The number of people who remember Joe Pilates is, naturally, diminishing. Whenever a Pilates “elder” (one of Joes’s original students) is present, the elephant in the room must surely be the unspoken question: “How long will we still have people able to do this?”. Fortunately, at Balanced Body Pilates on Tour this year, we had Ken Endelman to break the ice for us by asking exactly that as he warmly introduced Lolita San Miguel for a series of workshops in London. She smiled.
Lolita shows no obvious signs of slowing down. A dynamo of energy, at one of the workshops I attended she obviously felt that the examples of the Teaser exercise she was observing from the group were below par. “No, no, no – like this!” she said, as she demonstrated an impeccable full version (complete with lowering and lifting the legs) to a room filled with Pilates teachers, most of whom were less than half her age.
Nobody could ever accuse Lolita San Miguel of doing things by half. While working as a dancer, an injury led her to Pilates and, eventually, to training as a teacher with Carola Trier. At her friend and colleague Kathy Grant’s suggestion, the two of them went to meet Joe Pilates to ask him to certify them. Laughing as she tells the story, Lolita recalls that she didn’t even know Joe Pilates was alive at that time, let alone living and working two blocks from Carola’s studio where she had been working. She spent six months working with Joe – four hours a day, five days a week. “Joe and Clara worked hard. They were very humble people”, Lolita remembers. Joe’s studio was a place to work – rather dirty, in fact, and in complete contrast to the spotless efficiency that she had become used to at Carola Trier’s studio. Lolita used to arrive at the studio at 2pm, she says, because she realised that, by then, Joe had “finished his lunch, had his schnapps and a nap, and was in a much better mood”. Although Joe was still generally healthy when she knew him, Lolita remembers he had arthritis and “a terrible cough – he smoked 17 cigars a day!” Interestingly, Lolita says Clara was the better teacher – much more patient than Joe. “Joe had good days and bad”. One day, when he was in a low mood he said “Time is running out for me and I haven’t accomplished what I wanted”.
Lolita seems determined not to let that happen to her. She recounts the story of how, on being asked by a teacher in Dusseldorf if she would visit and teach there, she agreed only after discovering that it was close to Joe’s birthplace of Monchengladbach . After a huge amount of effort, battling local bureaucracy and lack of interest (no one in his home town at the time knew who Joe was), Lolita commemorated Joe’s birthplace with a plaque and organised an international Pilates conference to celebrate.
Lolita has done so much. Quite apart from her history and achievements in Pilates, she founded and directed (for 27 years) Puerto Rico’s leading ballet company and school. However, as she recounted her memories of the early days, it struck me that her gift to the future of Pilates is at least as powerful as her illustrious past. Looking to the future, Lolita launched her successful Pilates Master Mentor Program, through which more that 100 second-generation teachers from all over the world have graduated. Never one to rest on her laurels, her next step was to start a Teacher Training Program which she called “Lolita’s Legacy.” And what a wonderful legacy she is giving us.
At Pilates on Tour in London, I was fortunately enough to attend workshops that Lolita gave on the matwork and Cadillac Repertoire. The repertoire was a mixture of classic “Joe originals”, mixed with other exercises including Carola Trier’s, Kathy Grant’s and Lolita’s own variations. Some exercises had similarities to ballet exercises and floorbarre work. It was strong work, delivered with an unfussy but detailed manner. Hers is not an elitist approach. “I have never begun a mat class with The Hundred”, she said. In fact, we were give a full 20+ exercises of warming up before arriving at The Hundred. Obviously in Lolita’s view, Pilates is for everybody. We spent some time discussing the ways in which exercises could be modified to suit a variety of clients. In the introduction to her mat class she says it is “for all of those who enjoy movement as essential to life in every stage of our lives”. Lolita certainly appears determined to ensure that the spirit of Pilates will never diminish. And she never stops: her next goal is to commemorate Joe’s original studio in New York. After 56 years of practice, Lolita still does Pilates every day. “Whatever the problem, Pilates fixes it”, she smiles.