Interview with Cathy Barker Strack, Pilates teacher and biographer of Romana Kryzanowska
Dear Cathy, you have been doing research about the life of Romana Kryzanowska for several years and you are writing a book about her – I’m so excited to be able to talk to you about her!
May I first ask you how you became so interested in Romana’s life? When did you decide to write her biography?
As a Pilates teacher, I was curious about the history of the method. Romana stood out as one of the most significant people still teaching and training at the time. Stories about her teaching are as legendary as those about Joseph Pilates. While there was some information about Joe’s personal life, there was very little about Romana’s life. One of my clients, Carol J. Craig, also became interested in helping me learn more about Romana. Carol has a background in geneaology and she was able to find some interesting information about Romana’s parents and grandparents. Romana’s parents were artists in Detroit and Romana was born in the nearby town of Farmington, Michigan. The fact that it was only a short three hour drive to Michigan to do more research helped us easily learn more information.
It got so we were spending Carols lesson time talking about the things we found out about Romana and her family. Such as the fact that her paternal grandmother was a Baroness, her maternal grandfather owned a buggy and carriage company, and countless stories about the wild adventures of her aunts and uncles on both sides of the family. All these people influenced who Romana came to be as a daughter, mother, teacher, and friend to many around the world. At some point, Carol and I just looked at each other and realized that someone needed to tell Romana’s story. Why not us?! Our next step was to go to Romana’s family and ask permission. They gave their permission and we were off and running. Her story could not be told without their blessing and help. It’s been about 5 or 6 years of research and the past year of writing.
Can you tell us about the first time young ballet dancer Romana met Joseph Pilates?
There hasn’t been much new information to tell really. Romana has told this part of her story so many times. She was dancing in the Balanchine school, had an injured ankle, and he took her to see Joe in order to help her recover. Joe recognized her talent in learning and demonstrating his exercises. Unfortunately, Romana did not fully appreciate the work she was doing at the time. She didn’t want to disappoint her teachers and her mother so she did as she was told. As a idealistic teenager, she saw herself as a dancer, aspiring to greater roles on stage. She just wanted to dance.
Romana developed a passion for the Pilates method and performed the exercises in a wonderful way very quickly. There are great films of her working out in the Pilates studio in the early 1940s. Can you tell us, if it was hard for her to leave, when she decided to go to Peru with her husband Pablo Mejia in 1944? Did she stay in touch with Joe and Clara?
I don’t think it was hard for her to leave. She was young and impulsive. Her mother and step-father introduced her to Pablo Mejia, who was very charismatic and wealthy. He promised her a life of luxury that included opening her own dance studio in Peru. Most of her family gave their blessing and she was off to a better life than she would have had in New York.
She continued to focus on dance and Pilates was a means to make her dancing better. Because of that I believe they did keep in touch. When she had her children she needed Joe’s help with exercises to help them develop and grow. Her daughter Sari, in particular, had suffered an illness that required Pilates exercises to help her fully recover.
After Romana Kryzanowska returned to the United States in 1958 she soon became a very important figure in the Pilates Studio. Can you tell us more about her role in the studio in this period?
I think at first her role was very subtle. She needed to make a living and support her family. That meant taking jobs teaching ballet and teaching Pilates on the side. At one point she combined the two worlds when Clark Center (for dance) rented space in the Pilates building and she worked for both. Once she returned from Peru, she just never left Pilates again. It was always there for her, the work in her body and the work to earn a living. While her first love was dancing, I don’t think it was as lucrative.
After Joseph Pilates died in 1967 Romana took over. There is a discussion, if Joseph Pilates saw her as his successor or not. In my opinion he didn’t, although he had been working so closely with her, because she was a woman. What do you think?
One of the interesting pieces of information that I have uncovered in my research is that Joe had many hopes for many different people to take over the studio. And this began happening as early as the late 1930’s. The question isn’t so simple as to who should take over when he died. He really didn’t like city life and had been going to the country regularly. He wanted someone to take over the studio so he could spend more time in the country, where he also wanted to continue to teach, and to train teachers of his method.
He had several nieces, and Clara’s niece Irene, that were all brought to the studio to train and teach; with the hope that they could take over the studio. But alas, they were young and had other ideas. Such as marrying and having families. There were also some of the teachers we know about, such as Hannah, some male dancers and others we may never know, that were considered to take over. I really think that by the time Romana came back from Peru, Joe was able to learn from his mistakes. Specifically that he was more interested in having others take over his studio more than they were interested in actually doing it. Romana was different because she had the interest and the ability. She had had her family and wouldn’t be pulled away like his nieces had been. With this realization, toward the end of his life, Joe had Romana record in writing as much of his work as was possible. She kept those notes and his legacy.
There are many Pilates teachers all around the world who have studied with Romana – and they adore her. What made her such an excellent teacher?
It was her gift, her special talent in life. She was able to combine teaching skills (which she had developed from being a ballet teacher), an innate ability to execute the exercises and an implicit trust in the Pilates method based on her close relationship with Joe and Clara. She also had a healing talent for understanding what each person needed, be it a client or one of the teachers she trained. Romana’s maternal grandmother had this ability. Her grandmother owned a maternity hospital and was the midwife for Romana’s birth. Which brings us back to her family and their importance in her life.
What was Romana’s most important contribution to the history of the Pilates method? How did she contribute to the enormous success of Pilates?
Her most important contributions are two-fold. First, the world would not know what the Pilates Method is, in it’s purest form, if she hadn’t dedicated her life to teaching it. Second, she instilled in her best teachers that same passion to continue to the work.
Cathy, thank you so much for taking the time to answer all these questions! I can’t wait to read your book!
Cathy Strack began studying the Pilates method in 2001 while working as a Personal Trainer. She became certified in 2003 at White Cloud Studios in Cleveland and is currently enrolled in the Power Pilates Bridge program. She now teaches at BodyMind Balance in Cincinnati. She holds an M.S. in Clinical Psychology and was a mental health counselor in a previous career. Cathy has published the Pilates Pamphlet, a piece of Pilates history, and is writing a biography about Romana Kryzanowska.