By Laurie Lewis
I had an interesting experience this weekend when I went to check out 939 Eighth Avenue, the address that several sources give as the first Pilates studio in America. I was standing outside the building taking a photo when a young man held the door open for me. “Coming in?” he asked. I explained that I was just trying to get a picture of the directory. He asked if I was interested in the Pilates studio and told me he was the new director.
The man introduced himself as Konstantin and invited me to see the second-floor studio, now operating under the name Nice & Tall. He explained that Joseph Pilates and his wife Clara not only had a studio here; it was also their home. Konstantin said that Pilates may have had a studio elsewhere in Manhattan before this one. But without doubt New York City was the location of the first Pilates studio in America.
As you can see from the above picture of the the door to the studio, Joe Pilates set up shop almost a century ago. The German immigrant had already developed a methodology and some equipment to promote his philosophy of whole-body health, and he continued to hone his techniques and teach his approach over the subsequent decades.
Boldface names in dance—George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Ruth St. Denis, and Ted Shawn, among others—were among Joe Pilates’ most ardent customers. They praised not just the physical conditioning but also the emphasis on mind-body control. In fact, Pilates called his approach “controlology.” Only after his death in 1967 at the age of 83 did his name become synonymous with his method.
Clara Pilates and early disciples kept the methodology alive after Joe’s death. The technique also evolved to reflect modern-day understanding of how the mind and body work. Konstantin, the present owner of the Eighth Avenue studio, says his establishment emphasizes the classical approach but embraces the modern as well. Although the studio no longer has any of the original apparatus, it is filled with equipment based on Pilates’ design but enhanced with up-to-date touches.
In part because of its reliance on specialized equipment and trained instructors, Pilates was slow to catch on. But it has withstood the test of time. Almost a century after Joseph Pilates opened the first Pilates studio in the United States, more than nine million Americans engage in the practice.
This blog also appeared on www.nycfirsts.com, the website for Laurie Lewis's book New York City Firsts: Big Apple Innovations That Changed the Nation and the World.