The Archival Pilates Exercises

a Pandoras Box of History and Fitness

Joseph Pilates
Historical Photo of Joseph Pilates. From Joe and Clara Pilates Historic Video,(c),courtesy of Pilates Elder Mary Bowen

What are Archival Pilates Exercises?

When I began to make inquiries about the archival Pilates exercises I found that there is no clear definition for what they are. Clearly, we are talking about exercises that, for whatever reasons, are not in common use. That, everyone agrees on. However, some people go immediately to the idea that archival exercises are very advanced exercises, others mentioned exercises made up by the Pilates Elders, and some thought of the archival exercises as only those less-known exercises that were created by Joseph Pilates but also documented on historical film.

By that definition, which appeals to me, archival exercises can be advanced or not, and be mat, standing, or equipment exercises.

What is the value of Archival Exercises?

Obviously, the value of anything is subjective and relative to the context in which it is being examined. With regard to the archival exercises, we might look at them in terms of pure historical documentation -- that value can hardly be denied -- but we also have to ask about their value as exercises.

One Pilates Elder was quoted to me as having said of the archival work, Why do you want to dig through Joe's trash? And that is a good point. If we are talking about exercises that are not commonly used, we have to ask why not? Peter Fiasca, the author of Pure Classical Pilates who also documented archival exercises on DVD (see below), wrote to me that from his studies it is clear him that "many or most of Joseph Pilates filmed exercises that are not regularly known, or practiced, or taught are probably exercises that Joseph Pilates intended to remove from his system." Certainly we know that Joseph Pilates was very creative and experimental.

It stands to reason that he invented exercises that he would later decide against.

There are a number of other reasons certain exercises have gone out of common use. Some archival exercises are too advanced for most people. That doesn't mean Joe didn't like them, but it would impact how often they were passed along to others.

Similarly, there are archival exercises that are too dangerous or too complicated to be taught well in group settings. The PMA Certification Exam Study Guide, for example, contains a number of photos of exercises labeled "Historical - Requires Assistance". Indeed, many of these kinds of exercises are risky in terms of balance and/or put significant stress on the neck and upper back (think headstand-type exercises without arms).

For the most part, Pilates is a living legacy. If we think about why some exercises ended up being "archival" we can't leave out the idea that some just didn't appeal to or were forgotten by the first or second generation teachers. Also, some of the historical Pilates videos reveal standing and mat exercises are not in keeping with today's exercise preferences. Many include stretches with bouncing -- a technique that is no longer considered healthy for the muscles, and there are a lot of just plain old-fashioned looking, military style, calisthenics. These days, most people are more attracted to the majority of Pilates exercises that bring out more finesse in the practitioner.

We've talked about how exercises become archival and why we might want certain ones to stay archival, but are there archival exercises we're just plain missing out on? The Taylor sisters, founders of the Pilates Center of Boulder, who host the historically oriented 5 Lineages and Lost Treasures [archivals] conferences think so. They inherited a lengthy compilation of historical footage of Joseph Pilates teaching Romana Kryzanowska and others. The sisters say that a few years ago, when they undertook a real study of it, they realized there was a "treasure of user-friendly exercises" there.

Of the video the Taylor sisters own, Amy Taylor Alpers writes: "The exercises on this film – which are the ones we teach in our Lost Treasures Workshop - are clearly “Pilates” exercises in the sense that they are in complete synchronicity with all the other material we learned from Romana. In fact, included on the tape are full reformer, mat and chair workouts just as we know them today. We hypothesized that perhaps the only reason some of this other material didn't come down through Romana’s lineage – approximately 40-45 exercises – was because they tend to be mostly arm springs and upper body, which the female Elders have often said Joe didn’t give to them. However, many of these exercises are being performed by a young Romana on the tape. And we have found that woman clients love them and are well served by them." (see image 2)

That we don't get to experience some of the archival exercises, and beyond that, the fact that some are being lost due to not being passed along also speaks to one of the downsides of Pilates training today, which is that it has moved away from the one-on-one and mentor model. As we train in large classes, whether they be student classes or teacher training, things necessarily become more generalized, and the generalization becomes standardized, which leaves out the unique possibilities that come with personalized instruction. In recent years mentor models for advanced teacher training have been gaining ground, and some of the Pilates Elders and senior teachers are participating. Those venues may be the way some archival exercises are resurrected and passed along. Hopefully people will resist the urge to dredge up any old half-remembered exercise just to satisfy the archival mystique.

Access to Archival Exercises

One of the reasons there are different ideas about what the archival exercises are and their value is that even those who have been exposed to archival exercises through film or direct teaching have not been learning from the same sources. Obviously, different Elders remember or emphasize different exercises. More intriguing is that there is historical film footage out there that has not been widely shared at all.

The archival exercises on film are not lumped all together in a neatly labeled archive somewhere. The footage is privately owned and many of the owners have been unwilling to share what they have for a variety of reasons. Some are concerned about "rights and copyrights" so they are afraid to come forward with what they have. Some people and companies choose to retain their historical video footage, generally offering it only to their teacher trainees. For example, Sean Gallagher, who owns historical footage and whom you may remember from the Pilates trademark dispute, responded to me this way: "So, if you are interested in learning the work of Joseph Pilates as he described it and documented it and carried on through the continuation of his studio you would require this information.... this material is only available for those who go through our teacher training program or attend our archival workshops" No one really knows how much historical footage containing archival exercises is out there, or how many people have it. And, of course, some of it may be the same footage duplicated.

Historical Video Resources

There are resources for the general public to see historical videos and learn more about archival exercises. Learning archival exercises in person, directly from people who are qualified to teach them safely, is always the best way to learn. Archival information could come to you through Pilates Elders or people who studied directly with them. Archival workshops such as The Lost Treasures Conference are other good opportunities. Also, we are fortunate to have a some historical video tapes available to the public. Within them, some of the exercises are archival, and these film to video documentations are fascinating looks into the history of Pilates and the way some of our familiar exercises were done.

  • There are a few historical video clips of Joseph Pilates on YouTube. There have been more in the past but they were removed due to copyright claims. Of course, YouTube is always changing.:
    Joseph Pilates 1932 - This video shows Joseph Pilates doing mat and some of the calisthenic standing exercises
    Pilates and Romana Original Video - This is an inspiring video featuring a very young Romana Kryzanowska with a later voice over of her talking about Pilates. A must-see in my opinion.
    Tecnicas de Joseph Pilates - Posted after this article was written, this is amazing footage of Joseph Pilates taking Eve Gentry through and extensive and advanced workout on all apparatus. There are definitely archival exercises here. Another must-see!
  • Eve Gentry and the Power of Pilates Documentary This DVD contains the footage of Eve Gentry and Joseph Pilates mentioned above and much more -- in particular a close look at Pilates Elder Eve Gentry and what she brought to teaching Pilates.
  • Joe and Clara Pilates Historic Video - Pilates Elder Mary Bowen offers a 70 minute Historic Video/DVD compiled from personal films Joe and Clara made between 1932 and 1945.

  • Joseph Pilates Archival Footage - this footage shows Joseph Pilates performing his exercises. It is offered by Power Pilates.

  • Carola Shares The Pilates Elders are the most direct link we have to Joseph Pilates work. Jillian Hessel, one of Pilates Elder Carola Triers' main students, offers this DVD which she says contains many archival exercises and was shot on the cadillac built for Carola by Joseph Pilates.

  • The Complete Universal Reformer Series While this is not historic footage, Peter Fiasca, who made this DVD, says it "includes a wide range of rarely seen exercises from Joseph Pilates original archives."

Note that a distinction can be made between the terms historical and archival. Historical footage or photographs may or may not be little known, whereas for a video or an exercise to be archival, it has been mostly "stored away". Undoubtedly there are more videos available that include historical footage or document archival exercises than I have listed here. I will add those as I hear about them.

Well, to use a Pilates-like image, the cat is out of the bag. There is an interest in archival exercises and I hope we will see a greater willingness on the part of those who know useful archival exercises to pass them along, and for those who own historical footage to share it. I'd also like to observe that there are hundreds of wonderful Pilates exercises -- enough to keep anyone interested and fit -- that are commonly known and taught and have stood the test of time for good reason.

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