If you're an instructor or even an avid student of Pilates, you can probably trace your roots back to a special mentor or formative teacher. And because the work is so life-changing and so many teachers are so inspiring, quite a number of us end up becoming teachers ourselves. This is how the living chain of Pilates lineage goes: Our mentors change our lives in a significant way, and then we teach the next generation of students, inspiring them with the transformative magic of Pilates.
We are extremely fortunate that so many of our revered Pilates "elders," the first generation of master teachers who studied directly with Joseph Pilates, are still teaching today. Ron Fletcher, Jay Grimes, Lolita San Miguel, Romana Kryzanowska, Mary Bowen and Kathy Grant are in their 70s and 80s, but it is a testament to the vibrancy of our method that they are still very much alive, healthy and exemplarily fit. And what a blessing that they continue to teach and share their insights with us to this day.
My First Teacher: Kathy Grant
I have been extremely privileged in my personal teaching heritage: I initially studied with not one but two Pilates elders simultaneously: Kathy Grant and Carola Trier. In 1981 I was still dancing professionally in New York City, but years of ballet training had taken their toll on my body. A fellow dancer told me about her Pilates teacher, Kathy Grant, who had helped her with a chronically painful back condition, so I decided to give her a try.
Kathy's studio was located in a somewhat surprising place: the top floor of the tony Henri Bendel department store, which was then on West 57th Street. Her clientele sought her out at the very back of the top floor, past the hair salon and snack bar, in a very small gym right next to the ladies' restroom. Her students were a hodgepodge of "ladies who lunch," students at the Alvin Ailey school, modern dancers from downtown and dancers from the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH). Many people say the DTH dancers who worked with Kathy became outstanding performers in half the time it usually takes to become a dancer, thanks to her specialized training.
Kathy had evolved an idiosyncratic way to administrate, teach and manage her clientele all by herself, so she had no teaching assistants. Her clients had to memorize their personal workout program (I still have my original notes), and we all worked extremely hard at improving because we wanted to please Kathy, who was (and still is) an exacting, extremely detail-oriented teacher.
My first impression of Kathy's studio was that it was intimidating. It was very small and filled with all sorts strange-looking apparatus. But oh, the beautiful movements her clients performed on that equipment! To my untrained eye, it looked like a combination of gymnastics, yoga and underwater ballet. I longed to do it immediately: after all, I was a professional dancer, so why not? All too soon, I was to learn why not.
Kathy took one look at my back (a double S curve caused by scoliosis, made more lopsided by years of professional ballet dancing) and banned me from all the resistance equipment. She had me lie down on a mat and practice breathing evenly into both sides of my rib cage. This turned out to be quite a frustrating challenge, since the muscles in my back were so imbalanced. "You can't even breathe correctly without throwing your spine out of alignment," she said accusingly. "What do you think is happening to you when you dance? We'll have to rebalance your entire structure if you want to dance pain-free."
Yet each time I would return to dance class after a super-focused Pilates session, I would destroy all of Kathy's new alignment cues — and Kathy noticed. You can probably imagine how much trust I had to have in her to comply with her strong suggestion that I stop dancing for an entire summer. Imagine an eager 26-year-old dancer not taking a class for three months. But I took her advice, and that's what allowed her to completely deconstruct and rebuild me and create a new and more efficient way for me to move my body.
Kathy's training completely transformed my conception of alignment. She taught me to work "from the inside out," as we say in Pilates. She was also the first to teach me that I could alter my body alignment by changing my breathing pattern. With Kathy's guidance, I gradually developed a completely new paradigm with which to observe, translate and process movement. (Today I tell my own students that learning new, healthier movement patterns is akin to erasing all the memory on a computer to get rid of a virus. Only once the computer is emptied of all data, can we reload programs.)
Years later, after I had become one of her "success stories," Kathy confessed that when she first saw my back she truly did not know what to do with me. Thank goodness she never showed any of that self-doubt to me. She also confessed that she is not a patient woman at all, just stubborn. Thank heavens she was stubborn enough not to give up on my crooked back until she invented a way to work with me.
I spent the summer of 1981 studying intensely with Kathy three times a week while collecting unemployment benefits from my previous dance gig. I realized I had stumbled on not only a unique method of exercise but a rare and gifted teacher. Pilates was so restorative that I gained hope that I could soon resume my dance career relatively pain-free. Alas, autumn arrived, and my unemployment benefits ended with still no new dance gig on the horizon.
I needed a job, and Kathy had a great idea: Her friend and colleague Carola Trier needed a new apprentice. So I trotted four blocks crosstown to meet with Carola, proud that Kathy thought enough of me after only a few months of training to recommend me.
Twenty-eight years after first meeting Kathy Grant, I still find myself striving to uphold her high teaching standards in my studio, and I still demand her special purity of form from my own students. It is so beautiful when it happens — then all the hard work looks effortless, and it is truly satisfying to behold.
To this day, I use a version of Kathy's "Warm-ups," which she now calls "Before the One Hundreds," to tune in my body and mind before I get on any apparatus. Here is a special series of cues she calls her "song," which helps her students connect to their deepest abdominals (the powerhouse in today's lingo):
- Zip tight jeans (imagine).
- Belly button to the lowest part of the waistline.
- Put a belt on (imagine).
- Put a vest on (imagine).
- Tape measure (imagine a dressmaker taking measurements right under your breastbone).
My Other Great Mentor, Carola Trier
Carola Trier's Studio for Body Contrology stood in stark contrast to Kathy's. It was in her spacious apartment, and an elevator operator shuttled you up and down; the brass fittings on the building doors and elevator buttons were polished every day. Carola was the first person to open a studio with Joe Pilates' blessing. He had even supervised the construction of her apparatus, a show of his complete confidence in her as a teacher of his work.
Carola greeted me graciously in her old-world style. She spoke fluent English with a charming German accent that was still thick despite all her years living in America. I felt scared and shy, but after our initial interview, she gifted me with 10 sessions to "try me out." This was for me to see how clients were handled in her studio and for her to observe my facility with the method.
I will never forget what Carola said to me that day — in fact, I have passed those words on to countless aspiring teachers: "You can make a very nice living as a gym teacher [her name for our profession], but you will never become rich. It is very hard work, but it can also be very rewarding. You have to love helping people, and then when you really help them, you'll find the satisfaction most rewarding — almost as good as performing!"
My introductory workout was taught by Carola herself, and she began with her signature posture analysis. Our work began on what we then called the Universal Reformer. The session moved along at a much brisker pace than I had been accustomed to, so I was grateful for the careful foundation of warm-ups Kathy had given me. To this day, I like to say that it was Kathy who got me into alignment and Carola who got me strong.
The clientele here was an interesting mix of professional and aspiring dancers from American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, plus a sprinkling of New York society's rich and powerful elite. Businessmen and professionals came to work out with her, an unusual phenomenon in the early '80s, when practically no one had ever heard of Pilates, and the few men who did practice it were mostly dancers.
The first time I showed up for my shift, which started at 8 a.m., I was nervous about arriving too early since I knew the studio was also her home. When I rang her doorbell at the stroke of 8, however, I received a stern lecture that I should be dressed and ready to receive the first clients at 8 a.m., not just be arriving myself. Needless to say, I was never "late" again.
My first tasks as her teaching apprentice were to clean finger marks off the wall, fetch towels and hold the feet of clients while they performed footwork on the Reformer. I was encouraged to observe like crazy, ask intelligent questions and, most important, ask for help during more complicated exercises such as Short Spinal Massage or Backstroke Swimming, as I was not yet permitted to handle these on my own.
Carola ran her business and taught with the precision of a Swiss watch. Teachers and clients alike lived in absolute dread of her explosive temper, which added to our desire to please her as she barked out her commands. In another life, Carola could have had a career as a drill sergeant, but we were grateful that she chose to teach Body Contrology. And while she was never known to apologize after losing her temper, she would show contrition by serving us European coffee and muffins or inviting us for an after-hours glass of sweet sherry served with cheese and crackers.
Clients she handled in an elegant manner, with the utmost respect. Using her "magic touch" — she was also a massage therapist — she employed far more hands-on guidance during exercises than is common today. She called the extras "candy," and clients had to earn these rewards by working extra hard during their session.
Carola adored her gorgeous exotic creatures (like the ballerinas Stephanie Saland and Gelsey Kirkland), and they always got plenty of candy. I also remember Carola's one-on-one specialized work with a polio victim who was paralyzed in one leg and who exercised wearing a brace. Carola had an instinctive nurturing and gentle side that prompted her to dole out extra attention when someone was emotionally upset or injured.
Nothing ever looked skimpy in the studio. She replaced paper-towel and toilet-paper rolls before they ran out and threw away bars of soap (specially ordered from B. Altman's department store) before they got too small. She was a savvy businesswoman: She never told a client they had finished a series of exercise sessions. Rather, she would say, "You start new next time."
CAROLA'S TEACHING CUES
Long before the famous Nike slogan came along, Carola Trier's students learned to just do it! Here are some examples of the quick verbal cues — sound bites before there were sound bites — she often used:
- Cue for Posture Check: "If your body is a building, the feet are the foundation."
- Cue for Long Stretch (which she called Straight Stretch) on the Reformer: "From the head to the heel, you're a piece of steel."
- Cue for body placement performing Knee Stretches on the Reformer: "If your belly button fell off, it would fall between your knees."
- Cue for Backstroke Swimming on the Reformer Box: "Curl up tight like a baby."
- Cue for less talk and more work: "Now get going!"
And so began a very interesting and transformative time in my life: working at Carola's studio four mornings a week, and studying with Kathy three days a week. The two were so different in their approach to Pilates, yet each taught me new ways to look at and transmit the body of exercises passed down to us from Joe. But both encouraged me to find my own interpretation of the work as I developed as a teacher.
I owe my exactitude, keen eye and precise teaching style to Kathy's continual quest to find perfect form for each individual. She always demanded purity of form in the execution of the movement from all her clients, which made (makes) her a very tough taskmaster. My style of teaching in clear layman's language comes from Carola. She didn't like a lot of talk going on in her studio; long-winded explanations of how to execute an exercise were verboten. I also learned from her the ABCs of running a studio. She was a very accomplished professional in a day when few women ran their own companies.
I believe both women's individual contribution — their example of how they filtered Joe's work through their own sensibilities and life experience — had a bigger impact on me than any individual exercise or routine.
Every Pilates teacher needs to develop his or her own teaching style and voice, and I was lucky enough to have Kathy and Carola hold my hand along that path until I discovered mine.
THE LEARNING FROM
TWO MASTERS WORKSHOP
Back in 1999, you couldn't find many weekend workshops for Pilates teachers, and teacher-training courses were still in their infancy. Jennifer Stacey invited me to present a teacher's workshop at her San Francisco theater-district studio, and I was delighted to accept. When I asked her what she would like me to teach, she said, "How about some Kathy and Carola stuff?" So I immediately began to think about the unique teaching heritage I had from these two special women, which came together as my Learning from Two Masters workshop.
It was a last-minute decision to videotape the workshop, but I'm so glad we did, because I have not had the honor of giving it again. The day-long workshop footage originally filled two VHS tapes: One discussed the posture analysis I learned from Carola, the warm-ups I learned from Kathy, and the matwork I learned from both; the second covered the Reformer work I learned from both women. I also wrote a teacher's manual to accompany the videotapes, which detailed the exercise setup, execution and apparatus settings.
Last fall I updated the entire package using the latest DVD technology. Nearly four hours of footage are contained on a single long-playing DVD, with lots of navigation buttons so you can cruise directly to the exercise you are looking for. The manual has likewise been rewritten and redesigned. Thanks to all this new technology, the entire package costs less to produce, and I can pass those savings on to our community. I consider the Learning from Two Masters DVD and manual my gift to future generations of Pilates teachers. They allow you to build upon a solid classical foundation in Pilates work, inspired by two outstanding first-generation teachers, and will help guide you to finding your own unique teaching style.
The Learning from Two Masters DVD/manual package is available for $50 at jillianhessel.com.