Interview with Rachel Taylor Segel

Tell us a bit about you

I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, in the mid west of America. I have two siblings and my sister, Amy Taylor Alpers, who is my partner, is 6 years younger than I. We both were ballet dancers  and lucky to have good teachers and ambitious ones – who put on annual Nutcrackers and tours of the local region. We had a lot of performance experience through high school. I gave up on dance for a while and when Amy graduated she went to Julliard in New York City and worked as a professional dancer.

I moved to Boulder, Colorado in 1973 and started dancing again and began teaching ballet; for about 11 years I was the director of a dance school outside Denver.  Then in 1986 I moved to New York City where my sister and my brother, , were living. My brother ,who is 4 years younger than I am, works for the UN. I came to New York not to dance but to learn Pilates, My sister – bless her always! –  was integral in helping me get settled and also in helping me find a job with her at the Lincoln Center Dance Collection Library. I also taught ballet at the Alvin Ailey School.

As I said, one of my main reasons for coming to New York was to study Pilates with Romana Kryzanowska –  and we both are so glad we did. We feel really fortunate to have gone to her first, and also to have gone in the years that we did because she was so happy and so generous and none of the political stuff had happened yet. Both Amy and I studied Pilates every week, 3 times a week.

After about 2 ½ years I got married then moved back to Boulder when our job at the Library was over.  All those many years before New York, my sister and her husband would visit me in Boulder and would always say. “When we leave New York we are coming here”. So, finally, they moved to Boulder also.

One day in the spring of 1990,  Amy and I were sitting on her front porch swing, like little kids, talking about what we wanted to do, what kind of  jobs did we wanted to do. Amy was teaching ballet, I didn’t want to do that anymore, and then she said she wanted to open a Pilates studio, so I agreed to help her.  What had stopped us until then , was the difficulty getting studio equipment. The west coast equipment did not work with classical Pilates; you had to do so many modifications that it just wasn’t an option. Back then, Romana seemed to keep it secret who built her equipment. Then one day Amy went back to New York to catch up with friends and take some Pilates lessons when she bumped into Steve Giordano carrying a barrel under his arm – he was one of Romana’s teachers and was, I think, in charge of a Pilates studio in a dance school in a New York college.

Steve was given permission by Romana to make equipment. And he was taking all the designs and dimensions straight from her original Joe equipment in the New York studio.  So Amy met him, talked with him and the outcome was that he would make all of our equipment. He would even come to Boulder to make it here as well as help us begin our teacher training programme the next year. We were so excited I cannot explain! He already had experience teaching/apprenticing new teachers and was going to help Romana formalise her teacher training, which up to this point had been apprenticeship-based. Anyway, we still have a couple of our original equipment in the studio today! They were fabulous.

At the same time he was helping Romana build a teaching training programme he introduced Romana to Sean Gallagher who became her business partner and was the one who eventually caused the law suit.……

So Steve stayed with us for about 3 years and then he returned to New York to teach, and Amy and I were on our own! For those first three years or so, Romana would come once or twice a year to do the lectures in our studios.  She would teach our lectures and we would learn how she was doing it, and she would do the examinations for our programme, and we were apprenticing with her to do that.

When Sean became her business partner he started sending cease and desist letters to people who  said they taught Pilates. He was trying to defend some previous Pilates trademarks that he had bought from Wee Tai Hom and therefore he said that  if someone used the name “Pilates”, they had to pay him money. And because we were graduates of Romana’s-  we had her name signed on our diplomas with her previous partner, Wee Tai Hom, we were not going to pay Sean any money to keep up our “certification” as he called it at the time, and so we were kind of  ex communicated. Every year he would send us one of these letters but he never sued us. This was because Romana’s previous business partner owed Amy some money, about $1500,  for some reformers and we had proof of this, so we wrote Wee Tai a letter and we said for that $1500 dollars we wanted the use of the name Pilates  “because we are going to call ourselves The Pilates Center, we want you to sign a letter that says that that’s ok”,  and so he did!  During the entire court proceedings, we were on neutral ground, like Switzerland during the war, because we had this letter that said we could teach Pilates, we could use the word Pilates in our marketing even though we were not part of Sean’s organisation.  Eventually he lost that law suit and the word Pilates became generic – for better or for worse.

Here in the UK there is a lot of talk about classical Pilates and often its interpreted as – if you are not classical,  you are really not practising Pilates. What is your interpretation of classical and do you consider yourself classical? 

We do consider ourselves classical, absolutely, because we believe in Joe’s original method and in Romana, although the term “classical” is new in the field of Pilates, Romana didn’t use that word; Joe certainly never used that word, Pilates was Pilates. After the law suit was done and the word became generic anybody could say they taught Pilates and anybody did.  Romana was very upset about that, as were we actually. Because we had spent a lot of time and effort and money and everything else to become well-trained as teachers and so many people were saying they were Pilates teachers and took a day workshop or a two day workshop or even a two week workshop –  it didn’t matter, or took a mat workshop and thought they were Pilates teachers. So the word classical Pilates came about, not even I think from Romana’s group but maybe from some of her graduates. It was developed to show the difference between people who studied with Romana or someone like her, who did not change the work and were committed to teaching exactly as Joe had taught the work. That was her commitment, always from beginning to end (whether she changed something or not) was that this was Joe’s work . She would say,“I’m not the creator I am only teaching what he taught.” Where as many of the other elders went their own direction with Pilates, built their own such as Fletcher work, Gentry work – Cathy Grant would always say ‘I do whatever I can to get dancers back on the stage, and then when their injuries are almost healed, then I start teaching them Pilates’. So the difference  is that classical Pilates teachers  learned everything, all the equipment and all the exercises (of course new ones always keep coming up from archival film,) but this term differentiates  them from people who were creating exercises based on Pilates as they went. Originally it was east coast versus west coast, it was that simple, and people from the west coast worked out of St Francis hospital and had much more of a PT approach to their Pilates, but eventually it was even more generic than that.

If you were a classical teacher, you did the series in the order Joe had laid down,  with breath and the tempo, and you read Return to Life  and you knew about Joe Pilates. Many people didn’t even know who Joe Pilates was and  yet they were supposedly teaching Pilates. So classical Pilates teachers always were the ones who thought of it as full body, aerobic, very much breath oriented, with great mental awareness not pulled apart or done slowly,  – it was a method that they were not going to play around with.

I respect teachers who teach good movement that is Pilates based, and I think yay, human beings are learning good movement – whether they call it Pilates or not at least they are learning good movement. I have grown more generous around that myself. But also I do believe that if someone learns the classical work first, and they learn it from a good teacher, then they have so vast a library of material that they don’t need to make up new exercises – they are satisfied with the tool they already own and rightly so.  In my 24 years of teaching I have maybe made up two things and I can directly  trace them from another exercise. I have never felt the need to do it. I think that is because I trained with Romana first and I knew it as a method and I knew how to integrate the equipment,  I had the freedom to modify if needed, but because I knew so many exercises I didn’t need to create new ones.

You have travelled all over the world, how do you still keep filling people with passion and keeping the passion yourself?

Well I keep doing Pilates myself with as much of a fresh mind as possible and playfully as I can even though I don’t mean it to sound like I am not caring at all – I am very present and specific but explorative when I do my work, and I am explorative when I teach my clients, so I expect to learn something every time I teach and that keeps me excited. I love teaching teachers, and that keeps me excited.  Amy and I have a mission for our business, which is to really change the world by empowering people through Pilates and we do that on a day to day basis with clients and with teachers.

When you are at home do you tend to teach more to Pilates teachers or the public?

It’s probably about 50/ 50.

I know this is a difficult one, especially when you have got so many exercises at your disposal,  but if you had to pick one exercise that you hate because you know it’s good for you and also the exercise  that makes you go ‘ahh, that’s so good ’.

Well, I would say my favourite mat exercise now is the Boomerang because it’s so full body it is hard to do, but you’re moving all of you  in different ways at the same time and it is increasing readily, your abilities, and so much is happening that you can’t over think it. That’s what I really appreciate about the advanced work in general  in Pilates. The exercise that I sort of hate would be something like Stomach Jumps on the high barrel because I just don’t do it, so I am just a little nervous about doing it. But, mostly if I am not in good enough shape at any given time of my week, month, year, I do the lesser exercises but I think of them as advanced. I think of them as the boomerang or as the inversions.

Do you have any hobbies?rachel taylor segel

Well I have two children so I don’t really have any hobbies right now. My oldest is a sophomore in college and my youngest is  16, so I am still really involved with their lives particularly my high schooler and I run a business with my sister and travel all over and teach. So really no, I don’t have any time for hobbies! But before, I used to garden and I like to paint.

Maybe you will get back to that one day.

Maybe I will! 

Is there anything you could tell us that no one else knows about you? 

I love sports cars, I don’t have one now but my first car was a Triumph Spitfire, my second was an Alfa Romeo, my third was a Masda RX 7, I did have a serviceableToyota in there somewhere. My fourth was a Miata!

Rachel Taylor Segel, teacher trainer and co owner, along with her sister Amy Taylor Alpers, at The Pilates Center, Boulder, Colorado.

Thank you so much it has been really lovely meeting you.

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Sharon Thompson, co-founder of Sharon has been teaching Pilates for 9 years and has always had an interest in sport, fitness & nutrition. She found the regular practice of Pilates was the only thing that really eased her back & neck pain, so she decided to teach and share the Pilates secret. She also has a passing interest in