Joseph Pilates was born in Germany and as a young boy, he suffered with ill-health including rickets, asthma and rheumatic fever. He was determined to overcome his weaknesses and studied many forms of exercises before becoming an accomplished body builder, a wrestler, gymnast, boxer, skier and diver. Pilates also studied Eastern practices and Zen Buddhism and was inspired by the ancient Greek ideal of man perfected in their development of body, mind and spirit.
He came to Britain in early 1900 and worked closely with the British Police Force, developing their fitness regimes and self defence methods. When World War 1 broke out he was interned on the Isle of Man and whilst captive in the POW camp, he really started to develop his unique exercise system using springs from iron beds, weights and pulleys.
After the war, Pilates returned to Germany, working closely with the great Rudolph Von Laban. He also worked closely with Mikhail Barishnikov, George Balanchine, Hanya Holm and many others from the dance community. Pilates had earned a reputation within the dance world that his exercise method could help the dancers reduce their risk of injury and rehabilitate their bodies. Moving to New York in 1926, his reputation preceded him and he continued to work with professional dancers, gymnasts and the general public. Many Pilates teachers working in Great Britain and around the world today are ex-dancers who fully appreciate the value of his method.
Pilates developed his eight principles, which are still taught today and are the very essence of what he was striving to achieve. These principles can easily be linked with dancers’ aims through their training, practice and final performance:
Concentration – The ability to focus on the movement or area of the body being exercised, blocking out everything around and connecting your mind with your body
Breathing – Allowing the breath to move wide and full into the back and ribs, maximising the use of the lower part of the lungs to increase oxygen intake and propel strong and energetic movement
Centering – creating strong core muscles around the centre of the body encourages and assists the maintenance of good posture which includes developing a strong back, which in turn is where the start of all arm movements come from. Strong core muscles are essential for everyone, especially dancers. Without a strong ‘centre’, a dancer will struggle to execute movements well
Precision (quality) – focus should be on the precision of movement placement. A dancer should strive to execute each movement performed carefully and precisely, using their focus and concentration to ensure superb quality of movement is achieved at all times
Flow (flowing movement) – each exercise should flow into the next, making movement appear effortless and graceful; there should be no beginning and no end
Body awareness – being aware of how your body feels and moves correctly (without relying on the use of mirrors) and having spacial awareness are all skills that a dancer requires
Stamina – a dancer can build up their endurance and strength, resulting in improved stamina through repetitive movement and increasing the complexity and difficulty of the exercise. An increase in stamina will enable a dancer to perform for longer without tiring
Relaxation – allowing your body to relax and release unwanted tension. Dancers work hard when training and performing, but an audience doesn’t want to see how difficult each movement can be – no tension should be shown
The Pilates principles complement instructions and corrections given by all dance teachers within their classes, whatever genre is being taught. Every dancer should be determined to improve their technique and performance and studying the Pilates method can certainly help achieve this goal.
Unlike other exercises, Pilates and dance keep muscles long and lean. After consistently participating in other sports, one may find themselves bulking up in only certain areas of their body. Pilates and dance are quite the opposite. The weight that dancers lift is the weight of their own body or limbs. Unless lifting a partner, most exercises are facilitated through restraint and resistant exercises. Therefore, all muscles stay long and lean. The whole body receives attention typically because one muscle helps participate in activating the other.
The mind is unarguably the most important ingredient when training in both Pilates and dance. The mind is capable of allowing the body to do almost anything. After learning the basics of technique, the body understands the core concepts of general movement. With these tools, more and more vocabulary can be taught, allowing the body to naturally move with ease, heal and tone. Without the mind understanding the vocabulary to its maximum capacity, the body will not be trained properly.
Pilates classes are included within the timetable at most major dance colleges throughout the UK as a form of exercise that can improve a dancers flexibility and strength and equally prevent injury.