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History of Joe

Joseph Hubertus Pilates (1880-1967) was born near Dusseldorf, Germany to a prize winning gymnast father and a mother who was a Naturopath.  Even with the genetics of health and fitness on his side, all accounts refer to him as a sickly child who suffered from Rickets, Asthma and Rheumatic Fever. He was often picked on. This seems to be what drove him to build his physical strength and stamina. He worked so hard that by the age of fourteen, he posed as a model for anatomical charts and maintained his fitness with body building, diving, skiing and gymnastics. In 1912, Joe moved to England and either made a living in the circus in a strong man act with his brother or as a greek statue. This is where some of the accounts of his life start to differ. Some people say that he moved to train as a boxer and also trained English detectives in self-defense. I think probably all are true to some extent.

A couple years later, World War I broke out and Joe, being of German heritage, was interned with other Germans at a camp in Lancaster, England and later at the Isle of Man. Joe’s focus on strength and fitness led him to teach his fellow internees some of the self-defense, wrestling and fitness exercises (now taught as matwork) he had developed. He also began working with the camp’s disabled and took springs, pulleys and straps from the hospital beds to create ways to help them move their limbs, and regain strength and muscle control.

Joe began receiving notoriety and buzz for the fact (or legend) that none of the people he worked with in his internment camp fell ill to the influenza epidemic that swept the world and killed millions of healthy young people in 1918.

After the war, Joe returned to Germany, settling in Hamburg where he continued to develop his fitness theories, techniques and exercises. The Hamburg military police caught word of Joe’s work and hired him to train them in self-defense and fitness. As the buzz of Pilates’ work grew, the German government asked him to train the new German army in 1925.

In 1926, given the sensitive political circumstances, Joe emigrated to the US, meeting his life partner, Clara, on the boat ride to New York City. Clara and Joe set up their first studio in New York in the same building as some well known dance companies, namely Martha Graham, Ted Shawn, Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine who all encouraged their dancers to train with Joe. Aside from that, Joe and Clara would spend their summers teaching the Pilates method to the dancers attending Jacob’s Pillow, a well known dance camp.

Although dancers were among the first to know of Joe’s work, he became very popular among New York’s rich and famous and continued to teach at his studio well into the 1960’s. He died at the age of 87 in 1967, some say due to complications from smoke inhalation suffered from a fire that hit his studio on Eight Ave. a year earlier. According to Bruce King, a teacher and longtime student, Joe had gone back to his studio to inspect the fire damage when burnt floorboards gave out from beneath him. Joe fell through the floor but was able to catch one of the floor beams and pull himself up…..amazing considering that Joe would have been 86 years old at the time.