For nearly three decades, I’ve had the privilege of being a part of the Wollongong Pilates Studio (WPS), a place dedicated to healthy movement, education, and rehabilitative excellence. Situated on the picturesque south coast of NSW, just an hour away from Sydney, WPS was born out of my deep passion for dance and the desire to mitigate injuries through Pilates Movement Therapy. Join me as I take you on a journey through my 30-year history of the Wollongong Pilates Studio.
The Founding Years
In the early 1990s, my journey with WPS began as a suburban dance teacher facing personal dance-related injuries. My mission was to improve my teaching approach by integrating movement science and dance medicine principles. I stumbled upon Pilates through a dance magazine article, which was relatively unknown at the time. An introduction by a local physiotherapist, and Nicole Vass from Vass & Shaw Pilates in Sydney, opened the door to the world of Pilates. This marked a turning point in my teaching journey.
I started teaching Pilates exercises to my young dancers during my initial certification and set up a small studio within a physiotherapy clinic. With just one Reformer and one Cadillac, I offered private and small group classes to fitness enthusiasts, dancers, and post-acute rehab clients, all under the supervision of the physiotherapist.
Early Challenges and Professional Growth
The early years were challenging, as I faced the demanding task of balancing family responsibilities, an existing dance school, and the establishment of a new Pilates studio, all while pursuing a new career. As a young widow with a 5-year-old child, it was a lot to manage.
Equipment acquisition was a hurdle, and I recall obtaining my first Reformer and Cadillac from Bruce Fine in Melbourne to complement my single Mat. Due to space and budget constraints, I could only add a small barrel to my studio.
Unlike today’s students, I didn’t have the convenience of completing a comprehensive program close to home, but I was fortunate not to need to travel abroad for training as was the case with my predecessors. I attended lectures at Vass and Shaw, which involved a 140km round trip once or twice a week, proving physically and emotionally taxing.
As the distance and travel time became impractical, I was unable to complete my training with Vass and Shaw and had to explore alternative pathways to continue my teacher training. My first choice was enrolling in the Exercise Science and Rehabilitation Program at the University of Wollongong. The challenge was my limited academic background, having left school in year 9 for full-time dance. Despite praise for my passion, the university couldn’t admit me without some sort of academic credibility.
I resorted to self-learning through reading and consulting with physiotherapists. However, an opportunity emerged when the University of Wollongong offered me a scholarship for a new Science Bridging program. This intensive 14-week program in chemistry, physics, and mathematics paved the way for my acceptance into the Exercise Science and Rehabilitation program, marking the beginning of an 8-year journey towards becoming an Exercise Physiologist.
In the second year of my degree, I also applied for the inaugural Post Graduate Certification in Pilates Method at the University of Technology, Sydney. My undergraduate status initially posed a challenge, but after persistent efforts, including conversations, letters, and character references, I was eventually accepted into the program.
My path to becoming a qualified Pilates teacher was not straightforward and came with its share of obstacles and rejections. Those years taught me patience, persistence, and a solutions-based approach to teaching and life in general.
Expansion and Diversification
In the early 2000s, WPS underwent substantial and rapid expansion. It was the only studio of its kind within a 50km radius, and as its client base grew, the need for a larger, more prominent location became evident. Despite the initial fear of committing to a commercial lease, a 60m² space in a professional building was secured. Meeting client numbers was a real pressure, with anxieties about whether existing clients would follow, if new clients could be secured independently, and self-doubts about competence.
Fortunately, many clients transitioned to the new venue, with some still being clients today. Existing clients covered the rent, and a monthly newspaper advertisement with a quarterly editorial piece was initiated to build brand recognition. These articles highlighted the benefits of Pilates and various conditions, gradually increasing client numbers.
Allied health practitioners began attending for their own benefit, forming a network of professionals for mutual support and learning. The studio primarily offered 90-minute semi-private studio sessions for a maximum of 4 clients and private sessions. Mat classes were not part of the offerings, and Reformer classes were not yet on the radar in Australia. As demand grew, the need to hire additional staff arose, marking a transition from a sole practitioner to an employer, and was accompanied by new challenges.
The expansion and hiring efforts increased the workload, necessitating administrative assistance, accounting, legal support, human resources expertise, and other knowledge areas. The journey has been a significant learning curve in an ever-evolving landscape.
With the discontinuation of the UTS Post Graduate Pilates program, WPS became an APMA-accredited teacher facility. We expanded from the original 60m² studio, acquiring adjacent spaces and knocking down walls as neighboring businesses closed. We eventually secured another 6 Allegro reformers for the student teachers to use, and this growth resulted in a spacious 300m² facility with around 10 staff members, including both teachers and administrative support.
Industry and Community Engagement
After completing my UTS program, I was offered the opportunity to return as a member of the teaching faculty. Embracing this chance to remain within my academic community, I spent the next five years passionately instructing on a range of subjects for the UTS program. This experience allowed me to engage with students and fellow educators from a wide spectrum of backgrounds and viewpoints, all united by a common quest for a deeper comprehension and appreciation of the potential of this methodology.
The curriculum, in my view, was meticulously crafted to facilitate a gradual transformation of this remarkable discipline into a fully recognized and independent field within the realm of allied health professions. I cherished the chance to offer students mentoring opportunities at WPS as part of the Supervised Teaching Hours. For me, it was not only a means of acknowledging those who had contributed to my professional growth but also a way of giving back with gratitude.
A few years down the road, I received an invitation to put forth my nomination for a position on the board of the Australian Pilates Method Association (APMA). My life was brimming with responsibilities, including caring for my young daughter, managing my studio, maintaining my livelihood, teaching at UTS, and pursuing my ongoing studies at UOW. It was clear that time was a precious commodity. However, as my ballet teacher often reminded me, “Where there is a will, there is a way!”
Upon being elected to the board of the APMA, we were given the opportunity to express our aspirations for the future. My burning passion was to elevate the standard of education in a manner that left no doubt about its significance within the allied health sector. I drew inspiration from the remarkable efforts of Ingrid Shaw, a former board member who had tirelessly worked towards gaining recognition from numerous private health funds. Although I knew the path ahead might be challenging and potentially met with resistance from other modalities, I firmly believed it could be achieved.
I’ve had the privilege of being associated with several other significant APMA projects. One particularly close to my heart was my involvement in co-developing the design, curriculum, delivery, and assessment for the Diploma and Advanced Diploma of Pilates Movement Therapy. While I’m immensely proud of these achievements, my only regret is that I may not have the opportunity to teach the incredible content we developed for the Advanced Diploma as originally intended due to the closure of the APMA. It’s disappointing to me because our dedication to enhancing students’ understanding and their ability to work with special populations and elevate our work with high-performance athletes and performing artists remains a true passion.
In my journey, I’ve been fortunate to receive unwavering support from my clients in my industry advocacy efforts. They themselves have become ardent champions of our work, recognizing the importance of proficiency, dedication, and empathy in our profession. Especially our long-term clients who have developed a keen awareness of those who opt for shortcuts in training and no longer represent the same ideals that have benefited them for so long.
In this nurturing community of ours, support has always been a two-way street. Over the years, we’ve collaboratively organized a plethora of wellness events, workshops, and charity fundraisers. This collective effort has not only nurtured a deep sense of community and camaraderie among our clients and staff but has also played a pivotal role in the establishment of a resilient network within the complementary and allied health sectors. We are profoundly grateful for this mutual support and collaboration.
Adapting to Changing Times
Looking back on the past 30 years, it’s evident how much the landscape of our work has transformed. This encompasses changes in how we develop as teachers, engage with clients, staff, and referring practitioners, handle appointments, modify policies, engage with emerging technology, and a whole new world of marketing, and social media. This transformation has been nothing short of remarkable.
WPS has encountered the same challenges as many other studios of similar longevity. As business owners, we have all struggled to find high-quality Pilates teachers, particularly in regional areas. One could assume with an increasingly saturated Teacher Training marketplace it has become easier. It has not. We have encountered the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, the effects of changes in recognition by private health funds, and the disruptions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic among our own personal life events with their ups and downs.
Throughout this journey, I’ve consistently strived to assess every business decision by filtering its impact on the major stakeholders: our clients, teachers, staff, and the business entity itself. The goal has always been to strike that delicate balance and ensure positive, or at least equitable outcomes for all three parties.
The Legacy Continues
Understanding our clientele is of paramount importance, both on a collective and individual level. Overall, the average age of our clients has risen, and a significant portion of them have been part of our community for an extended period. These long-term clients often resist change, and even retirement introduces alterations in their availability, financial circumstances, family commitments, and travel plans. Our challenge is to adapt our policies to accommodate their evolving needs, acknowledge their loyalty, and ensure that our business model aligns with their pursuit of health and well-being.
As times have evolved, we’ve introduced Reformer and Mat classes. Additionally, we’ve maintained a weekly post-pandemic Zoom class to accommodate those who seek flexibility in terms of scheduling and budget. We have only very recently negotiated with our clients limiting class duration from 90 to 75 minutes rather than a fee increase due to costs of living pressures in 2023.
Today, some challenges continue. We find ourselves grappling with the emergence of Pilates-based fitness in gyms and the surge of Reformer studios with a robust social media presence. The persistent misconception that Pilates primarily caters to “trendy Instagram moms” has deterred many individuals with diverse needs and challenges from considering the benefits of the Pilates Method. Addressing this misconception remains an ongoing endeavour.
I am still committed to doing what is possible to have our profession recognised as a valid modality in the spectrum of allied health. But it seems we are currently floating downstream in the opposite direction. I hope with my transition to the board of the PAA, and the support of my colleagues, we can shift the tide on this matter. There are many excellent therapeutic practitioners out there not recognized for the skill set they bring to the field. That’s a shame.
WPS continues to mentor students from various Pilates schools, supports practicums from 3 local universities for their Exercise Physiology students, and offers teacher training like back in the old days. It has more of an apprenticeship-style approach.
On a personal note, as I transition into the third act of my journey in this performance called life, I’m contemplating an exit strategy from the bustling world of business. Teaching, educating, and learning will always be a part of my life as long as I can. However, I find myself increasingly considering the prospect of passing on the legacy of Wollongong Pilates Studio to someone who shares the same values and vision. It’s a thought that occupies my mind more and more as I reflect on the future.
Donna Oliver, PAA Principal Trainer Member