Embodying a Magic Spell: Pilates Cross-Training For Dancers

Jennifer Morley, in class and performance, has a deep iliopsoas connection that demanded I pay attention, when I first saw her dance. She flowed effortlessly and efficiently. Her center support radiated throughout her body. Artistry sprung from a deep understanding of the way her body moved and functioned. I was spellbound.

I was long-trained in classical ballet and from an early point, focused on creating a shape-in-space more than moving from an internal spring. Jennifer, or JMo as most everyone knows her, embodied the inward-outward dancing I craved to understand.

JMo practicing Pilates.

JMo practicing Pilates.

JMo is an educator, choreographer, performer, and community creator in Philadelphia, PA. She is the Director of the Drexel Pilates Studio, creator of the Drexel Pilates training program, and an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Drexel University Dance program. Like many dancers, JMo discovered Pilates as a supplement to her dance training and practice. It was Pilates that became her “portal to embodying a myriad of somatic concepts.”

Journey to Pilates

“I chose the Pilates method because while I was pursuing my dance degree in college I found myself observing certain patterns in both my body and in my dancing that were not being addressed in my dance classes. In Pilates, I connected with both the clear biomechanics and the deep, clear, sense of embodiment I found…. It became a magic spell. I would go to Pilates sessions and the following day dynamic and physiological challenges that had been immovable for years were dissipating or gone. I remember my teachers noticing right away. I had a sense that the system was something I could rely on and ‘go home’ to,” JMo shared with me.

Pilates is a movement practice developed by Joseph Pilates, and “designed to stretch, strengthen, and balance the body,” as described by the Pilates Method Alliance. I’ve experienced it as a way to deeply align my body and mind from the inside out, using carefully designed exercises that can be performed on the mat or one of the many Pilates apparatuses, under the careful guidance of a trained Instructor.

For more info on the Pilates Method Alliance visit www.pilatesmethodalliance.org.

Pilates and Dance

JMo recommends this method of cross-training for dancers because “the resistance offered by the equipment coupled with the tactile cuing offered by the Instructor, the dancer can feel, sense, and re-pattern in a very specific way.”

Each dancer can utilize the many exercises, elements, and levels of Pilates to his/her unique needs. Traditional Pilates wisdom suggests practicing Pilates three times a week, but dancers can adjust that based upon their personal, cross-training needs. JMo reflected, “One of my teachers, Karen Carlson, often talks about our goal of moving all clients toward a highly functioning body. However, high function for a dancer means something very specific. I will, without question, slow down to help a dancer replace inefficiency or imbalance with success and integration. It is one of, if not the, single most important thing to me about this work. However, it is also really exciting to share the body of the classical work that I learned from Romana Kryzanowska.” (Romana Kryzanowska studied directly under Joseph Pilates and his wife, Clara).

Anyone, at any age, can engage in Pilates, but JMo suggests “that anyone with ostepenia or osteoporosis needs to be careful with flexing the spine against gravity….which is a huge component of the classical mat work. There are significant discussions in the field right now about how to develop the work with less spinal flexion.” She also recommends experiencing the equipment in addition to the mat work:

“You do not need any equipment to practice Pilates, but I don’t believe that you have really experienced the system in a holistic way until you have practiced on the equipment. Joseph Pilates built the equipment to support his clients in the mat work. The mat work is actually the boot camp of the method. The springs and pulleys and all of his other contraptions were invented to improve and deepen the mat work.”

When looking for a Pilates instructor or studio, JMo suggests “practitioners should seek out a fully equipped studio before coming to any conclusions about the system as a whole.”

All that is possible

I asked JMo if there was a specific moment or experience with Pilates that was particularly poignant for her.

“At this point, Pilates is so integrated into the landscape and tapestry of my life that it took a moment to choose a stand out. Then I remembered my private sessions with Romana Kryzanowska. She was very specific, militant really, about the way we comported ourselves in her studio. But when I was on the reformer with her, she was an artist. She brought me to new levels of depth in my breath, energy, and strength. This one day I got to the elephant exercise, a moment in the Advanced reformer where the practitioner has been flowing through really difficult material for at least a half an hour, and I remember feeling a concept Joseph Pilates called ‘the internal shower’. Its like an inner energetic washing of the self. It was a moment when I was exhilarated with all that was possible for my physically, but the response was fully energetic and emotional.”

I clearly see and am inspired by this energetic and emotional connection in JMo’s own dancing, teaching, and training. The clarity that Pilates offered JMo inspired me to further explore Pilates through my own training, and I became a Power Pilates Mat I & II Certified Instructor. I utilize many cross-training methods, but Pilates has provided a unique path to “go home” to my body also.

Drexel Pilates

And if you’re in the Greater Philadelphia area, JMo invites you to check out the community of Drexel Pilates at Drexel University.

“We are all about the love of movement. Pilates is the lens we look through. It has been really amazing to build this community within the Drexel Dance program and I hope to continue to connect with practitioners who are curious about what we do.”

Have you practiced Pilates? What did you discover?

Jessica Warchal-King
Jessica C. Warchal-King is a Philly-based performer, choreographer, educator, and arts advocate. She is a member of Kun-Yang Lin/ Dancers and Nora Gibson Contemporary Ballet and has toured nationally and internationally. Jessica is co-founder and curator of the InHale Performance Series and she teaches at universities, studios, and arts centers. Jessica earned her MFA in Dance from Temple and her BA in Dance and Anthropology from Muhlenberg College. She is a trained instructor in Dance for PD, a program developed by the Mark Morris Dance Group to bring dance to people with Parkinson’s Disease, and a Power Pilates Mat I & II Certified Instructor. The Embodiment Project is Jessica’s ongoing research project combining education, physical dance practice, and performance. Using dance as its medium, The Embodiment Project investigates the relationships between kinesthetic, somatic, and anatomical understanding, self-awareness, art-making, joy-creation, and social justice. www.jcwarchalking.blogspot.com


  1. gilda hendricks says:

    Hi there, my name is gilda and I am 57 yrs old. I still dance when I can, and I am also a skateboard granny. I am in fairly decent shape for my height, I’m 5″8, and my age, and I go out and fast jog with my older grandchildren ( I have 16 grands). In my earlier years, I was the only black dancer in the Alpalachian Ballet’s Nutcracker. I was one of the snowflakes and also flowers. I started dancing when I was 8, and went to college with dance as a second minor. However, graduated in another area, married, kids, jobs , and wandered away from the dance, but it never left my mind or out of my heart. I believe once a dancer, always a dancer, even after you can no longer dance. What makes my situation unique, is that I have severe Rheumatoid Arthritis, which I have enjoy along with a tap and modern dance class. My hands have turned and not as graceful as they use to be back in the days before my illness, but I have defied the doctors in what I can still do with joints. I have had surgery on my right foot, which does not allow me to get back into my toe shoes, I have just decided to do the best with what I am able to do now. The Lord has given me a gift of determination and I like to challenge myself, to see how far I can go and what I can get away with, which is why I skateboard. A risk taker, you say? Definitely! I refuse to let the disease define me. I very happy I found your site. This is supportive, encouraging, and makes me even more enthusiastic about dancing. I’ve fallen in love with th dance all over again!!! Thank you so much!!!

  2. gilda hendricks says:

    I’m sorry, about this statement I made within the comment. I did not mean to say I enjoy RA, but I enjoy Ballet along with tap and modern dance for adults. Somtimes, I even workout when I’m in pain, but I know when to stop if it gets to be too much. I also use to ice skate. I have numerous things I love to do now I am about to hit 60 on Halloween b- day this year, but I’m still looking for another great challenge, to challenge my mind, heart, and body. By the way, I’ve been playing the piano for 53 yrs. I am very active for my age, and feel very blessed to be able to do so.

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