Joseph Pilates 1883 to 1967
Joseph Pilates was born in Germany in 1883. His father was a gymnast and mother a naturopath. As a child, Joe Pilates was plagued by asthma, rickets, and rheumatic fever. He was often teased for being so frail. Intent on becoming healthy, Joe studied anatomy and movement. He worked on his stamina and physical strength. By the time he was 14, he was in such prime condition he was asked to model for illustrations in anatomical charts. He self taught himself to excel in wrestling, gymnasts, boxing, skiing and diving.
While living in England working as a circus performer and boxer, Joe was forced into an internment camp in England at the outbreak of WWI because he was German born. Keeping a positive attitude, Joe started teaching his fellow internees wrestling and self defense. This fitness training led him to work with rehabilitating detainees who were suffering from diseases and injuries in the camp’s hospital. To assist him in training, he adapted the beds with springs, straps and pulleys. These were the beginnings of the equipment we use today in pilates studios.
After WWI, Joseph Pilates briefly returned to Germany where his reputation as a physical trainer/healer preceded him. In Germany, he worked briefly for the Hamburg Military Police in self-defense and physical training. In 1925, he was asked to train the German army. Sensing the changing political climate and it’s effect on his practice, he decided to move to the USA. During his journey Joe met Clara, a nurse, who would become his wife. He and Clara moved to New York City and opened a studio at 939 Eighth Avenue in 1926.
The studio put him in close proximity to a number of dance studios, which led to his “discovery” by the dance community. Many dancers of New York depended on Pilates method training for the strength and grace it developed in the practitioner, as well as the rehabilitative benefits. Joe trained dancers and choreographers such as George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Jerome Robbins and Ted Shaw. In the summers from 1939 to 1951 he taught at Jacobs Pillow dance camp in the Berkshire Mountains.
Soon his studio became the Fitness Center of NYC. Prominent and famous New Yorkers such as Katherine Hepburn, Sir Laurence Olivier, Jean Vanderbilt, Gugenheims and Gimbels all did mat and equipment training with Joe and Clara Pilates. In 1966, a fire erupted in a back storage room of the building. When Joe went back to inspect, the floorboards gave out. He was able to grip a floor beam and pull himself back up – at 86 years old.
Joseph Pilates passed away in 1967. No one knows for sure his cause of death, but some sources say it could have been from smoke inhalation suffered during the fire. He had maintained a fit physique throughout his life, and many photos show that he was in remarkable physical condition in his older years. He is also said to have had a flamboyant personality. He smoked cigars, liked parties, and wore his exercise briefs wherever he wanted (even on the streets of New York). It is said that he was an intimidating, though deeply committed, instructor. Clara Pilates continued to teach and run the studio for another 10 years after Joseph Pilates death. Exercise science caught up with the Pilates exercise principles in the 1980s and the surge of interest in Pilates that we have today got underway.
sources: The Everything Pilates Book by Amy Taylor Alpers and Rachel Taylor Segal