The Pilates family tree: Joe, Clara and the Pilates Elders

Because Pilates has only fairly recently been the focus of media attention, many people don’t realise how long the method has been around and what a rich history it has. Joseph Pilates, who was devising his method back as early as WW1, wanted the whole world to practise his method of ‘Contrology’ as he called it. But in his later years he is said to have descended into black moods, feeling he had failed in his life’s mission. Nearly 50 years after his death, his dream is getting closer to being fulfilled.

The eventual spread of the Pilates Method is largely thanks to the first generation of students – people who trained with Joe and his wife Clara in the early days in their New York studio and then went on to become teachers in their own right. This generation became affectionately known as the ‘Pilates Elders’ and as they themselves have reached old age, I have joined the many in the Pilates community who are eager to meet and work with them whist we still can.

I had the good fortune earlier in the year to spend two days studying with the inspirational Lolita San Miguel, who has just this week turned 80 with fabulous grace. Lolita worked us HARD – and she set the bar pretty high when she started the first morning showing us a perfect Teaser. And then another few just to be clear. Most of us, 40 or 50 years her junior, felt pretty humble at that point.

Over the two days, Lolita put us through our paces with an incredible variety of sequences on the Cadillac (or Trapeze Table) and on the mat. She recalled vividly not only how she had been taught the sequences by Joe, but how other people had been taught differently, and how each of the first generation Elders also put their own stamp on the work as it was passed on.

The more I hear what the Pilates Elders say about their own experiences with Joe, the more it becomes clear to me how his method was adapted to suit each individual. Kathleen Stanford Grant, another of the Elders, who died in 2010, passed on a great deal of wisdom to her protégé Blossom Leilani Crawford. Kathy arrived at Joe’s studio after comprehensive knee surgery, and so her experience of the Pilates work was all focused on the Wunda Chair, with a plethora of exercises to strengthen and restore function to the knees.

Working with Blossom was a great insight into this branch of the work, handed down directly from Kathy. It’s from her that I learned some of the Wunda Chair exercises that bear out the notion (often repeated by my clients) that if something looks really simple and easy and almost nothing, it’s probably going to work your muscles like hell!

Always there is a sense of the passion and drive from each of the Elders, all of them with their own tales to tell and their own unique point of view. And that’s how the method is still spreading - a family tree passing on knowledge from one generation to the next. Not without its familial feuds either, but that’s another story. Lolita referred many times to Joe and Clara Pilates as our ‘professional parents’, and it is ultimately to their dedication and vision that we as Pilates teachers now owe our passions and our livelihoods.

Katharine Moran