When it comes to exercise—particularly weight lifting—there’s one thing most women will agree on. They want the strength that comes from working out, but they don’t want to look like a linebacker. Unlike their male counterparts in the gym, women aren’t looking to bulk up. They’re looking for that know-it-when-you-see-it long, lean look.
The look of a dancer.
And that’s why you don’t often see professional dancers hanging out at the gym pumping iron. Instead, they’re doing something else entirely—Pilates.
A few months ago Mimi published a story about the Merriman Valley’s Tom Smith Studio, which specializes in true Pilates. That story received so much attention, she felt compelled to come back with more information about just what goes on there.
First, let’s meet owner Tom Smith, a full Professor of Dance at The University of Akron who enjoyed an astonishing career as a professional dancer. He performed on all the major stages of the world—including
Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center—and danced on important stages such as the Paris Opera, Tivoli and the Berlin Opera. He’s a nationally renowned choreographer listed in the National Registry of Who’s Who for Dance.
But all that success aside, Tom is quick to admit that his greatest achievement was the opportunity to study under the celebrated Martha Graham.
“She was among the five people in the 20th century who fundamentally changed their art forever,” Tom explains. “Stravinsky in music. Picasso in art. Bertolt Brecht in acting; James Joyce in literature; and Martha Graham in dance. It was an incredible honor to be her student and friend.”
In fact, it was Martha who first suggested to Tom that he try Pilates after spraining his ankle during a rehearsal.
“Unlike traditional weight lifting—which works one muscle group at a time—Pilates works several muscle groups at the same time,” Tom says. “It builds strength, stamina, flexibility and dramatically enhances coordination.”
All traits, not coincidentally, that dancers need.
According to Tom, Pilates was first introduced by Joseph Pilates (pronounced pi LA teez) in 1919 to help rehabilitate and re-ambulate German soldiers who had been held in English prisons during WWI. “Pilates is about reforming the body,” he explains. “That’s why Pilates equipment includes the Reformer, a machine that combines straps, springs and a moving platform to maximize your workout.”
Tom adds that the proper use of authentic Pilates equipment can get results ten times faster than traditional Pilates floor exercises that rely on simple gravity for resistance. And unlike weight lifting, Pilates isn’t about building bulk. It’s about building the long, lean muscles that offer strength, stamina, flexibility and coordination.
And that comes from proper form.
“Performing exercises correctly creates optimum results,” Tom assures. “And we stand on top of you to ensure that you achieve perfect form. There are no mirrors in our studio. We guide your form every second of your workout.”
And to create leaner, longer muscles, you must work them dynamically. “The body is limited by anatomy and gravity so Pilates uses yoga and classical dance shapes in a dynamic fashion,” Tom instructs. “By balancing your body frame on the machines, muscle groups are activated in push and pull rhythms. Pilates strengthens the stomach while creating perfect spinal alignment. The arms, legs and head achieve a full range of motion.”
Practicing only 75 minutes, twice per week, typically results in better sleep, weight loss, pain reduction, and—well—that dancer look.
Although most of the clients who visit Tom’s studio are area women who want strength and flexibility without the bulk, sometimes his clients have a very specific agenda. “Earlier this year we worked with Miss Ohio Anna Melomud,” Tom says. “She asked us to help her prepare for the Miss Universe Pageant. Our goals were to help her walk better, stand more erect and walk with confidence.”
Yes, an impressive benefit of Pilates can be dramatically improved posture.
“We strengthen your core to create facility in your appendages,” Tom says. “And that helps achieve our overall goals of strength, stamina and flexibility.” In fact, one of Tom’s clients is an 86-year-old woman working to stand straighter, walk better and reduce pain in her upper and lower back. “The spine ossifies as we age,” Tom says. “But Joseph Pilates saw the spine as an appendage. And just like your arms and legs, it can be made more flexible. Imagine being able to move your spine like you did when you were a kid?”
So all this time we thought stiffness and soreness was an inevitable consequence of the aging process—and we were just plain wrong.
As a career dancer and professor, Tom knows the body. For example, he explains that ligaments attach bone to bone and tendons attach muscle to bone, and being aware of what each is capable of is crucial to achieving success. “There are things your body can do and things it cannot do,” Tom insists. “But Pilates can absolutely make your muscles leaner, longer and help you feel younger.”
As astonishing as it may sound, Tom says the number of people who exercise regularly and who see a benefit from it is the same percentage of the U.S. population that it was in the 1950s, in spite of everything we’ve learned about exercise and fitness since then. “People of all generations want to see results for their effort,” offers Tom. “That’s why Pilates appeals to people who are busy and goal-oriented. It’s designed to be fast, effective and more affordable than you may think. Two classes a week and you’ll see a tremendous difference.”
And, darling, you won’t look like a linebacker.