Pilates, Marjorie Thompson told me, is a thinking person’s sport.
As Thompson led me through a series of standard Pilates exercises in the Pacific Northwest Ballet studio, I thought how right she was. Every inch of movement required focus. Tighten abdominals. Soften knees. Lower rib cage. Line up toes. Relax shoulders.
Thompson guided me through each pose. Every bit the dancer, she wore loose exercise clothes and ballet slippers. “And one and two and three and four,” she chanted as we moved through poses, making me feel as if I was standing at the barre in the rehearsal room next door.
I came to Pacific Northwest Ballet on a Monday morning to sample the company’s PNBConditioning program. Offered at both PNB’s Seattle Center location and its Bellevue studio, PNBConditioning allows ordinary community members to take part in the same Pilates training used by professional dancers.
As PNBConditioning program director, Thompson works with everyone from expert ballerinas to out-of-shape office workers. She has taken on clients as young as 11 and as old as 75. The less athletic students often need more instruction and help, Thompson said, while a trained dancer will know exactly how to respond when told “round your back,” “flex your back,” or any other body command.
“People who have dance experience are easier to teach,” Thompson said.
Regardless of a person’s conditioning or dance training, Pilates provides significant physical benefits, Thompson said. The practice stretches, strengthens and balances the body with a system of springs and resistance. Pilates uses straps, levers, bars, foam rollers and table-like apparatuses called Reformers and Cadillacs.
Though Pilates classes can now be found on the schedule at gyms across the country, ballet dancers adopted the techniques way back in the 1940s. Renowned ballet choreographer George Balanchine brought Pilates to his dancers after meeting founder Joseph Pilates in New York City. Since the movements build strength without adding bulk to the body, dancers embraced Pilates.
In the 1980s, former PNB directors Francia Russell and Kent Stowell introduced Pilates in their studios because they wanted supplemental training that would make their dancers stronger and healthier. They purchased Reformers and Cadillacs and transformed one of PNB’s rooms into a Pilates studio.
By 1999, Hollywood celebrities had made Pilates a household word. PNB, in turn, decided to open its studio to the general public. Since a now-expired patent prevented them from using the name “Pilates” without paying additional fees, they created a program called PNBConditioning.
Thompson, a former dancer and member of the PNB faculty, became director of PNBConditioning because of her many years of experience with Pilates.
Though PNBConditioning provides some additional revenue for the nonprofit ballet, Thompson said the real value comes from members of public learning more about PNB. A Pilates student may glimpse the dancers rehearsing next door and decide to purchase tickets to the next PNB production.
Since PNB owns a limited number of Reformers and Cadillacs, PNBConditioning students work on the equipment either in small groups or in individual one-on-one sessions.
Larger mat classes take place in a separate room. These sessions don’t require the stationary Pilates equipment and can accommodate a sizable group. Since PNB’s dance studios are often booked with rehearsals and dance classes, PNBConditioning can only offer a handful of mat classes each week.
When Thompson takes on new clients, she begins with a simple conversation about their desires, limitations, strengths and goals. Before our session, I told her that I’m a distance runner and rower and accustomed to exercise but quite inflexible.
Thompson then led me to the Pilates studio and took me through a series of movements on the Cadillac, Reformer and foam roller. I stretched my legs with straps, pushed a trapeze-like bar, lifted my arms up and around my head, balanced my back on the roller, and completed a number of other core, stretching and strengthening exercises.
I received mixed marks for my innate Pilates ability. The good news? The sides of my body are very balanced, my core is strong, and I respond quickly to physical instruction. Indeed, her constant coaching reminded me much of rowing practices, where we listen to daily instruction on how to shift and tweak our bodies to improve our rowing stroke.
And the bad news? As I’d told her, my flexibility needs serious work. Thompson couldn’t hide her slight surprise at the limitations my hamstrings provided with certain movements. This is as high as you can stretch that leg? My legs, screaming from a 50K run on Orcas Island just two days before, definitely were not going to go any higher.
“You are much stronger than I am but you are also much less flexible,” Thompson told me. “You must take care of these hamstrings.”
And the diagnosis? Were I to become one of Thompson’s students, I should start with the beginning Pilates work. I could muscle my way through the advanced movements with my strength and determination, Thompson said, but I’d risk reverting to old, bad habits.
Pilates, after all, is not just about strength. It’s about mindful thought.
PNBConditioning classes range in price from $17 for a group mat class to $68 for a single private Pilates session. The Seattle location can be found at The Phelps Center at 310 Mercer St. The Bellevue classes are held at The Francia Russell Center at 13440 NE 16th St.