An Animated History of Pilates

Who is Joseph Pilates?

Joseph Pilates, born in 1880 near Dusseldorf, Germany, was the creator of the ‘Pilates’ method of exercise.  Joe was frail as a child, suffering from asthma, rickets and rheumatic fever.  However, he managed to overcome his physical limitations by developing his own programme of exercise and bodybuilding.  He was so successful that he eventually excelled in many sports, including skiing, diving and gymnastics, and as a 14-year-old even worked as a model for anatomical drawings.  In 1912, Joe moved to England where he worked as a self-defense instructor for detectives at Scotland Yard.  Unfortunately, the outbreak of World War I saw Joe interned in the UK as an ‘enemy alien’ along with other German nationals.  However, Joe used his internment as an opportunity to refine his ideas and train other internees in his system of exercise.  He even rigged springs to hospital beds, enabling bedridden patients to exercise against resistance, an innovation that led to his subsequent equipment designs.  When an influenza epidemic struck England in 1918 killing thousands of people, not a single one of Joe’s trainees died. This, he claimed, testified to the effectiveness of his system.

After his release, Joe returned to Germany.  His exercise method gained favor in the dance community there, primarily through Rudolf von Laban.  Laban was a Hungarian dance theorist, dancer, choreographer and teacher and founding figure of Central European modern dance.  He was the creator of ‘Labanotation’, the system of dance notation most frequently used today.  German-American choreographer and dancer Hanya Holm adopted many of Joe’s exercises in her programme, and they are still part of the ‘Holm Technique.’  When Joe was asked to teach his fitness system to the German army, he decided to leave Germany permanently and in 1923 he emigrated to the United States. During the voyage, he met Clara, a nurse, whom he later married.  Joe and Clara opened a fitness studio in New York, sharing an address with the New York City Ballet.

Mr. Popular gains followers

By the early 1960s, Joe and Clara could count among their clients many New York City dancers. George Balanchine referred to the studio as ‘Joe’s’, and invited Pilates to instruct his young ballerinas at the New York City Ballet.  In fact, ‘Pilates’ was becoming popular outside New York City as well.  As the New York Herald Tribune noted in 1964, ‘in dance classes around the United States, hundreds of young students limber up daily with an exercise they know as a ‘pilates’, without knowing that the word has a capital ‘P’, and a living, breathing namesake.’  While Joe was still alive, only two of his students, Carola Trier and Bob Seed, are known to have opened their own studios.  Trier, who had an extensive dance background, found her way to the United States after she fled a Nazi holding camp in France.  She found Joe Pilates in 1940, when a non-stage injury pre-empted her performing career.  Joe Pilates assisted Trier in opening her own studio in the late 1950s.  Joe, Clara and Carola remained close friends until their respective deaths.


Joe continued to train clients at his studio until his death in 1967 at the age of 87.  In the 1970s, Hollywood celebrities discovered Pilates via Ron Fletcher’s studio in Beverly Hills.  Where the stars go, the media follows.  In the late 1980s, the media began to cover Pilates extensively.  The public took note, and the Pilates business boomed.  ‘I’m fifty years ahead of my time,’ Joe once claimed.  He was right.  No longer the workout of the elite, Pilates has entered the fitness mainstream.  Today, millions of people around the world practice Pilates exercise, and the numbers continue to grow.

2nd Generation of Many Mini-Joe's

When Joe passed away, he left no will, and had designated no line of succession for the ‘Pilates’ work to carry on.  In spite of that, his work continued.  Clara continued to operate what was already known as the ‘Pilates’ Studio on Eighth Avenue in New York City.  Romana Kryzanowska became the director of this original studio around 1970.  Kryzanowska had studied with Joe and Clara in the early 1940s and then, after a fifteen-year hiatus due to a move to Peru, re-commenced her studies.

Several students of Joe and Clara went on to open their own studios.  Ron Fletcher was a Martha Graham dancer who studied and consulted with Joe from the 1940s onward in connection with a chronic knee problem. Fletcher opened his studio in Los Angeles in 1970, where he attracted many Hollywood stars.  Clara was particularly enamored with Ron and she gave her blessing to him to carry on the ‘Pilates’ work and name.  Like Carola Trier, Fletcher brought some innovations and advancements to the ‘Pilates’ work.  His evolving variations on ‘Pilates’ were inspired both by his years as a Martha Graham dancer and by another mentor, Yeichi Imura.  Kathy Grant and Lolita San Miguel were also students of Joe and Clara who went on to become teachers.  Grant took over the direction of the Bendel’s studio (a small Pilates studio had been created within Bendel’s department store in New York City where Kathy worked) in 1972, while San Miguel went on to teach Pilates at Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rica in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  In 1967, just before Joe’s death, both Grant and San Miguel were awarded certificates by the State University of New York (SUNY) to teach ‘Pilates’.  SUNY had created a special program to help dancers make the transition into new careers, and the awarding of certification was a requirement to get funding.  These two are believed to be the only ‘Pilates’ practitioners ever to be certified officially by Joe. 

Other students of Joe and Clara who opened their own studios include: Eve Gentry, Bruce King, Mary Bowen and Robert Fitzgerald.  Eve Gentry, a dancer who taught at the Pilates Studio in New York from 1938 through 1968, also taught ‘Pilates’ in the early 60s at New York University in the Theater Department.  After she left New York, she opened her own studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Gentry was a founding faculty member of the High School for the Performing Arts, as well as a co-founder of the Dance Notation Bureau.  In 1979, she was given the ‘Pioneer of Modern Dance Award’ by Bennington College. Bruce King trained for many years with Joseph and Clara Pilates and was a member of the Merce Cunningham Company, Alwyn Nikolais Company, and his own Bruce King Dance Company.  In the mid-1970s, King opened his own studio at 160 W. 73rd Street in New York City.  Mary Bowen, a Jungian analyst who studied with Joe in the mid-1960s, began teaching Pilates in 1975 and founded ‘Your Own Gym’ in Northampton, Massachusetts.  Robert Fitzgerald opened his studio in New York on West 56th Street in the 60s, where he had a large clientele from the dance community.