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The pas de deux of Pilates

How ballet has shaped Pilates
How ballet has shaped Pilates

There is no denying. Pilates looks like ballet. Especially people without a movement background notice that immediately. And yes, there is definitely a strong historical relationship between the two practises.

Float on the apparatus

Vigorous gracious movements, strong and flexible bodies who seem to be able to float over the stage. It is beautiful to watch and the easier it looks to the untrained eye, the harder the ballet dancer will have trained. Practising Pilates has definitely similar elements. The way we stand, move our limbs, work with balance and control and how we float on the apparatus.

It is therefore no surprise that quite a few ex-ballet dancers (have) become pilates teachers or have set up their own studios. It makes sense considering the countless similarities. Not to mention, like in the old Joseph Pilates days, doing Pilates was - and in a lot of cases still is - part of ballet training.

However I noticed not every ballet dancer makes a good pilates teacher. You may know everything about movement but you might not necessarily know how to behave in social settings, know how to truely motivate people or how to run a business. Skills you learn in other environments much better.

Joseph vs Romana

Probably the biggest influence that ballet had on Pilates comes from a woman named Romana Kryzanowska. She studied ballet while studying at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet in New York, when she suffered an ankle injury, and was taken to Joseph Pilates to see if exercise rather than an operation would resolve the problem. The exercises were a success, and she continued to study with Joseph. Romana and her daughter continued to operate Joseph Pilates' original studio after his death in 1967. Read more on Romana.

Now Joseph Pilates was far from a ballet dancer. When he designed his system of exercises he was influenced by animals, children and his own experience as a boxer, acrobat and weight lifter. After Joseph opened a fitness studio in New York in the 1930s he shared an address with the New York City Ballet. By the early 1960s, Joe and Clara could count many New York dancers among their clients. George Balanchine studied “at Joe’s,” as he called it, and also invited Pilates to instruct his young ballerinas at the New York City Ballet. Read more on Joe.

To be clear, the original Pilates method, including x-number of exercises in a specific order on various pieces of equipment, was designed by Joseph and not by Romana. However she added exercises to the authentic order of which she felt they would make the method better. You could say they were influenced by her ballet background. Depending on which teacher training program you now chose to do, you will either follow the ‘Joseph’ order or the ‘Romana’ order or sometimes a mix to confuse things even more.

No performance

The large amount of teachers having a sole movement background - ie. not having worked outside the movement industry - in the Pilates arena has implications on how we interact with each other and with clients. As in any sector, it is sometimes better to have a look outside your comfort zone and realise what skills you might lack in or what behaviour needs to be toned down a bit.

In my studio I make it quite clear I have none of those backgrounds, nor do I need to. Teaching Pilates for me is not doing a stage performance but trying to stay true to the original method. It is about giving clients mobility (again) and making them stronger and more centred. You do not have to have a ballet or movement background for that.


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Marco Dingemans is a qualified Classical Pilates instructor and Studio Director of ArrowPilates


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