with Nora St. John and Al Harrison of Balanced Body
Interviewers: Sharon Thompson (ST), Monica Zarebska (MZ)
Respondents: Nora St. John (NSJ), Al Harrison (AH)
While enjoying yet another fabulous year at Pilates on Tour, back in April 2014, we caught up with Nora and Al to find out more how Pilates on Tour came to be.
ST: We would love to know how, and why, you started this great event?
NSJ: Pilates on Tour came out off a conference I was already doing with a colleague from Body Mind Spirit in 2002. At the time that was the really big Pilates conference in the U.S. One day I had this idea of wanting to bring all my favourite teachers together. So no big venue, no big numbers – just teachers. I mentioned this idea to this gal, who has a conference production background and told her this at lunch on Saturday and she came on Sunday and said I have the Santa Clara Convention Center booked for a year from now!
NSJ: She told me – It’s ten rooms, 750 people, and I was like…really?…okay…So then I was off and running with programming Pilates conferences and because they really, hadn’t happened before I just called up all my friends and said: Okay so you teach Mat and you teach this and you teach that and would you like to teach? It was also thanks to Al, my husband here, he put together a database to manage registration.
Al put together this database and figured out how to register 750 people for different classes from all over the world. And at that point I’d known Kenny (Endleman) from Balanced Body since I began teaching Pilates in 1989 in San Francisco, so I called him and said “I have an idea to do this big conference and can you bring a whole load of Pilates equipment for us”? …and he was foolish enough to say yes! Neither of us had done anything like this before.
We agreed to have Balanced Body as the exclusive equipment supplier, it made a lot of sense and they were willing to do it. They were also close as San Francisco and Sacramento are only two hours apart. We did this for 3 years and then for a variety of reason we didn’t continue with that project. Al and I then came up with a business plan for Pilates on Tour and take a conference all over the country (and world).
NSJ: In fact I called up Kenny and said I just want to let you know I’m done with Body Mind and Spirit, I’m not going to do that anymore and he said, which is very unlike Kenny ‘What’s next?’ And I said well I have this other idea…..
Then we started Pilates on Tour in 2004. The first event was San Francisco in July and then we did New York and Los Angeles that same year. We did eight the next year…
MZ: So you are the mother and father of Pilates on Tour? 🙂
NSJ: We are. Yes, it’s fantastic actually. Then I think the first international event we did was…Rome? Or was it Hong Kong? So yes, although we’re a US company we sell in different countries also because, of course, Pilates is big everywhere. I’m not going to say we sell a lot in those countries but we sell something in a lot of countries…
Al Harrison: We have had people asking us for years to bring the event to ‘them’. Everywhere in the world. But sometimes it’s hard to bring it to them, you can see all the equipment we have in use here at this event ( London 2014) and that would have to be shipped somewhere. We also have to store it and get it in and out of venues. So we need to go to places where it’s possible to do that. So for that first event we had a really great distributer in Rome who said they could support us. And we need that support because ofthe language barrier. Customer service, for example, is really important and we can’t do that without translation.
MZ: How do you find the dynamics of the event from one place to another – is it different doing it in the States to doing it in Europe – do you have to adjust it a little bit?
NSJ: You know it’s oddly not that different. I’ve travelled all over with Pilates and teachers are kind of the same everywhere. They are always curious, interested in the body, always interested in new stuff. I mean they always love Pilates on Tour because we bring equipment, so it’s not just a Mat conference which many of them now are. So they really get to play and they really get to be on a Reformer, Cadillac and Chair. Of course we certainly notice little differences so, for example, in Asia generally, they learn in a different way in which they’re interested in being part of things, you find very dedicated students who learn absolutely everything you say and commit it to memory. Very studious. It’s a very different learning style.
AH: The ratio of male to female students in Asia is also higher than in other places. There are always a lot more men doing Pilates than compared to somewhere like the UK. We also notice that in other countries, for instance, we go to Turkey in Istanbul there are also a lot of men, they make up something like 30% of our event.
ST: That surprises me.
AH: Well Pilates is considered a guy thing there. That’s an example of some of the kinds of changes we notice. The other thing that is interesting is, especially when we come somewhere for the first time, there is a certain energy about the event. Then we come the second time and the energy is very different, the first time everyone is trying to figure out who’s who and what’s where, then they show up the second time and they’re already best friends. This means that the atmosphere kind of softens up each time we visit a place again.
Nora explains that the Tour gives a teacher an opportunity to consider what they love, whether it be one to one training, group training, they get the opportunity to explore an element that they may not have thought about before. She says it can take some years of teaching to find what you truly love..
MZ: If someone trains with you do they then need to follow the ‘franchise mothership’?
NSJ: No. We have our particular approach because we’re Balanced Body, but all of our students can take contuing education anywhere they want. They could take it with STOTT, Body Control, Michael King… with Pro Star with an osteopath college or whatever.
MZ: That’s an interesting approach. Often, if you take up teacher training with certain schools you have to follow that particular format but you allow for that bit of freedom and independence of thinking …
NSJ: I think that’s important and that’s how I trained.
MZ: If someone wants to become a teacher trainer for Balanced Body – how does that work?
NSJ: Pilates is our foundation basic programme, we also have CoreAlign which is a three module programme, MOTR which is a two day programme and Bohdi suspension system and Barre which are also two day programmes. Then there is Anatomy in Three Dimensions – so we have all those that we teach. To get to a Faculty position, people generally come to us but sometimes we approach them. Myself, or one of my closest colleagues and master instructors, will then teach them how to teach it to students. So they do repertoire, they do teaching practice, we do a lot of a lot of teaching drills, they do presentations which we then critique them on. The focus is always teaching the craft of Pilates but also teaching the principles behind it. I always look for people who are not just regular teachers but educators.
Nora tells us a bit about her history and that she started at St Frances Hospital in 1988 as a client and then she started teaching. It was very much a medical environment and Pilates was very new on the West Coast and she taught to the body in front of her.
NSJ I started with Romana, studied with Carola , and with Eve Gentry quite a bit, Alan Herdman, and a man named Jean Claude West who is a Californian – We started Pilates the traditional way with all those elders and other people but we also basically did what we needed to do in the studio. I personally learned that Pilates is a very modifiable system which is the principles of good movement. So, for example, if I was going to get somebody’s core to activate but they couldn’t flex their spine, or lift their head, or flex their knees – how was I going to do that? It was a learning process with no manuals. You would go to the seminars and you would make crazy drawings and you hope remembered everything.That’s pretty much how it was at that time. I trained by just working with a million clients for a million years and trying to make Pilates work for them and make their move pattern better within a Pilates environment. It wasn’t learning in a particularly dogmatic fashion and that wasn’t and isn’t, my style.
ST: Tell us a little bit more about Al and Nora… We’ve heard all about the Pilates and now we want to hear about you, a skeleton in the cupboard perhaps?
AH: I think I picked the wrong table to lunch on!
NSJ: Well here we go… I’m cranky when I’m not in public, most people thing I’m the calmest person in the world because they only see me in public. So this is like my secret, my public face is one way and those I work with closely and who know me see another side.
ST: I think we’re all a bit like that aren’t we?
AH: She’s not actually…she’s always good. (all laugh). I love to bicycle and Ken Endelaman I do a big charity ride each year for the Lymphoma and Leukemia Foundation.
MZ: Do have a hobby or different activity that you do together?
NSJ: We cook. I love to cook and also I love being outside actually. More, I think, than most Pilates instructors. It seems many would prefer the five star hotel to the camping experience and I’m kind of a camper. I love being outside. Al and I, we walked the El Camino de Santiago 500 miles across the north of Spain for our 50th Birthdays.
ST: How long did that take?
NSJ: About 35 days…it’s like 12 – 18 miles a day.
AH: 800 km, 500 miles…
MZ: That’s amazing!
ST: So what’s the next thing? Is there something else in the pipeline?
AH: There’s no magical products. If you look at our strategy, we’ve got Pilates and then we’ve added things like CoreAlign we’ve added things like MOTR and Bodhi. But what’s really cool is that we’re adding them all in with a Pilates sensibility so it’s not like we just need a rope system. For example there’s things you can do on a suspension system that you can’t do on a Pilates machine and if you approach the suspension system with a Pilates sensibility you’re doing the same work your just using a different tool and it’s not like you now need to think just suspension, you’re not thinking Suspension, your just thinking about the principles. So we’ve been adding things in that support and grow Pilates and over time we’ll add more things. There isn’t a huge next step at this point.
NSJ: We’re more interested in absorbing what we have, and where we are, at this moment to be quite honest with you.
ST: We can see that the events are definitely getting bigger and bigger with more people each year which is great! Will you definitely be coming back to the UK next year?
ST: Excellent! We look forward to seeing you.
To register for Pilates on Tour 2015 click on the image below: