In spite of the worldwide popularity of Pilates, there is still an aura of mystery and discrepancy surrounding its inventor, Joseph Pilates and the history of his life. Here are a few truths I have unearthed and some insights into his work from his students. It is commonly stated and written in many Pilates books that Joseph was born in Monchengladbach in 1880 but his naturalisation papers filed in New York state he was born on 10th December 1883 and this is supported by his birth certificate.
It is often claimed that he suffered as a child from various diseases and conditions such as rickets, asthma and rheumatic fever. Yet he himself stated in apparent contradiction to this,
"I must be right. Never an aspirin never injured a day in my life."
It could be this rumour began in the 1920s when the mind-body movement became extremely popular and magazines such as "Vim" were full of stories of disease-ridden childhoods inspiring exercise regimes which changed lives.
Little known is the fact that he was married at least twice but there is no record of a legal marriage between himself and Clara, in fact on a passenger manifest in 1938 his marital status is declared as single. From his first marriage he had a daughter affectionately known as Leni who visited him in New York.
A fantastic article by Sharry Underwood in Dance magazine, fondly recalls her memories of Joe Pilates at Jacobs Pillow, a famous dance camp where he and Clara spent every summer from 1939-1951. She describes early morning classes where,
"Under Pilates' care I gave birth to three vertebrae I had never felt before, correcting my alignment (lordotic). Joe was famous for correcting back problems saying " You are as strong as your weakest vertebrae, like a ladder with a broken rung"
She ends the article by stating,
"Once you have learned Pilates it becomes a conscience for your body the rest of your life....At 88 I still have my own knees and can bend to place my hands on the floor"
Joseph's legacy continues to grow and evolve. The secret behind its popularity and appeal lies in its versatility and adaptability. As Mary Bowen said,
" Joe was not rigid. In the six years that I was at his studio, I often created exercises and variations in his presence which he allowed. He affirmed a creative approach to his principles. Some Pilates participants seem to have forgotten this. Joe's reminder to me was "Just be sure that you are always aware of the whole body at all times no matter what you do" The Pilates Method is all about wholeness."
Photograph by I.C. "Chuck" Rapoport 1961
Posted with many thanks to the amazing Tacye Lynette!