Netherlands Native Peter Roel 57 Came to The U.S. to Be a Dancer But Stayed for Yoga and Pilates

Pilates Style: Tell us about your childhood. Peter Roel: I grew up in Amstelveen, a town of about 100,000 people in the Netherlands near Amsterdam. I was the youngest of 11 children. I was a competitive gymnast, and did track and field. When I was about eight, I always watched my sisters do ballet, so my mom said to me, “Why don’t you do it?” I said, “I’m not going to carry these girls!”

Netherlands Native Peter Roel 57 Came to The U.S. to Be a Dancer But Stayed for Yoga and Pilates Photo Gallery

But I was really interested in dance. So when I was 19, a friend and I pulled a Billy Elliot: We signed up for a dance school in Amsterdam. We were 19, while the kids in the class were between eight and nine, and they were all girls. They were much better than we were! But we loved it. After nine months, we auditioned for several conservatories, and I was accepted to one in Arnhem, another town in the Netherlands.

It was decided I was too old to become a performer, so I enrolled in a four-year program to become a dance teacher. I studied psychology, pedagogy, anatomy, music theory, dance history, plus we studied a number of dance genres—ballet, Spanish, Russian, Hungarian and all kinds of modern.

Netherlands Native Peter Roel 57 Came to The U.S. to Be a Dancer But Stayed for Yoga and Pilates

PS: Did you ever dance professionally?

Peter: Yes. After conservatory, I auditioned for companies in the Netherlands, but all of them told me that I was too old. So in 1984, I decided to go to New York for six months. In my mind it was a resume builder, so I’d have a better chance of getting a teaching job in the Netherlands. In New York, I took classes and then got a job dancing with Joyce Trisler and a little later with Elisa Monte. I ended up settling in New York and dancing with Elisa through 1992. In the ’80s and ’90s, I performed in Europe and worked with choreographers/directors, including Ulysses Dove, Pieter de Ruiter, Robert Wilson, Susan Stroman, Lucinda Childs and Ronald K. Brown. In 1995, I became a principal with the Martha Graham Dance Company.

PS: How did you discover Pilates?

Peter: Elisa introduced me to [first-generation teacher] Kathy Grant, who was then teaching at Henri Bendel [a department store then on 57th Street]. My sessions were at eight in the morning, when the store was not yet open. You had to walk through the dark and follow the light to Kathy’s studio on the sixth floor. She worked me through my paces, three times a week for nine years—all to the tune of Lite FM, which she played continually.

Netherlands Native Peter Roel 57 Came to The U.S. to Be a Dancer But Stayed for Yoga and Pilates

PS: Did Pilates help your dancing?

Peter: Very much so! It allowed me to improve and “open” my technique, helping me develop more awareness and stability so I could move more efficiently.

Kathy approached movement with intent. She would tell me to do an exercise, and I would ask, “What exercise is that?” And she would say: “It’s that one,” and she would point to some pictures of Joseph Pilates on the wall. I’d ask, “What’s that called again?” “Well, it’s that one, but for you it’s slightly different.” Then she would explain why you were doing it slightly differently—because you were a knee person or a lower-back person or a neck person—so there were always slightly different protocols for each person.

PS: Kathy was known for being very direct. Any funny stories?

Peter: One of the first times with her, I was lying facedown on the Cadillac. She “slapped” my butt and said, “Honey…What is a white boy doing with a black butt?” 

What I love about our studio is that people improve physically and in overall well-being.

PS: How did you end up becoming a Pilates teacher?

Peter: In 1994, I heard [first-generation teacher] Romana Kryzanowska was offering a certification program. I wanted to sign up, but was told it was $2,000. I couldn’t pay that—I was a modern dancer! So Romana said, “Okay, we’ll do it for $1,000.” I said, “I can’t do that, either!” She asked who I had worked with and for how long and then said, “Why don’t you come tomorrow for a private?” I did, and she worked me out like I had never worked before. We had so much fun. Afterward she said, “Why don’t you lie on the floor with the Spine Corrector under your legs.” Then it seems I fell asleep for an hour! After that, I kept training privately with Romana, after which I switched into duets while continuing the teacher¬training program.

Because I couldn’t pay, Romana put me to work in the studio. That was a great learning experience because I was there from seven in the morning till seven at night, observing, learning and teaching. In hindsight, it was a classic apprenticeship.

Mari Winsor and Alycea Ungaro were also in that class. It was a nice group, very fun, and generous in spirit and sharing. The ability to watch Kathy and Romana teach as well as listen to them was amazing because they didn’t always do what they said they were doing. You can’t put that in a manual. You have to observe it and feel it.

PS: Meaning it wasn’t always pure Joe, it was their interpretation for that particular client? Peter: Exactly. I learned from both Kathy and Romana that while they followed the Pilates

FavoRitE appaRatus: I like them all, so it’s hard to choose. But I guess I would say the Cadillac. You can do complex patterns, you can support yourself, you can push off against it, you can suspend yourself, you can make it as three¬dimensional as you want.

FavoRitE BRAND OF PiiatES appaREl: Lululemon—it fits, feels and looks good.

Favorite mat move: Rolling Like a Ball into Open Leg Rocker into

Crab into Boomerang. You constantly have to reorganize your body. Change the order and you change your body’s organization. It feels like heaven. But the roads toward it are not easy ones.

HARDESt movE to maStER:

The Squirrel on the Cadillac. It’s so hard because you need to coordinate the arms and legs while you’re suspended between four points. When I first tried it, I felt as if I was going to break in two. I could not pull my rib cage up high enough. I

remember Romana teaching it to me. She took pictures of me doing it—I looked like a piece of laundry!

Who inspires you as a Piiatee Eachee: I have had a lot of great teachers in dance: Juliu Horvath for Gyrotonic, and Kathy Grant and Romana Kryzanowska for Pilates. Kathy was my beginning in Pilates and the teacher I had for the longest. I spent so much time with her. She was very generous—she came to performances and helped support me by giving me work outside the studio, be it painting

I learned from both Kathy and Romana that while they followed the Pilates method that Joe

were not stifled by it.

method that Joe created, they were not stifled by it. When a client needed an exercise to be individualized, that is what they did. Pilates is always developing. You grow as a teacher by guiding your clients and observing what they need.

PS: What did you do once you got your certification?

Peter: One day I met Phoebe Higgins at Romana’s. We knew each other from dance class. She was teaching at Sichel Chiropractic and needed a teacher. Starting in 1996, I taught there in the mornings, and then went to rehearsal at Martha Graham in the afternoon. Phoebe and I had a ball. I learned how to work with multiple clients at the same time while giving them each an individualized workout. That’s how we did it at Kathy’s, but this was the first time I taught that way, and it was a great learning process.

PS: How did you get involved with offering Pilates in Equinox Fitness Clubs?

Peter: Lavinia Errico, who was the founder and then owner of Equinox, was a client at Power Pilates. She approached the studio owner, Howard Sichel, about opening a studio at the Equinox at Broadway and 92nd Street. Lavinia asked me to run the studio, which was the first Pilates studio in a health-club setting.

People didn’t know what Pilates was then. We needed to educate them about the method and entice them to try it, which was a tough proposition. I got a lot of support from Lavinia and Howard, the business started growing, and Equinox became my full-time job.

PS: So what made you decide to open your own studio?

Peter: In 2001, four major things happened in my life: My father passed away, I got married, I stopped dancing and 9/11 happened. I felt I needed to do something for myself. So my wife Maxine, a yoga teacher and former dancer, and I decided to open our own studio, Pilates Shop/ Yoga Garage on West 96th Street in Manhattan. Our slogan was, “We are the mind/body mechanics…come in for a tune-up.”

Maxine and I were dancers, Pilates, yoga and Gyrotonic practitioners. We felt that even though the intent of the practices were different, they were complementary and would 

her apartment, or Joe’s equipment. I renovated for her, and she literally renovated me. I learned from her the application of knowledge, as well as the actual knowledge. You can find everything about the mechanics of the method on the internet. She taught me to focus on the intent of the movement—or what the individual client needs. Her strength was the individualization and humanity of the method. She gave me the clearest correlation between mind/body work, and I have found this correlation again with Deborah.

Romana was an inspiration in terms of her light approach. She would say, “Just do it! There are no boundaries!” most insPiRing Moment as a Teacher: Two come to mind. A couple of months ago, there were five clients in the studio doing Pilates, and I realized we had over 500 years of cumulative age between us. An 86-year-old man, four women who were close to 80, plus the other teacher and myself. Injuries were being mended, and all of them were growing stronger, gaining balance and

increasing their range of movement. They inspire me and show me I have 30 more years of Pilates ahead of me.

Also, for the past six months, I’ve been working with an 80-year-old man with stenosis and other degenerative spine issues. He walked completely bent over. He only lives four blocks away, but he’d have to stop twice on the way to sit down on a bench to rest. He wasn’t able to pick up his knee or turn on his side without cringing in pain. Now he’s completely straight, he’s mobile and he walks two miles a day. That is inspiring and humbling. Enable clients to enhance stability, strength and flexibility.

What I love about our studio is that people improve physically and in overall well-being. We’ve also created a sense of community. Many clients have standing appointments and have been with us for 15 years. They make friends and share information with each other, be it a great play, parenting advice, a lawyer or just a fabulous new joke. In 2006, we moved to our current location, at 108th and Broadway.

PS: Do you still take lessons?

Peter: I take one private session a week with Deborah Lessen at Greene Street Studio, to experience her expert eye. I also regularly practice at our studio. Working out regularly informs my teaching and makes me feel like I did when I was 28, invigorated and empowered.

PS: How did you first get involved with teacher training?

Peter: Howard Sichel asked me to join Phoebe and Susan Moran in their teacher-training program. We further developed it as a team. My education at the conservatory definitely helped, as teacher training requires not just the passing on of exercises and their order, but also the actual method of teaching.

Five years ago, I started my own teacher¬training program at Pilates Shop/Yoga Garage and subsequently a teacher class, which meets once a week. I teach not only a workout, but also new approaches and applications for the exercises.

My program was inspired because while hiring, I encountered a lot of mechanical instruction where teachers know the method, but not the instruction. Terms like, “use your

powerhouse,” or “lengthen” mean little if a teacher does not give it context. Pilates is not merely an exercise system, it is a system of thought about movement, which creates function and form.

Teaching is about communication. We have to give our

clients parameters to experience and explore the exercises. For example, I’ll ask a client to pull their shoulders up to their ears, hold for three counts and then relax them; now they have a physical experience and context to the words, “relax your shoulders.”

PS: How has your dance career influenced your Pilates teaching?

Peter: The movement, rhythm, timing, space and dynamic strength of dance is something I always try to teach in Pilates. I like to say, “Move the space with your body.” When you build awareness to use the space, as if you are submersed in water, your body moves as a whole. Your physical and emotional experience becomes completely different.

PS: Tell us about your personal life.

Peter: I’ve been married for 15 years to Maxine. We have two girls, Equem, 13, and Zoli, 5, and a son, Remy, who is 12. We live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, close to Columbia University. Our studio is at 108th and Broadway. I like to joke, “I work on Broadway”—even though I’ve never actually danced on Broadway.

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