Memories of Joe on his Birthday

©I.C. Rapoport

Joseph Hubertus Pilates, born 9th December 1883, spent his entire adult life crafting a gift to us all; a present of life, movement, and health. The many divisions and turbulences that Contrology or the Pilates Method have undergone over the years have also united us universally with an undeniable passion for it. Today, his birthday, we leave the turmoil behind and remember the man, his vision, dedication, passion: His work.

Today we remember Joe through the voices of those that met, studied, and worked with him. Memory is personal; an event can be perceived and affect lives differently. In preparation for this text, I listened and read many stories which were communicated differently but were all echoing the same essence. Unquestionably, Joe Pilates created a striking presence that did not leave anyone indifferent. Most memories of the first meeting with this man share common feelings and observations.

Memories of Joe and his 8th Avenue Studio

Regardless of the narrative, the 8th Avenue building and gym left an impression at first sight. The smelly, run-down building, the squeaky flight of stairs leading into a room full of weird-looking equipment with framed pictures covering the walls of a man, Joseph, performing exercises.

Eve Gentry: “When I walked into the studio on 8th Avenue between 55th and 56th Street in New York and saw all this equipment and stuff then, very strange.”[1]

Mary Bowen: “It’s a very, very male place, nothing pretty in that place. Just strictly male in business.”[2]

Eva Rincke writing about Romana Kryzanowska: The tight studio stuffed with weird pictures on the wall at first intimidated her as much as the owner.[3]

John Steel: “The atmosphere of the gym was comforting. There was something warm and welcoming about the space: the openness and the décor”.[4]

Once in the space, at the top of those stairs, the first meeting with “Mister Pilates” left a memorable impression. Although not actually very tall, he stood tall. He wore minimal clothing (his famous short shorts or bathing trunk, as called by some) and had an enlarged chest, bare in most instances and regardless of the season. He had a head full of white hair and wore thick, black-framed eyeglasses behind which his right eye remained immobile whilst the left one was busy scrutinising.  His energy was undeniably remarkable, and despite having only one functioning eye, the one operating eye was acting like an x-ray machine. His strong German accent came through, often accompanied by some grunting.

Eve Gentry: Joe looked at me, and I could feel he was x-raying me.”

Lolita San Miguel: “A tsunami of energy”; “His eyes were like an x-ray machine.”[5]

Jay Grimes: “I was aware that Joe was a genius from the first lesson.”[6]

Sonjé Mayo: “So upright, so commanding; not very tall but read tall. So fit, so full of energy.”[7]

John Steel: “The picture that popped into mind was of a lion with a great mane, on its hind legs, paws up. Vigour and energy poured out of him.” “his left eye scanned me up and down, and sideways” “His face reflected neither warmth nor hostility. Only intensity.”

Mary Bowen while spot-reading the paper saw: “this man standing there, bare-chested, and he got a mane of white hair, bare leg and big, big chest. He looked like a Lion to me.”

Sari Mejia Santo[8] remembers meeting Joe for the first time as a child: “he was a loveable man, did not wear much; he had a chunk of white hair and an eye that did not move and did not wear very much, a bit of a shock. He also had quite a loud voice and a very thick German accent.” Joe referred to Sari and her brother as Pilates babies.

Eve Gentry: “Joe, who you may know was Greek-German, called me Eef.”

Mary Bowen: “He just went, ooh, he had grunts.”

John Steel: “He grunted an unmistakable signal that warned me: Mr Pilates was not interested in talk of any kind.”

Memories of the First Session

The first session was the start of a journey into corrective movement. Joseph H. Pilates used unconventional and often confronting methods, but they were effective and got results. To some injured dancers, he seemed to not care about their injury, or not the way they felt he should. For the “off the street” clients, he could spend an excessive amount of time teaching them how to sit on the Reformer, making them repeat the move until he was satisfied, and only then he would make them move more. It left no one indifferent, and feeling better they returned for more and dedicated themselves to it.

Eva Rincke writing about Romana Kryzanowska: “She was also unconvinced by the exercises because Joseph Pilates did not look at her ankle properly. His devices, stretching the body in all directions, seemed eerie and unhelpful to the ankle.” “By the third training session with Pilates, Romana Kryzanowska was much better. Her first impression of him changed altogether, and she fell in love, as she said, with the man and the method.”[9]

Kathy Grant: “He said you don’t know how to walk. You don’t know how to stand. He made me walk and criticised my walk.” Joseph made Kathy walk up and down the studio, imagining that she was pulling a thread back and forth. She grew impatient and angry and asked him how it would help her get back to dancing. “He asked me these questions: Can you run for the bus? I said no. Can you run up your stairs? No. How can you dance if you can’t do everyday ordinary things?”[10]

Eve Gentry: “Eef, dere’s noddings wrong with you but you’re overvoiked”; “When I walked out that studio, I felt that I was flying. I was floating, I realised that it was the first time in three years that I had not been in terrible pain.”

John Steel: On the Reformer “before I started to lower myself, he gave me terse but clear instructions: ‘Push your backside out, arms go forward, eyes up, resist gravity’. I had to sit two or three times before doing it to his satisfaction. What was this? Had I come here to get corrected on my sitting technique? Yet to this day, I sit the way Joe taught me that first visit.”

Joseph’s Studio Rules

The day-to-day life in the “gym/studio” started at 6:30 am each morning, and by 7:30 pm, they often were still getting people out the door.  They were long days, and clients came in whenever it suited their schedule unless Joe asked you to come at a specific time as John Steel remembers, “See you day after tomorrow, seven o’clock.

A lot was going on in the day, and lots to observe. So many different bodies came in, from tight businessmen to the “well-to-do” women wanting to get a session in without messing up their ‘do and makeup, to injured dancers, artists, athletes, etc. However, the apprentices were dedicated to Joe; it was also important to him that they maintain a certain balance between work and life. Kathy Grant remembers him saying: “Go, get out. So much time for this and so much time for that, and you don’t want to overdo.”[11]

Lolita San Miguel: “No matter who the clients were, everyone was treated equally and addressed by their first name”.

Sonjé Mayo: “He loved dancers because they were so disciplined.”

Joe’s pedagogy was his own, and he was not one to over-explain. Every client had to build independence. He had a clear idea of how he wanted the gym to operate, his method, and that was that. Kathy Grant remembers that “he was very persistent about the inner quality and the outer quality, and you had to become independent. He always said, if you couldn’t take it, I can’t, I don’t live with you. I don’t go home with you, so you have to make it yours.”

Jay Grimes: “Nothing happened that he was not aware of”. “The primary thing was to keep people moving” “this is for you.”

Kathy Grant: “He would say that’s good or that’s bad but never said what was good or bad about it. Enough goods and enough bads would give you a sense of what was good to him and what was bad.”

Lolita San Miguel: “He enjoyed challenging me, but he was never keen on answering questions. He would not physically correct me, but simply make me repeat it until I arrived at my own answer.  He had little patience for my questions about “why?”; he would reply, it’s good for the body or do it again; again.”

A lot of mystery still hangs around Joseph H. Pilates, about his life, mind, relationship with Clara, and so much more. However, through peers’ incredible archival research, details, facts are now available to help us demystify him.  Memories from people in his life tell us stories; some funny, some more serious, some less flattering. Regardless, for many he was a father figure, and he ‘haunted everyone’ to use Mary Bowen’s words.

Keeping the Legacy Alive

Joseph Pilates believed that he was fifty years ahead of his time, a thought that he shared with many and one which has proven undoubtedly to be the reality. Over the years, so many have shown resilience, persistence, dedication, and patience to keep Pilates alive and for the method to be acknowledged and recognised worldwide. It has survived many battles and will withstand many more, and maybe one day, through the practice of Contrology, “the world will become a better place for all”.

Lolita’s memories: “Joseph Pilates thought of himself as a “universal reformer”; he believed that if everyone practiced Contrology, they would become better aligned and balanced in body, mind, and spirit. This in turn, would make the world a better place for all.”

Mary Bowen: “Joe was Joe; there was nothing else he could see or think. He was honest and loyal to what his vision was.”

Joseph Hubertus Pilates would be 138 years old today. I wonder, what would be a good present for him? I believe, to keep honouring him and his work, most importantly, keeping his legacy alive. That might just be the best gift anyone could ever give him.

Thank you and happy birthday, Joe!


Eve Fairbairn
PAA Committee Member


[1] All quotes from Eve Gentry: Pilates Anytime, The Pilates Legacy Project

[2] All quotes from Mary Bowen: interview on Pilates Anytime, The Pilates Legacy Project

[3] Joseph Pilates A biography, Eva Rincke

[4] All quotes from John Steel: Caged Lion Joseph Pilates & his Legacy, John Howard Steel

[5] All quotes from Lolita San Miguel: My enchanted Life “a memoir”, Lolita San Miguel

[6] All quotes from Jay Grimes: Coffee with Jay, part 1, Pilatesology recording

[7] All quotes from Sonjé Mayo: Sonjé Mayo on Joe Pilates, part 1, Pilatesology recording

[8] The Eternal Flame, Romana Kryzanowska, Pilates Anytime, The Pilates Legacy Project

[9] Joseph Pilates a Biography, Eva Rincke

[10] All quotes from Kathy Grant: Kathy Grant The story of my song; Pilates Anytime, The Pilates Legacy Project

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