Ripe for Reforming? Dancers are Discovering Pilates Strengths and Limits

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John Gossett and Megan Spears
Photo by Tim Lesniak

Pilates has become the workout of choice among many dancers for all the obvious reasons. It helps build alignment and flexibility, lengthens and tones muscles, and helps dancers find their ‘center.’

But as Pilates continues to gain popularity—many dancers now teach it as well as take it—some have started turning to the regime as a shortcut for staying in shape. Working full-time and rehearsing at night (an economic reality for many dancers) puts a strain on attending morning class. What’s more, choices for morning class have diminished in many locales. It’s no surprise that dancers can be all-too-tempted to substitute a Pilates workout for class.

But relying on Pilates can have an impact on overall ability. Bessie Award-winning improvisational choreographer Jennifer Monson has noticed the toll on young dancers with whom she is working. “I see the impact of yoga and Pilates on peoples’ bodies and in their choreography: more unusual shapes and tight torsos,” says Monson. Dancing is three-dimensional, she points out, while Pilates tends toward the linear. The movement sequences are isolated, and performed solo. Although today it varies from studio to studio, traditionally, music usually isn’t used in classes. This can leave dancers who rely on Pilates too much at a disadvantage. “Dance requires musicality and phrasing —and these qualities are not inherent in Pilates exercise programs,” says Elizabeth Larkam, a Pilates teacher in San Francisco who often works with dancers. “Dancers can get fascinated with the biomechanical specificity of their technique, neglecting rhythm and phrasing.”

“Pilates’s limitation is its approach to space and flow,” agrees Karen Donelson, a New York City performing arts physical therapist. “The older dancers I work with notice an increasing lack of musicality in their younger colleagues. By replacing exercise for dancing, are we subtly perceiving and acting in a way that is reducing our ability to express ourselves fully?”
Dancers can’t expect to get everything they need in one place and Pilates’s real potency lies as a companion rather than as an equivalent of a dance class. The list of benefits it offers is impressive: Pilates allows a certain luxury of space, time, and internal awareness. With the exception of mat class, you work alone or one-on-one with a teacher. Dancers finally get off their feet as they are repositioned in gravity on the reformer. “Pilates and dance go hand in hand. It’s the best form of exercise for placement and for building strength in your placement. I casn’t believe some dancers are just coming to it now,” says Houston Ballet prima ballerina Lauren Anderson.

When dancers take Pilates, they explore their limits slowly and gently. Removed from competition and the need to coordinate with other dancers and with music, their self-awareness can have full reign. “Pilates offers dancers a chance to step back a little, to work on placement and technique outside of the structure of class,” says John Gossett, a former Pilates instructor for the Houston Ballet and owner of Pilates Concepts of Houston @ Eastside Studio.
Bryan Peters, a student of Alan Herdman (who studied with Joseph Pilates’s original assistants), trains dancers at the Houston Ballet. He feels Pilates can keep an injured dancer in shape, reducing her recovery time by half, and neutralize an exaggerated placement. Peters stresses the importance of choosing a Pilates teacher with a dance background. “Joseph Pilates was way ahead of his time,” he says. “Without scientific or dance training, he intuited the importance of the core muscles, and the power of internal sensing in executing movement. He is one of the first to bring the mind/body connection to the fitness arena.”

Yet nothing can replace the experience of gliding across the floor, leaping and landing, turning, carving shapes with your limbs, learning combinations and complicated footwork, and listening for the space between notes. Only dancing itself can offer such a promise, and only class can keep dancers in shape to do it.

The piece is reprinted from Dance Magazine, June 2004.

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