Lori Harvey Is Just the Start of a Black Pilates Legacy

·4 min read
Photo credit: Lisa Maree Williams - Getty Images
Photo credit: Lisa Maree Williams - Getty Images

Recently, I was scrolling through social media, and I saw the comment, “Fitness studios are about to become more diverse than ever.” It was a response to Lori Harvey accrediting her physique to Pilates. I pondered and sat with the notion of Black people and POC not taking part in fitness practices until recently. I knew that despite the recent uptick in the Pilates hype, our culture is rich in the wellness space.

It starts with the work of pioneers like Kathleen Stanford Grant. Grant was a dance artist and protégé of Joseph Pilates, the mastermind and namesake of the exercise method. Joseph was an avid skier, a boxer, and a gymnast. During the First World War, in 1914, while touring with his circus act, Joseph was detained with other German nationals in Britain. It was his detainment that led to the invention of Pilates. As he performed for the ill detainees, he would gain inspiration from watching the movements of cats; their ability to stretch and lengthen their bodies captivated him. Intrigued, he manipulated springs to hospital beds, enabling ill patients to use resistance as an aid in their recovery. After being released from the internment camp, he moved to the States and settled in Manhattan, training many with his methods.

In 1954, he met dancer Kathleen Stanford Grant. Grant was in her 30s at the time; an acclaimed dancer who had been a dance captain for the Zanzibar Club in Harlem in the 1940s, and who had danced on Broadway and toured the world. She had performed alongside the leading lights of Black dance history: Pearl Bailey, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Cab Calloway, Carmen de Lavallade, Geoffrey Holder, and more. Grant came to Pilates after injuring her knee—she began the program as a form of rehab. But she quickly became devoted to the method, studying directly with Joseph himself and teaching her first classes.

Photo credit: NBC - Getty Images
Photo credit: NBC - Getty Images

By 1965, she received her certification after studying for 2,200 hours with the founder. Grant became the executive director of the Dance Theatre of Harlem and later ran a popular Pilates program at the iconic New York City department store Henri Bendel. She also taught at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University—institutional alliances that meant Grant, and her style of teaching, were enormously influential on the growth of Pilates in the United States. If you’ve ever been to a class and had an instructor tell you to “Zip up your jeans” while practicing an abdominal exercise, it’s because of Grant, who worked to implement image-based instruction to make Pilates more accessible to all.

Pilates was co-opted and rebranded in the 1970s by Ron Fletcher, who owned The Ron Fletcher Studio for Body Contrology, the very first West Coast Pilates studio. Fletcher was also a protégé of Joseph Pilates. But his studio was in Beverly Hills and represented a huge shift in the culture of the practice. Located above an exclusive salon at the corner of Wilshire Boulevard and Rodeo Drive, it attracted Hollywood royalty like Cher and Barbra Streisand. Pilates became about Hollywood and less about wellness for everyone. By the late ’90s, fitness infomercial gurus like Mari Winsor gained the attention of celebrity clientele that included Miley Cyrus, Drew Barrymore, Emma Stone, and Steven Spielberg. By 2009, fitness influencer Cassey Ho of Blogilates made Pilates digital, bridging the gap between fitness and social media for millennials.

As Pilates became more ingrained into pop culture, it gained the attention of Black celebrities like Samuel L. Jackson, Holly Robinson Peete, and most recently from younger Black celebrities like Normani and Lori Harvey.

Photo credit: MEGA - Getty Images
Photo credit: MEGA - Getty Images

But Pilates was never meant to be a signifier of wealth. It was designed to help people heal and recover. Grant believed that Pilates was not glamorous, nor a frivolous luxury, but instead essential life work. Black women like Grant did the work, so Black women like me can continue with the understanding community, and organizations like Diversity in Pilates and Black Girl Pilates can continue to center Black people and POC in the space of Pilates.

Our bodies matter in these spaces. We belong here. We’ve been here. We’ve created here. We do not follow trends; we are simply reclaiming our rightful place. In a world where we are told we are too dark, too fat, too loud, too mean, too hard, we need a space to recover. We need a space to actively pursue our own healing. We have gone back to our roots and have found recovery not in just wellness practices, but in each other.

When I think of women like Kathleen Stanford Grant, I am reminded that Black women learning to become more aware and intentional about honoring their bodies is a revolutionary act. It takes courage to prioritize your own well-being when we live in a very mammy syndrome-stricken society. We are expected to quietly move through a world that wants us to mother it while disregarding ourselves in the process. We are seeing the divinity in acknowledging ourselves, and it feels good. Our right and the search to be well will continue regardless of fleeting viral moments. We will continue to create and affirm who we are and what we believe in our own spaces, on our own terms.

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