Conventional Wisdom – Thoughts on the Classical Pilates Convention
Windsor, 27-29 Sep 2013
It was with a certain amount of trepidation that I approached the Classical Pilates Convention. My Pilates teacher training had included the classical repertoire as a sort of kernel of the method, from which all manner of shoots had subsequently grown. I definitely wouldn’t describe myself as a teacher of “classical Pilates”. However I did want to know more of this seemingly austere area – a bit like a child of liberal parents wondering what it would be like to be brought up by Puritans.
My attempts thus far had been a little disheartening. At one previous classical Pilates workshop I had attended, the teacher had taken a very dim view of any variations (“distortions”) of the original exercises which, to that teacher’s mind, were most definitely not what “Mr Pilates” had intended. The overwhelming impression I had was that it was not for us mere mortals to dare to interpret or modify the work of such a genius. So here I was again, this time signing up for a weekend of Classical Pilates, like an agnostic going to Lourdes in order to “give it another a try”. Would I be converted, brainwashed or rejected as an unbeliever?
I needn’t have worried. The leading presenter of the event was Jay Grimes, one of the few remaining people who can say they were trained by Joe (and it was “Joe”, by the way. Jay was a wonderful source of anecdotes and personal memories, so if he says it was always “Joe”, and not “Joseph” or “Mr Pilates”, that’s good enough for me). Avuncular and eminently quotable, Jay was a goldmine for students of Pilates history. Fascinating to hear, for example, that the original studio had no booking system – clients just turned up when they wanted! And that Joe never taught regular matwork classes (those famous filmed examples at Jacob’s Pillow were one-offs). At the studio, clients worked with the equipment – matwork was the homework! That’s not to say that Jay dwelt in the past. For him, and through him, the classical Pilates tradition is living and breathing. Though not in quite the way many modern Pilates teachers think, apparently. “Pilates is not all about breathing!” Jay repeatedly told us. “Only a few exercises are about breathing. For the others, you breathe as though you were walking down the street.”
I attended the Classical Mat workshop that opened the convention. Consisting of an initial run-through of the mat sequence, a breakdown of the exercises and concluding with a full mat class, this was 5 hours of concentrated hard work. Jay offered tips and cues for most of the exercises in the classical mat, all liberally illustrated with anecdotes, examples and opinions. A master of concision, Jay had an admirably clear and simple approach to teaching. When asked how to teach The Hundred to a beginner, his reply (“just pump your arms”) obviously startled the questioner, who started to wonder out loud about stabilising and use of the pelvic floor. Jay was dismissive of such contemporary concerns. “That’s all BS!” and “Too much pick, pick, picking!” (Jay’s opinion on the fashion for over-correcting in much modern teaching) became oft-repeated mantras. “There’s so much ‘correcting’. Everyone has to start. Just move! And get better. How do you get better? By moving!”
The other workshops on Classical Reformer and Cadillac that I attended developed the same themes. There was plenty of advice for teachers. “Never, ever, ever correct the Footwork” came as a bit of a surprise to me. It made a bit more sense when I remembered that Footwork is the very first exercise in a Classical Reformer class. Apparently Jay uses that time, when the client is just settling down, to observe how their body is moving and to plan what to do in the exercises that follow. Jay’s wonderfully simple approach showed up throughout the sessions. “What makes a good teacher? Learning to keep your eyes open, your mouth shut and knowing which exercises to give.”
Despite my “evolved Pilates” background and training, I warmed to Jay and his co-presenters. Obviously passionate about the method, they clearly feel that Classical Pilates is the most direct, efficient route to achieving the physical fitness aims of Pilates. But still there was a lingering doubt in my mind: this all sounds great for people who are already moderately fit and well, but what about the people who aren’t? Today’s public are encouraged to believe that anyone can do Pilates, so what about people who turn up at studios after a lifetime spent avoiding exercise, or with serious conditions such as MS or Parkinson’s? When asked about how to approach teaching someone with a herniated disc (for example), Jay was – as always – clear on the matter: follow the advice of the medical professionals. As Pilates teachers we are not qualified to diagnose, so Jay does what the person’s doctor (or surgeon, physiotherapist, or whatever) recommends and avoids what they say to avoid. I think we would all agree that to be sensible advice but it does beg other questions.
Jay is quite clear that “Joe’s studio was not a hospital ward. It was a gym! People grunted, sweated, worked”. He also remembered that “Joe never modified exercises”. In Jay’s words: “Don’t change the exercise, change the body”. So where does that leave teachers who do modify exercises in order to allow the less able to attempt them? Does the well-intentioned desire to adapt in order to allow everyone to benefit necessarily dilute the Pilates method to a point where it becomes unrecognisable? Towards the end of the final session I attended, Jay acknowledged (with genuine warmth and generosity, I felt) that many non-Classical teachers do good work and really help people. “I just wish they wouldn’t call it Pilates”, he said.
Thank you to Amy Kellow of Everybody Pilates for letting us use images from the convention and for inviting us to attend the initial day to enjoy the fabulous atmosphere, great presenters and beautiful surroundings that made this convention such a success!
Thank you to Charles for producing such thorough and entertaining review.
Monika at pilatestreemagazine.com