An Enchanted Life; an Enchanting Woman – Lolita San Miguel

Her name is Lolita, she was a dancer and became a Pilates treasure. This month we are celebrating the life of Lolita San Miguel, one of the very few Elders still alive. She is a captivating woman who recently published her memoir titled “My enchanted Life”, a must-read for all Pilates enthusiasts. It denotes an innovative, strong, and independent woman’s extraordinary life who embraced her passion for movement and followed her dreams.  Lolita also brings a refreshing and sentimental outlook on time spent learning under Joseph Pilates and Clara. Her perseverance, moving forward attitude, and never-ending interest in learning really comes through in the narration of her story and is inspiring.

Lolita was born on 9th October 1934 in New York City. Her parents, Pedro and Mary San Miguel, were both Puerto Ricans. It was a second marriage for both, and Lolita was their only child, although she had half-siblings from her parents’ previous unions.

When she was three, Lolita’s family relocated to Puerto Rico for her father’s work but returned to New York City eight years later to facilitate Lolita’s dance studies. Tragically, Pedro passed away from a heart attack days after their return. The passing of her father is the first of several tragic losses Lolita survived. However, she believes that this devastating event and inevitable lifestyle adjustments made her a survivor.

Lolita started dancing at the age of seven in Puerto Rico to help her gain a greater appetite and put on weight; she was a skinny girl with little desire for food. Lolita loved dancing and performing from the moment she started and always looked forward to her lessons. She learned both Spanish dancing and Ballet and continued learning and dancing both throughout her successful dance career.

Although dancing was her passion, education was also a crucial element in her life and still is. It was paramount for her late “Papi” that she became a well-educated and independent woman. Pedro, a labour leader and union organiser, witnessed firsthand all the inequities and mistreatment women faced in the workforce. He wished a different outcome for his daughter. When it was time to make a career decision, Lolita faced a dilemma. Would she continue the path she was on, dancing and performing, knowing that it was a very uncertain road that could end so abruptly or would she consider higher education? Lolita was disciplined and dutiful with excellent grades and was interested in criminal law and becoming an attorney. She asked her mother, “Mami”, for guidance. Her mother was cultivating the idea of bringing up an independent woman and encouraged her to make her own choice. Lolita did, and lucky for all of us, she decided to pursue a dance career.

She started her full-time dance career with the newly established company, the Slavenska-Franklin Ballet. She toured around the United States and remained with the company for two years. Then, in 1954, she auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. It was a grueling audition process, including hundreds of hopeful dancers. In the end, fourteen dancers were offered a contract, and Lolita was one of them. Lolita dedicated a decade as a featured soloist with the New York City’s Metropolitan Opera. A ten-year full of events; working with incredible talents, making lifetime friends, and discovering Contrology. Within that decade, she and her first husband, Ray, the Met’s concertmaster, married on stage at the Masonic Temple Auditorium in Detroit, a very publicised event. They welcomed their son, Carlos George, to the world and sadly mourned the death of Mary, Lolita’s beloved mother, just a few months before their son’s birth.

Lolita discovered Contrology in a similar way to several of her dance colleagues, through injury. In 1958, she was referred to Carola Trier to help the rehabilitation process of her injured knee. She was immediately fascinated by the “weird equipment” in Carola’s home studio and rapidly felt at home. It was a “magic place”. At the time, Kathy Stanford Grant and Romana Kryzanowska were Carola’s two assistants. It was over seven years as a client to Carola that Lolita came to love Contrology. She practised her series of exercises daily; it was her warmup before ballet classes and rehearsals.  In 1965, Lolita commenced an apprenticeship with Carola as part of the Career Transition for Dancers grant offered by the New York University’s Department of Rehabilitation.  She started her training with Carola, a flexible 20 hours a week commitment totaling 520 hours of training over 26 weeks.

Lolita is the only person that Carola certified under this program. Her preferred time to attend the studio was in the afternoon when Kathy was working. They developed a wonderful friendship. Lolita qualifies Kathy as a “superb teacher” and learned a lot from her. Although Lolita loved the method, she quickly realised that she did not wish to work for Carola. One day, towards the end of her apprenticeship, she confided her feelings to Kathy. Right away, Kathy suggested that they go and see “Joe” together. Lolita was puzzled and asked, “who’s Joe?”. At that moment, she found out that the man she thought deceased, was alive and had a studio just a few blocks away from where they stood. They marched down to Joe’s apartment, and Kathy asked him if he would agree to certify them via the vocational transition grant for dancers. After hesitation, he agreed. They both started with Joe in January 1966. For Lolita, this was her second apprenticeship under the career transition program. She and Kathy coordinated their schedule at Joe’s studio, agreeing to a morning “shift” for Kathy and an afternoon one for Lolita. According to Lolita, after lunch, Joe was a happier, more relaxed person, so it was a good time to be there.

Lolita describes her first impression of Joe as a “tsunami of energy”. Lolita reveals some beautiful memories of her time with Joe and Clara in her memoir. She enjoyed Clara’s gentle manner and touch. She admired Joe’s “the glass is half full” approach to life and observed the conflicting moments when he had “bad days”.

Late 1966, in fact, two days before his second birthday celebration (30th December), Carlos George became ill and tragically died from an anaphylactic reaction to penicillin. It was a sudden loss and devastating period, one that further defines Lolita’s survival spirit. Still mourning the loss of her son, she returned to Joe and Clara’s studio after the holidays and recalled how they both met her with tears in their eyes, gave her a prolonged wordless hug before returning to work.

Keeping busy and seeking change helped Lolita move forward with her life. She completed her required training hours and was certified by Joe on 2nd February 1967. She joined the Met on their May tour and realised that her previous retirement from the company had been a good decision within those touring months. It was time to move on for good. Once back from the tour, she learned the sad news from Kathy Grant of Joseph Pilates passing on 9th October 1967, Lolita’s birthday. More changes took place. She and Ray move to a new apartment; she permanently cut her hair short, an action that highlights a switch in her life; she saw her long hair as part of her dancing career. Lolita devoted herself to teaching both dance and Pilates and kept moving forward. Ray and Lolita officially separated in 1973.

In 1977, Lolita moved back to Puerto Rico with her new life partner, Hiram. They married in 1978.  The intention was to be there for six months but they stayed for twenty-eight years. Lolita quickly immersed herself within the dance community. Her perseverance, dedication and passion helped to change the dance culture on the island. She found Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rico late in the 1970s and spent twenty-six years building and running a successful dance company. Ballet Concierto became the finest ballet company in Puerto Rico. In addition, Lolita ensured that Pilates was an integral part of every dancer’s training. Early in the new millennium (2005), Hiram and Lolita finally returned to the mainland and settled in Florida.

The start of the 2000s notes the creation of the Pilates Method Alliance. Kevin Bowen and Colleen Glenn organised a Pilates Community gathering in Miami, Florida, shortly after the final court decision on the generic use of the term “Pilates”. During this event, Lolita, Kathy Grant, Ron Fletcher, and Mary Bowen were introduced as “Elders”. While attending this event, Lolita first met and was warmly greeted by Brett Anderson, Polestar Pilates. She describes it as a “big bear hug”, the start of a new friendship. A lifetime learner, and believer in the benefits of understanding modern movement sciences, Lolita completed a comprehensive certification with Polestar Education.

In 2009, Lolita started her Pilates Master Mentor Program, an enterprise to reduce her travels and to get the students coming to her. However, several months after the introduction of PMMP, Lolita agreed to start a group in Germany. She made this decision following her heart, accepting a request from Claudia Holtmanns. It was an easy decision once Claudia informed her that she would be only twenty-minute away from Joe’s hometown, Mönchengladbach. The stars were aligning. It was a perfect occasion to celebrate Pilates Day in Joseph birthplace. Once on-site, Lolita was shocked that hardly anyone knew of Joseph Pilates in Mönchengladbach. It reminded her of “Joe’s bad days” when he felt he had not fulfilled his hopes with his method. So, she decided to do something about it. True to herself, Lolita dedicated her time and passion to changing the situation with the assistance of her supportive German group. On Pilates Day, 7th May 2011, a commemorative Joseph Pilates plaque was officially laid under a tree next to the house where he was born. A large crowd of Pilates students and supporters attended the ceremony. At last, Joe Pilates had been immortalised in his hometown, a big step forward in keeping Joseph and Clara’s legacy alive.

Lolita has accomplished so much in her life and still does. She found her passions in life, dance in her childhood and unexpectedly Pilates in her adulthood. She applied herself in the mastery of both committing and following her dreams.  She lives by her motto: “Preserve and Evolve”. She believes in continuously searching, learning, growing, and evolving. She is a true inspiration and a treasure to the Pilates world.

Lolita is loved and cherished by so many. In 2020, when the Pandemic stopped her traveling plans, she stayed true to her motto and evolved. She launched Lolita Pilates Goes Online. At 86 years old, this incredible woman found a new way to challenge herself and spread her love for Pilates. Lolita also continued with her mentor program online, and one of her most recent graduates is Kathryn Ross Nash. Kathi is well known around the world for her alliance with Romana Kryzanowska. She studied and worked with Romana for decades. Kathi met Lolita years ago when she was dancing for Ballet Hispanico of New York. The dance director was one of Lolita’s friends. Their lives intertwined within the Pilates world for years, and Kathi started taking lessons from Lolita. She loved them, describing Lolita as tough, inviting, and honest. Her decision of undertaking her certification with Lolita came out of respect and her adoration for her. They also share a curiosity and passion for learning, and Kathi appreciated Lolita’s humility. Throughout the program, Lolita considered Kathi’s experience, knowledge and kept an open mind.  Kathi described Lolita as “magnificent”, it does not get any better than that. Together, and with so many other Pilates lovers around the world, the “Pilates Legacy” is here to stay. Thank you, Lolita San Miguel.

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