Tag Archives: dance

Strong Women 2 – Romana Kryzanowska

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!

About Cathy:

cropped color(1)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.
To get in touch with Cathy you can email her at cbsphit@frontier.com

Strong Women 1: Carola Strauss-Trier

Strong Women of the History of the Pilates Method, 1

Carola on Reformer (with permission of Jillian Hessel, http://www.jillianhessel.com/store.html#pposter)

Carola Strauss-Trier was the first person to open a Pilates studio – following Joseph Pilates himself. She has contributed significantly to establish the Pilates method in the field of rehabilitation. The story of her life is just as interesting as the life of Joseph Pilates – but it contains so much suffering and terror that it’s not easy to handle. She was unable to finish her memoirs, because so many of her memories were too painful for her to bear it – and yet: she survived and lived her life and accomplished great things!

Carola was born in 1913 in Frankfurt, Germany. Her father was Eduard Strauß, a professor for chemistry who also taught comparative religious sciences at „Jüdisches Lehrhaus“ a Jewish open university in Frankfurt. Carola grew up in an inspiring intellectual environment – Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig were close friends of the family. She pursued an artistic career and started studying dance at Folkwang school in Essen.

In 1933, shortly before her 20. birthday, the Nazis came to power in Germany. Most dancers supported this “movement” hoping for renewal and new glory for the German nation. Being Jewish this was a tragedy for Carola. During the first two years of Nazi reign she scratched a living by dancing for small entertainment shows and tried most of all not to attract any attention. In 1935 she couldn’t bear it anymore and went to France. Without documents she supported herself as a dancer in nightclubs. Looking for a new career option she became interested in acrobatics. This was how she met Marcel Naydorf, an acrobatics teacher. They fell in love. She developed her own show, dancing on roller-skates. The show was successful and her life seemed to stabilize.

Then World War Two started. The German Wehrmacht invaded France and Carola was interned by the French. From their point of view she was a German, an enemy alien. That she had fled the Nazis didn’t count. From Paris she was sent to the internment camp Gurs. Marcel Naydorf followed her. He was able to supply her with additional food and finally managed to have her released.

The following years were full of anxiety. Carola and Marcel settled in the so called zone libre (“free zone”), the part of France that had not been occupied yet. She waited in despair for a visa for the United States. In June 1942 at last she received it. She was rescued in the last moment: Shortly after she set off on the complicated trip via Algeria and Casablanca to the United States, the “free zone” was raided: several thousand Jews were detained and most of them sent to Auschwitz.

Carola had escaped. But upon her arrival in the United States she was interned again: In Fort Howard near Baltimore she was once more regarded as a potential enemy alien, until her status as a refugee had been proved. Now she was able to start a new life – trying to get over that fact that she had had to leave behind her partner who had not received a visa for the US.

Very soon Carola was back on stage with her skating show – her roller-skates were among the few things she had taken with her on her journey from Europe. In 1944 she had an accident on stage. Dr. Henry Jordan, the specialist for orthopedics who treated her at Lenox Hill Hospital suggested that she should go to Joseph Pilates’ studio for rehabilitation. He was a client himself.

Meeting Joe Pilates for the first time was probably difficult for Carola. After her experiences with the Nazis she certainly wouldn’t have picked a man like Joe with his strong German accent for her rehabilitation. But she trusted her doctor and took it on. She was thrilled! She was fascinated by the efficiency of the Pilates method. She realized that Joseph Pilates had developed an ingenious method for the rehabilitation of dancers. After she had successfully finished her own rehabilitation she stayed a permanent guest of the Pilates studio and observed Joseph Pilates closely, especially when he was working with rehabilitation patients.

Carola also educated herself further regarding the medical side. Dr. Henry Jordan allowed her to observe him treating rehabilitation patients, even during operations, she started working closely with him. Towards the end of the Fifties, after she had learned from Joseph Pilates for more than ten years, she decided to open her own studio. In the meantime she had married Edgar Trier, so she opened her studio as Carola S. Trier.

Her studio was located on 58th street in New York, just two blocks away from Joe’s and Clara’s studio on Eighth Avenue. Her cooperation with Dr. Henry Jordan and William Liebler from Lenox Hill Hospital and her connections to show business brought her many clients from the world of dance. Her firmly managed, up to date studio was different from the original.

Carola Trier’s studio was modern and rather minimalistic while many clients felt like they had gone on a journey back in time when they were entering Joe’s studio. On Eighth Avenue every client was required to take care of his or her own workout – in Carola’s studio you worked one on one. Carola and her assistants prepared the apparatus, gave instructions and feedback. The studio was doing so well that Carola was able to hire several assistants. Big names like Romana Kryzanowska and Kathy Grant used to work for Carola Trier.

Despite these differences Carola and Joe Pilates were resembling each other in many ways. Like him she seemed severe and she also had an explosive temper. Like Joe Pilates she didn’t like it, if people were talking a lot in her studio. And like him she was speaking English with a German accent all her life. Another similarity between the two was their wish to present their work to the public. Carola Trier was doing a successful job regarding public relations. In 1961 Dance Magazine published two articles about her work with dancers. In 1963 she managed to have some of the exercises she had developed herself promoted by Newsweek and Vogue.

In the glossy magazines she had presented exercises she had developed herself, so she didn’t see any necessity to mention the name Joseph Pilates. He didn’t like that and their relationship cooled down during the last years prior to his death.

From today’s perspective it seems clear that Joseph Pilates and his method have benefited immensely by Carola Trier’s work. She run her New York studio successfully until she retired in 1986. Her work in the realm of rehabilitation was the groundwork for the Pilates method to be used in that area. Today the method is established in rehabilitation worldwide and it’s benefits have been proofed by many scientific studies. Carola Trier trained many Pilates teachers, among them some of the most influential master teachers of today’s Pilates world: Lolita San Miguel, Alan Herdman, Deborah Lessen, Jillian Hessel and many more. She’s the role model for a job profile many dancers pursue following their active dancing career: they become Pilates teachers!

More information about Carola Strauss-Trier’s life and work :

Documentary and interviews about Carola on Pilates Anytime

Manuscript of her unfinished memoirs (Leo Baeck Institute)

Jilllian Hessel about her mentors Carola Trier and Kathy Grant in Pilates Style Magazine

Order an reproduction of the wonderful picture of her on the Reformer in Jillian Hessel’s webshop!