by Devra Swiger
When I first began studying Pilates in 1999, I had no idea what the difference was between classical and contemporary. It was all just Pilates to me. My very first instructor was a Romana trained teacher, but she used contemporary equipment and was willing to add some of her own style to the method.
Today there is a lot of discussion on what ‘real’ Pilates is.
- Is the classical method better?
- Is contemporary Pilates safer?
- Do clients even care?
What Is Classical or Contemporary Pilates?
First of all, how do we define classical and contemporary Pilates?
Classical Pilates attempts to be as close to the teachings of Joseph Pilates as possible. Since Mr. Pilates died in 1967 his methodology is either taught by individuals who studied directly with him (Elders) or via archival pictures and tapes. Second generation teachers who were fortunate enough to have studied with one or more of the Elders help keep his work and spirit alive. Some of these classically trained teachers remain very true to the original work while others tend to vary as was the case with my first teacher. Romana Kryzanowska who died last year was said to be the one disciple of Joe’s who stayed true to the method. Many classical teachers today have at one time studied with Romana.
Contemporary Pilates is easier to define: It is everything that came after classical.
So is one style better than another? Are clients able to distinguish one from the other and if so, do they care? What direction will Pilates take as time goes on? Will classical become the only true Pilates or will fusion Pilates take over? Can they survive side by side?
Classical vs Contemporary Pilates: The Face-Off
No one can really say if one method is better than another. That, my friend, is a matter of opinion. However, training programs for Pilates instructors can be evaluated and rated based on the intensity of the program. The early training programs were rigorous and demanding and teachers were expected to not only gain an in depth understanding of the method, but to also be able to teach and demonstrate a wide variety of exercises on multiple pieces of equipment. As Pilates grew in popularity new certification programs proliferated and some I dare say were not very good.
Do clients care what type of training they get? Can they tell the difference between classical and contemporary? In my personal experience, clients come to Pilates for one of three reasons:
- to lose weight and get in shape
- to help with chronic injuries or pain or
- to complement their exercise program which may already include weight training and/or cardio.
LuAnn Klein of Lakewood, CA says when asked if clients recognize the difference between the two schools of Pilates: “Initially, no, to them, Pilates is Pilates, and with all the derivations and XYZ-Pilates hybrids, the method has become even more watered down. But, once they have tried both innovative/integrative/contemporary Pilates and classical Pilates, many DO notice the difference.” Or as Maria Vorrias of Athens Greece says: “It is about knowing or not knowing what Pilates is and how to teach it properly and with respect to the client. It is about knowing what not to do!!! My point is that whether one is Classical or Contemporary, one needs to know what it is that they are teaching because you are dealing with people and the problems are many.”
Many teachers including myself have trained in both styles and use one or the other or both depending on the needs of the client. Lee Artur a Pennsylvania based fitness professional with many years of Pilates under her belt says: “I love classical work, and work within the choreography and sequence, but I have a toolbox filled with options from other modalities and contemporary Pilates…” Beth May of San Antonio TX says: “I wish that there was a way to make sure that people who taught Pilates actually were teaching something at least 75% like what Joseph Pilates had in mind, but I doubt that is possible.”
What Beth says is very true. You could have 10 Pilates instructors in one room and they would probably never agree on what is the right way to teach. Some believe that having a classical foundation is a good start but one should always be willing to evolve. Of course there are others who would vehemently disagree with that statement feeling that why fix an already perfectly good system.
The problem in my mind stems from the fact that the world of contemporary Pilates is too vast and within that group there is too much variation in both training and ability. Using the term from LuAnn Klein ‘innovative/integrative/contemporary’ Pilates should be set apart from the watered down Pilates hybrids. A contemporary instructor could have studied for years perfecting his or her knowledge of the method or he could have taken a weekend workshop at a gym. By current definition they are both Pilates instructors and they are both contemporary.
I remember subbing a class once for a very popular instructor. I had taken class from this teacher once before and thought her style deviated a little too much from what I had been taught. I decided to wow the students with a classical mat class using many of the original exercises and emphasizing the flow from one movement to the next. Some liked it, some did not and one student complained that I had not taught the kind of Pilates she was accustomed to.
The reason I give that example is that it shows that Pilates could be moving so far away from the original method that it will no longer be recognizable. There can and will always be variations in teaching methods and teaching styles, but there probably should be some sort of standards. The problem will always be defining those standards and agreeing on what is acceptable Pilates. Lee Artur says “I do think that whatever style is being taught the training program needs to be at least 1 year of study to validate the certification.” Perhaps a valid program would stipulate a specific amount of time and then require continuing education credits. This would eliminate some of the shoddier programs that are available today or at least restrict their use of the term Pilates.
The views on which path Pilates will take over the next few years vary. Some believe that the classical form will outlast all other types while others believe Pilates will evolve into a less classical version. Kate Shannon of New Zealand says “I believe Classical Pilates will remain very strong but Pilates will also continue to evolve into many fusion type classes to compete with everyone else – like it or not.”
Others hope that Pilates will gain more recognition among the medical community. Jennifer Powell of PilatesFun says “I’m hopeful there will be a future where the medical community gives Pilates the same respect that Yoga has received. I am a colon cancer survivor (15 years!) and I believe that I wouldn’t be as strong mentally or physically if I hadn’t found Pilates when I did.” Liron Zinger of Tel Aviv says “I believe that Contemporary will win out…if not then the mix of the Contemporary and Classical together.” Or, as another teacher put it when asked about the future of Pilates “Some days I think that Pilates instructors from various backgrounds are just going to tear each other apart because they have different backgrounds and they think there is only one right way.”
My own feelings on this are that there will always be a market for both classical Pilates and the type of contemporary Pilates that doesn’t deviate too much from the original. Then there will be another larger market that is for ‘gym Pilates’ and fast paced fusion classes that like other trendy types of exercise will come and go.
“There may always be two separate camps within the Pilates community and they may never agree on what Pilates is or what Pilates is not,” says Sunni Almond of Studio S in Temecula, CA. When asked what she sees for the future of Pilates her answer is “Hopefully more mellow, lots of infighting these days”. Maybe there will always be friction between teachers and the various methods, but let’s hope that people remain dedicated to the practice of Pilates and that in return they receive the best instruction and care possible.
What are your thoughts/questions about classical vs contemporary Pilates? Which one do you practice/teach?
About the Author: Devra Swiger is the owner of Ab Pilates in Huntington Beach, CA. She started teaching Pilates in 1999 after 6 years of teaching fitness. She became certified with Polestar Pilates, Colleen Glenn, PhysicalMind and also apprenticed with a classically trained instructor in Charlotte, NC. Since that time she has studied with both classically and contemporary trained teachers. She is currently studying with Jennifer Kries in San Diego, CA. In addition to Pilates, Devra loves yoga, dance, cycling and running.