Pilates Style|July - August 2020
PILATES STYLE Tell us about your upbringing. Was movement a part of it?
NORA ST. JOHN I grew up in Pasadena, CA. I’m one of seven kids—in the middle, which explains my ability to tolerate chaos and need to be a part of large groups. Movement was definitely a big part of my childhood. My mom taught modern dance, and we all grew up dancing, swimming and pursuing movement in many forms. I was always drawn to more complex activities like ice skating, gymnastics, tap dance and ballet. I went to a science-oriented prep school, so science was also part of my background. I ended up studying biology and dance at UC Santa Cruz.
PS How did you discover Pilates?
NORA One of my teachers was a woman named Ruth Solomon, who was the head of the dance department at UC Santa Cruz. She taught a complete Pilates mat warm-up before each class, but never called it Pilates. So technically I’ve been doing Pilates since 1979.
After I graduated, I was performing as a modern dancer and broke my foot. It was 1988, and Ruth told me to go to the Center for Sports Medicine at St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco. St. Francis had a Pilates-based dance medicine division. I was there three or four days a week for six months. I would show up at 8 a.m. and wouldn’t leave till 10:30 a.m [laughs]. I was really depressed—I was a dancer who couldn’t dance. But I had this really flexible job (working for a theater production company) and was able to go often.
PS How was your very first experience on the apparatus?
NORA I have to say, my first session on the Reformer [at St. Francis] was like coming home. I remember thinking, This is the perfect thing. I loved every minute of it, and it felt right.
PS Why do you think Pilates resonated with you so deeply?
NORA I think it has to do with my love for complex movement. Running on a treadmill would make me want to shoot myself. I was an athlete who needed a mindful component. After about six months of doing Pilates regularly, I was stronger. I couldn’t go back to dance, but the changes in my body were pretty profound.
PS You ended up teaching at St. Francis for 11 years. Did they offer you a job right off the bat?
NORA Elizabeth Larkam had started a teachertraining program through St. Francis, and I had applied to the program and had just asked my grandmother to help me pay for it. I hadn’t even sent in my application yet, when Diana Harold, my favorite instructor, asked me, Do you want to be a teacher here? When I said yes, I had no idea it would set the course for the rest of my life. I have been blessed with many people who helped me figure out who I was and point the way to my future. In this way I have been extremely lucky.
PS And the rest is history! Tell us about your experience at the hospital.
NORA Everyone who has worked at St. Francis calls it “Pilates instructor boot camp.” It was intense. There would be two, three or four instructors on the floor with four to eight students. Because we were in a hospital, everyone had an issue: We would have a client with a spinal fusion on the Reformer, a dancer with a stress fracture on the Cadillac and an ice skater with an ACL repair working on the Chair. Every hour was a combination of assessment, triage and modifications. You were problem solving every minute of every day. For me, St. Francis was the perfect environment for getting very efficient at understanding what skill was needed and providing safe exercises to achieve that goal.
PS You studied with a lot of the greats at St. Francis. What are some of your favorite memories learning from them?
NORA We did a couple of extended residencies with Eve [Gentry] and Michele [Larsson]. Same with Alan Herdman. Romana also came for a week. I studied with Carola [Trier] in Los Angeles at Jillian Hessel’s studio, as well as with Marie-Jose Blom.
Later I studied with Kathy Grant and Lolita [San Miguel]. All of them from that generation were hardasses. There was this common thread of focus and dedication, and their eye was just phenomenal. I remember watching Kathy work; she may not have known quads from traps, but she looked at a body, gave two corrections and the entire body would change. That’s how all of them were. They were completely present and they saw all of you.
PS Did you find it challenging to teach without formal training?
NORA I learned on the job. I’m a very experiential learner, so it was the best way for me to learn. Very quickly we became a group that was self-learning together. Someone would read something or go to an anatomy course and would come back and share it. Or they would go to a workshop with Jean-Claude West. I know many people had the experience of shaming by fellow classmates and other negativity. That’s not what I “grew up” with at all. We were all in the deep end together, dealing with serious medical issues.
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July - August 2020