DVD Pick: "Kill Bill Vol. 2"

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Updated June 08, 2015.

September 3, 2013
When Pilates Elder Romana Kryzanowska passed away on August 30, 2013, it was not unexpected. She was ninety years old and had been retired from the public for some years. Yet, as is often the case with the passing of those important to us, I was unprepared. I think that has been true for many of us in the Pilates community this weekend. And with the passing of the much loved instructor Julian Littleford the next day, it was kind of like being at the ocean and being knocked down by a wave then looking away for a moment and getting hit by another.

For my part, I regret that I do not already have a full biography of Romana Kryzanowska on this website. There are many mentions of her throughout the site, of course, but I always felt it was a flaw in the site not to have more about her specifically. Somehow, Romana's stature and her immense influence on the path Pilates has taken in the world made the task seem too daunting.

A few years ago, Romana's granddaughter, Daria, and I were working towards an interview but it was interrupted by a family emergency for me and I dropped the ball. Oddly enough, right now I am facing another crisis in my family. So I hope you will forgive me, with all that is going on, for not getting it together to write a proper biography for Romana at this time. Nevertheless, it is important to talk about Romana.

There are things I want everyone to know, especially those of you reading who may be new to Pilates, because it doesn't matter what Pilates lineage you train in, Romana Kryzanowska is part of your Pilates history.

Romana began studying with Joseph Pilates in 1940. She was a student at The American School of Ballet when an ankle injury brought her to Joe's studio. A natural mover, she quickly became a star student and a helper at the studio.

Over the years, Romana became like family to Joseph and Clara Pilates. She called him Uncle Joe, and continued to call him that through her life. Even during a period of 15 years when Romana, who married Pablo Mejia in 1944, went to live in Peru and raised her children Paul and Sari, she stayed close to Joe and they wrote letters.

Romana continued to study and work with Joseph and Clara Pilates until Joe's death in 1967 and went on to teach with Clara until until her death. She then carried on running the studio until the early 1980s when there were a number of changes of ownership. Romana continued to teach at the studio, even as it changed ownership, names, and locations. Eventually, she went on to found Romana's Pilates. She taught Pilates and trained instructors into her eighties.

That was the barest outline of a long and extraordinary life. I will point to you better historical resources below, but I wanted to make a point. I wanted us to contemplate for a moment that Romana started studying Pilates (contrology at that time) at seventeen and taught Pilates for something close to 67 years. When I think about Romana working with Joe all those years before he died, I think not only of her absorbing Joe's work, but also that Joe was inspired by Romana and how she moved. She reported that when he saw her, he said he knew she was the one. Romana was undoubtedly Joe's protege. I think there is a place where Romana must have shaped the way Joseph Pilates saw movement and the way he developed his work. That's my opinion, of course.

Romana taught in New York for most of her career and traveled widely to train teachers. Think of how many students she must have had over the decades, and how many instructors she trained who then went on to teach more people and so on over the many decades. But Romana didn't just teach, Romana was completely immersed in Joe's work at the studio and she dedicated her life to learning, teaching, and preserving it.

Romana's skill and passion in teaching Pilates is legendary, as was her passion for life. She inspired great devotion in her students, not only because of who she was and what she could do, but because she was 100 percent committed to them. Reports are that it was not easy to be a student of Romana. She was demanding. She had high standards. She could be very tough. But she knew the work, she knew how to see a body and bring the person into it, and she held a vision that was beyond what a student thought they thought they could do -- and she got them there.

In my many years of reporting on Pilates I have been impressed and inspired by the commitment and love for Pilates as an art, discipline, and lifestyle that Romana ignited in her students. I have seen first-hand how that flame has fueled the respect for and growth of Pilates in the world. I never got to meet Romana myself, but almost every one of my teachers were either her students or studied with her students. I can't thank her enough for what I know has come into my life because of her. My hope is that generations of Pilates students will feel that connection.

As I write this I have an excellent article titled Romana Kryzanowska: Pilates Living Legend (R. G. Davis, IDEA Fitness Journal in 1997) on the desk in front of me. It has a photo of Romana on the front. Romana's chin is perched on the heels of her hands as her fingers come up around her face, flared slightly like little wings. She is smiling and her eyes are bright and inquisitive. I am reminded of the many stories I've heard of how brilliant and engaging Romana was, and how she loved a party -- preferably with champagne and flowers.

Like much of the Pilates community, I've struggled to come to terms with and find appropriate words for two huge losses in the space of two days. And as I said, I've had a family crisis at the same time. It has been a lot, but I look at that photo and Romana seems to be saying OK. What are you going to do with this? Step up girl! Then, my mind goes to a story Richard Rossiter told in Voices of Classical Pilates: There was a fellow in class who had worn himself out earlier in the day. He was working in the corner trying to hide, but Romana was aware of everything. She spied him and called across the room, "You, over in the corner, stop falling apart!" It helps. That, and the little challenge in her eye kept me going. And now it makes me think it's time to workout.

Authors note: In terms of the history of Pilates, Romana's story is bigger, of course. I cannot do it full justice here. My hope was to make a start. If we were looking at the history of Pilates, there is a larger context to see Romana's influence. There are other Pilates Elders, for example, who also played important roles in the spread of Pilates, as well as first generation teachers who have carried the work forward. This is my small offering in honor of Romana Kryzanowska's important place in the history of Pilates and the legacy she left.

I truly encourage you to learn more about Romana Kryzanowska and the history of Pilates in general. The best thing to do is to seek out the living Elders and the first generation students and listen to their stories. Conferences and workshops are great ways to do that. You will also find some wonderful stories at the Pilates classes online subscription sites. The Jay Grimes interviews at Pilatesology are especially engaging. There is a lot of archival Pilates video on YouTube as well.

Some other resources I suggest:

The Pilates Method - a Living Legacy
Voices of Classical Pilates
Joseph Hubertus Pilates The Biography
The Archival Pilates Exercises (slightly out of date but still useful)
My Interviews with Pilates Leaders
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