Classical or Contemporary – What difference does it make?

 In Classes

Brace yourselves, this is a long one…

I have only become aware of the Classical/Contemporary ‘divide’ within the Pilates community in recent years via social media (that reliable bastion of all that is accurate and true). It came up again most recently for us in December 2018, at the PTA Symposium held in Lancaster, UK to discuss creating a national occupational standard for a Comprehensive Pilates teacher (CPT) with CIMSPA (Chartered Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity) that Bonnie and myself attended. This was a lively discussion, to say the least. What did surprise me was that the not all the influential training organisations within the UK were there.

Let’s talk about me for a minute…

I would categorise the comprehensive studio and matwork training I had in NYC with the Kane School of Core Integration (now called Kinected) a classical training as Kelly had studied with Romana and obtained her certification with the Pilates Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We were taught the original choreography in the original order, as Joe taught it, both mat and equipment exercises. On this side of the pond, my Pilates training with Body Control Pilates would undoubtedly have fallen under the category of the Contemporary Pilates style where much of what we were taught included exercises derived from the traditional Pilates exercises, but not all of the original choreography was included, nor was Joe’s order followed. So I, like many others, can march into either the Classical or Contemporary camp, lucky me.

What is the driver behind the desire for this division?

My first thought is to do with the lack of regulation within Pilates (and Fitness) education here in the UK as well as over in the USA (sorry, no idea what is happening in other countries). I predate REPS over here and the PMA over there so was around when the lawsuit in the States was still unresolved, and anyone who taught Pilates in the USA had to be creative in the words they used to describe what they were teaching to avoid legal action. This is a quote from the court papers “Gallagher…You won’t be able to call what you do Pilates.”

The first course I attended in NY was with the Physical Mind Institute who taught exercises ‘based on the teachings of Joseph Pilates’. Somewhat of a mouthful from a marketing perspective but kept them out of the courts. This very lawsuit was one of the topics covered in a presentation by a Lawyer who now is trained as a Pilates teacher at the recent symposium. Interestingly their take was that the lawsuit was more about Pilates equipment than the language used to describe what those who either had trained with Joe or, could trace their training back to Joe, wanted to call the method they were teaching. The teachers in the USA certainly believed the lawsuit was about what they could call the exercises taught to them either by Joe or someone he had trained.

Back in the UK pre-lawsuit decision:

Over here, at that time, in the UK people teaching were out of the reach of the threat of being sued for using the name Pilates and the legal arguments going on Stateside, so they were happily calling themselves Pilates teachers and offering training using this title. The Pilates Foundation and Body Control Pilates were around back in those days, and in my opinion, the training they provided was of a high standard compared to some of the Pilates training that has appeared since the Register of Exercise Professionals recognised Pilates Matwork as a Level 3 Fitness qualification back in 2002. Flash forward to today, and you can pick up a Pilates teaching qualification online in a matter of hours which is a terrifying thought.

So back to the discussion at the Symposium

Perhaps the desire to create a national occupational standard defining a CPT is to create a standard of training conditions which are regulated. That sounds fair enough. Well another of the presentations on the day included categorising teachers based on what exercise choreography they taught and the order in which it was presented. Here is where definitions of the Comprehensive Classical, Contemporary and Matwork categories were suggested. Those that taught the choreography as JP did and followed his order were considered closest to the ‘source’. The next in the list were those who chose to be flexible with the sequence but kept the exercises pure after this came those that modified both the choreography and the order (to hell and be damned they do what they want) and the matwork teaching was last on the list. So it seems some care very much about how teachers are categorised or defined. I nearly forgot, when the day began we were told that where the government recognised matwork teaching as being under the umbrella of ‘Fitness’, the proposal was that a CPT qualification would be categorised as ‘Health”.

Joe called it Contrology.

The problem for me with this attempt to categorise Classical or Contemporary is that unless your name is Joseph Pilates, what you are passing on is based on his work that he started all those years ago. Like Chinese whispers, things change over time and attempting to cling to the teachings of one of those taught by JP over another of the same generation of teachers is flawed. His system evolved with him, equipment being invented, exercises refined and specific to those he taught. I believe Eve’s lunge was an exercise created for Eve Gentry. Had the man defied death and carried on to see how many of us now use his name to describe what we do only then would the answer to end the debate as to who is teaching the ‘real’ classical Pilates be found. There are others who studied with Joe learning apprentice style the method he called Contrology who went on to pass on their knowledge to others, and once the bunny got out of the box, we all know what happened.

He never wrote a training manual for us to follow (except for the mat).

A thought I’ve often had when this debate carries on is if we want to be sticklers for authenticity when teaching matwork in particular, how could you fill an hour if you followed his instructions? I quote Return to Life Through Contrology. ” …beginning with the introductory lesson, each succeeding exercise should be mastered before proceeding progressively with the following exercises.” He also instructs “…do not attempt any other exercise until you first have masted the current one and know it’s routine down to the last detail without any reference to the text.” What are the instructions for this first exercise the Hundreds? “Begin with only 20 movements (count of 5 for inhale, count of 5 for exhale). “Gradually increase them in units of 5 additional movements each time until a maximum of 100 is reached.” If you stick to his instructions, your mat-work classes would be brief indeed while waiting for your students to master this Classical exercise before progressing on to the next. There doesn’t seem to be any disagreement that Joe dreamed that his matwork exercises would be practised universally. My question is how do we do that if we aren’t allowed to break things down to enable the principles of the method to be learned while our students develop the strength and control to progress through the original order?

The intention to protect the method of movement/exercise many of us love and earn our livings teaching is an honourable one.

The problem is he wrote two books and only one covering the exercises that comprised the method he called Contrology, and those exercises were done on the mat, nothing covering his instructions for teaching on the equipment. For this, we have images of him (many, he was the original selfie king) and the videos you can find online which are often as amusing as they are terrifying. After this, we have the educational programs created by those who learned from the man himself or those next in line. Which brings up the idea of lineage – yup this came up at the Symposium too.

Lineage – how vital is the Pilates pedigree when it comes to education?

The lineage when it comes to Pilates education refers to who was taught by whom (like tracing back you ancestry to find out where you came from) and I talked about these elders in the blog “Lovely Bones”. One of the final presentations at the recent Symposium showed a quote which was critical of the safety of the Hundreds from someone in Australia. I’m no mind reader, but I’m pretty sure the intention behind the presentation of this quote was that the person didn’t understand how to perform this exercise correctly or they wouldn’t have perceived it as unsafe. Underneath this statement (which drew gasps of horror) was the ‘lineage’ of the author. Here is where I had a problem, the suggested teaching lineage from Joe to this person wasn’t accurate, I know one of the people on this list. They had missed out several key people distancing this person further from Joe. I wondered why that might be so I did a little research of my own, and it’s down to using the internet and websites as accurate sources (fake news perhaps). I found the ‘lineage’ mistake, it was because someone has not realised how important this lineage is to some and has left out the names of those they trained with all those years ago due to a falling out.

A couple of questions.

First are those who want to differentiate themselves going to use the lineage as a way to achieve this? Second, does this lineage ensure a flow of quality from Joe to you? There was much made of the need for staying factual on the day of this discussion and dispelling myths around JP. They wanted to dispel the myth that there were springs taken from hospital beds and suggested that JP liked to elaborate and was a bit of a raconteur. Unless you can speak to the dead, we may never know. If we are going to start throwing around the idea of facts when it comes to Pilates perhaps, we need to be careful when it comes to listing names to imply pedigree especially when the inference is that it may suggest a higher standard of education. History is full of attempts to designate a pecking order of top-dog down to a lower denominator, and I can’t think of any time this has ended well.

Back to Classical versus Contemporary.

If our industry is going to self-regulate to ensure setting standards to protect the public and teachers, it may be worth bringing the desire to categorise Pilates to a halt. The Pilates Method Alliance in the USA has gone through a process on consultation with all the elders alive at the time except one who chose not to participate. Classical to me is the exercises on the equipment and mat that the elders agreed on after the lawsuit was resolved and they were free to work together to discuss their interpretation of Joe’s work. Some of these elders went off on their own and modified the work so civilians (non-dancers) could build up to the traditional versions. The goal was the quality of movement and staying true to the essence of Pilates, not necessarily mastering the Boomerang. When it comes to the order, there is the agreement between the majority of elders that the PMA recognises. There were some familiar with the teachings of Pilates back in the late 1960/70’s who divided the sequence into levels of difficulty so even back then it was accepted that the order of teaching the exercises wasn’t set in stone. If we want to define Contemporary as all other modifications, I’m good with that.

Who cares anyway?

I honestly don’t know why some care so intensely about this. The public won’t really care they just want to move better, with less pain and attend a class with a teacher who can facilitate this for them. When it comes to ensuring standards of professional competence and the right to call yourself a professional Comprehensive Pilates Teacher it seems relatively simple to me. You should know who Pilates was, the method he called Contrology and where the exercises you are teaching came from (what the PMA agreed back in 2005). If we are trained well, we should be allowed to dissect the choreography to make it accessible to the body in front of us. Pilates as a method needs to be able to evolve and adapt to the changing population who practice it. There was a presentation at the Symposium exploring how the anatomy has changed in the decades that have passed since he died and there are changes. JP wouldn’t have had clients with artificial hips, shoulders, knees and people are as large as they are now so how do we know he wouldn’t have changed things around a bit to a more Contemporary style of Contrology???

Let’s sum things up (finally)…

The way I see it, Body Contrology (what we now call Pilates) is like a language of movement. When we are fluent in this language we execute the choreography as it was originally taught, in a connected, balanced way moving from one exercise to the next. When we start and are new to any language we must break it down, learn it piece by piece creating simple ‘phrases’ (movements) that if we are capable of becoming fluent, we can put together so it is recognised as the language of Pilates. My final thought is regarding the idea of where Pilates sits – in the world of fitness or health – movement is exercise and exercise is healthy. Joe said he taught ‘physical fitness’ and that leads to health – and physical fitness is exercise.

I’ll brace myself for your comments…

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