If you’re looking for a new way to incorporate Black history into your workout routine, try pilates.
Pilates has been established as the domain of wealthy white women (and occasionally white men) since its inception. This led to very few professional pilates education opportunities for people of color. It also created an overwhelming lack of Black clients as pilates was not seen as Black community-friendly, and often cost prohibitive.
However, what many people don’t know is that pilates was popularized by a Black woman. This Black woman is not Lori Harvey, but her ties to pilates, which drew widespread attention at the 2022 Met Gala, piqued my interest in wanting to check it out.
Joseph Pilates created what we know as pilates in a prison for sick prisoners in Germany in the 1920s, but his understudy Kathy Stanford Grant was a Black acclaimed choreographer who brought it to the United States.
Pilates is a type of exercise that focuses on the core and uses controlled movements to improve strength and flexibility. Many dancers who wanted to improve their moves or recover from an injury were drawn to the original methods Pilates developed in his efforts to establish the sport itself.
While often compared to yoga due to similar movements and benefits such as good posture and balance, pilates is extremely low-impact unlike hardcore gym routine workouts. Pilates consists of slow, rhythmic exercises that incorporate your mind, body and spirit, resulting in improved sleep and decreased menstrual pain.
Stanford Grant performed alongside the leading lights of Black dance representatives such as Pearl Bailey, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Cab Calloway, Carmen de Lavallade and a plethora of others. But throughout her career in the arts and movement, she worked to make pilates more accessible to everyone by implementing image-based instruction.
Thanks largely to Black instructors who have persevered and reclaimed pilates as their own, as well as Black athletes, actors and musicians who’ve popularized pilates in the Black community, diversity has begun to emerge in pilates.
Our bodies matter in these spaces. We belong here. We are the blueprint simply reclaiming our rightful place. In a world where we are told we are too dark, too big, too loud, too mean, too hard, we deserve recovery. We require a safe haven where we can actively pursue our own healing.
Although you can go to a fitness studio or take a local class, there are a plethora of videos on Tik Tok and YouTube from people sharing their routines, practice tips and other resources that can help you build the confidence to try something new from the comfort of your own home while still participating in physical activity.
It takes courage to prioritize our health when we live in a racist-stricken society that doesn’t care about Black women or their wellbeing. We are expected to quietly move through a world that wants us to mother it before anything or anyone else – including ourselves.
With our community publicly reclaiming pilates and as we learn that it was us who popularized it in this country, we are seeing the divinity in crediting ourselves and our heritage, giving honor where honor is due.
If the Black community knew that our history influenced pilates as we know it today, perhaps we might have a stronger presence in this space and a greater willingness to try it out.
Women like Stanford Grant remind me that Black women learning to become more aware and intentional about honoring their bodies is a revolutionary act.