Pilates: Why the Workout of Choice For Elite Dancers May Also Be Right For You

Joseph Pilates brought his method of toning and conditioning the body from Europe to the United States in the 1920’s with a single studio opened in New York City. Legendary dancers George Balanchine and Martha Graham became early devotees, sending their students in flocks to his studio for training and rehabilitation. Nearly a century later, there are over 11 million people practicing Pilates regularly and 14,000 instructors in the United States. 

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Pilates is still regarded as an ideal complement for professional dance training with many dance companies, studios, and undergraduate/graduate dance programs incorporating Pilates into their training. In fact, in our fair city of Austin, Texas, you will find that the Ballet Austin studios are also home to the Austin Pilates Center https://balletaustin.org/pilates/.

This article describes the Pilates method, answers the question of why it has been the workout of choice for dancers since it was brought to the United States, and discusses whether Pilates might be right for you.

What is Pilates?

The man behind the movement

Joseph Pilates was a gymnast and boxer that developed his method of strengthening and conditioning the body while imprisoned in internment camps during WWI because of his German heritage. It was in these camps that he also created prototypes of what was to become the Pilates apparatuses. Joseph later immigrated to the United States and along with his wife Clara opened the first studio where they established a devoted following amongst the dance and performing arts community. His students later went on to open Pilates schools themselves.

Joseph Pilates-The Man Behind The Movement
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Beyond exercises

These days, Pilates is often associated with the wooden, spring-loaded apparatuses, the most prevalent of which is the Reformer. However, the original Pilates repertoire consists of 34 mat exercises that can be performed with no equipment or apparatus. These exercises are described in Joseph’s book Pilates - A Holistic Mind Body Approach

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The method encompasses much more than the exercises themselves but also the embodiment of 6 principles that together with the movements create a holistic mind-body approach: 

  • Breathing: Joseph stressed that before anything else, a student must learn to breathe properly. Exercises are coordinated with the breath. This is widely regarded as the most important principle. 
  • Concentration: Pilates is as much of a workout for your mind as your body. Exercises must be performed with full attention and awareness. You will find that many Pilates studios minimize distractions including even music.
  • Centering: Strength and stability are sourced from the “powerhouse” or “core,” which include the abdominal, back, and gluteal muscles.
  • Control: Every exercise must be performed with complete muscular control. All parts of the body are managed with intent whether it is moving or still, contracted or relaxed. 
  • Precision: There is an ideal alignment and placement of each body part during the exercise. The student must use full awareness to achieve optimal technique in order to break compensatory movement patterns. 
  • Flow: Exercises are performed with fluidity, grace, and ease.

Modern Pilates studios have since expanded their exercises beyond the original repertoire to the effect that exercises may vary across studios. However, the 6 principles created by Joseph Pilates steadfastly remain.

Why do dancers train in Pilates?

Professional dancers have already attained the height of physical fitness and are physically active for 8+ hours a day. Why is Pilates still a part of standardized dance training? Below are some of the ways dancers use Pilates to prevent injury, enhance technique, and feel their best on and off the stage.

Dancers Train With Pilates
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  • Address asymmetries and imbalances. Athletes (including dancers) tend to be particularly asymmetrical due to neuromuscular and structural adaptations created by the demands of their profession causing varying degrees of strength and flexibility across joints and between the left and right sides of the body. Pilates addresses asymmetries and imbalances by lengthening and strengthening along all myofascial chains evenly and both sides of the body independently.
  • Focus on core strength and control. The concept of the “Powerhouse” which encompasses the abdominal, back, gluteal muscles as well as the deep core stabilizers is essential to the Pilates repertoire. You will find that a large chunk of class is dedicated to addressing the Powerhouse. By strengthening the Powerhouse, dancers are able to provide centralized support for their body, achieve efficient weight transfers, leverage explosive power for leaps and jumps, provide a stable axis for sustaining turns, and achieve maximum range of motion of their limbs.
  • Improve alignment and articulation of joints. Dancers push their bodies past anatomical limits to achieve the beautiful shapes that captivate audiences. However, this comes at the expense of their joints. Pilates promotes awareness of how to move in lengthened ranges while still maintaining stability and joint congruency, meaning optimal contact between two bones is maintained throughout a motion thereby preventing injury. 
  • Develop proprioceptive and kinesthetic awareness. Proprioception is our sixth sense allowing us to know where our joints are in space. This is related to kinesthesia which is awareness of our body in motion. Pilates is focused on internal sensations with careful cues and imagery. The pace of classes are slow and the movements and cueing are subtle enough to help develop the skill of body awareness and ability to self-adjust in order to to enhance alignment and appropriate muscle recruitment without compensatory patterns. 
  • Release of unnecessary tension. Pilates seeks to achieve the most efficient motion, which means instructors cue to release tension in areas where it is not serving a purpose. Instructors are trained in the use of imagery to help students achieve the desired movement quality in order to move with fluidity, grace, and ease. With the physical duress of professional dancing, it is essential that dancers learn to release tension that may be causing strain and leading to pain and injury. 
  • Breath training. The first thing you will learn in a Pilates class is how to breathe properly and maintain a full breath while challenging your body through movement. Dysfunctional breathing patterns such as breath-holding, shallow breathing, or overuse of accessory muscles can inhibit core stability and create tension and pain. Breath training is equally important to high level athletes such as dancers as they will need the power of breath for increasingly strenuous physical challenges.    

Not just for dancers

Although it may be intimidating for someone without a history of exercise to take on a workout that may as well have been designed for elite dancers, Pilates is for everyone, no matter your shape, size or physical condition. It has been a tried and true method over the past century for professional dancers, the injured, and people who have never stepped into a gym their entire lives.

Studies have shown that Pilates is effective for “>decreasing pain and improving function in those with low back pain, although due to heterogeneity and flaws in the studies the evidence is still considered low quality. 

“Pilates is for EVERYONE, no matter your shape, size or physical condition.”

Pilates Is For Everyone

Nonetheless, people have different goals and preferences when it comes to working out. Pilates may not be for you if you are looking for:

  • External motivation through competition with others or yourself
  • Intense cardiovascular workout with running/jumping
  • Exercise paired with spirituality
  • Working out to fast-paced music
  • Large, bulky muscles
  • Zoning out during workouts

However, if you are looking for a low-impact mind-body approach that has been proven to improve muscle strength, flexibility, posture, and balance, Pilates may be the workout you’ve been searching for. Most importantly, Pilates is fun. Do not be intimidated by the machines or the dancers and step into a studio today.

Angel Young, PT, DPT is currently working towards her Pilates teaching certification.

Angel Young9 1

Angel Young

PT, DPT

Physical Therapist, DPT

Sources:

  1. Ahearn, Elizabeth Lowe. “The Pilates method and ballet technique: applications in the dance studio.” Journal of dance education 6.3 (2006): 92-99.
  2. Natour, Jamil, et al. “Pilates Improves Pain, Function and Quality of Life in Patients with Chronic Low Back Pain: A Randomized Controlled Trial.” Clinical Rehabilitation, vol. 29, no. 1, Jan. 2015, pp. 59–68, doi:10.1177/0269215514538981.
  3. Cruz-Ferreira, Ana et al. “A systematic review of the effects of pilates method of exercise in healthy people.” Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation vol. 92,12 (2011): 2071-81. doi:10.1016/j.apmr.2011.06.018
  4. Ellin, Abby. “Now Let us All Contemplate Our Own Financial Navels.” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 21 June 2005, https://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/21/business/now-let-us-all-contemplate-our-own-financial-navels.html.
  5. “History of Pilates”. Pilates Method Alliance, Pilates Method Alliance, pilatesmethodalliance.org/history-of-pilates.

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