Hell’s Kitchen has had a huge part to play in the history of Pilates — its creator Joseph Pilates opened his first studio in 1926 at 939 8th Avenue and lived and worked there for 40 years. His legacy is continuing in the neighborhood with Plaza Pilates, a new boutique studio for all abilities, just arrived in Manhattan Plaza.
Born in Germany in 1883, Joseph Hubertus Pilates later moved to the UK, where he was a circus performer, boxer and self defense trainer. At the outbreak of the First World War, Pilates was interned with other German citizens in a camp near Lancaster, where he trained inmates in fitness and exercise. This was the beginning of development of the Pilates method – then called Contrology.
In 1926 Pilates immigrated to the US and opened his 8th Avenue fitness studio, where his clients included Katherine Hepburn, Jerome Robbins, George Balanchine, Martha Graham and Sir Laurence Olivier. Pilates never lost his love of boxing and his studio was popular with fighters too, many of whom went on to make their names in the sport. He encouraged Max Schmeling to come to the United States, and when Schmeling arrived in New York, Pilates helped him find his way into American boxing. Joseph Pilates died in 1967, aged 83.
He would surely be delighted and amazed to find Plaza Pilates NYC at the ever-popular Manhattan Plaza Health Club (MPHC). The new studio offers publicly available group, duet or private 25 and 55-minute classes taught by a roster of 10 instructors in an intimate space outfitted with the latest reformer and tower equipment.
Elisabeth Martin, Studio Director at Plaza Pilates is a professional ballet dancer who has dedicated her life and career to helping others maintain healthy joints. She explained the studio hopes to attract clients “from all walks of life” — and offers discounts to Manhattan Plaza Health Club members, seniors and performers affiliated with Actors Equity Association, Screen Actors Guild or the American Guild of Musical Artists: “because we know where we are!” said Elisabeth.
W42ST stopped by to observe a session between Elisabeth and longtime Manhattan Plaza resident Jacqueline Sydney, who has been practicing Pilates “on and off” since the 1970s. The experienced athlete was thrilled to see Manhattan Plaza develop its Pilates offering: “I’ve walked out of other classes in the city before, because it can be dangerous if you’re not trained well,” said Jacqueline, “but Elisabeth runs a tight ship.”
Elisabeth’s discipline and dedication to Pilates comes from a lifetime of classical dance training — and the injuries that come with it. Originally from Bloomington, Indiana, she attended the prestigious Walnut Hill School for the Arts in Natick, Massachusetts. “I had ankle surgery a month after arriving,” said Martin, who sought out ways to rehab and recover from the serious injury. “There was a rusty, dusty reformer in the PT room on campus,” she said, “and after learning how to stand, walk and move again on the reformer, I thought: ‘What is this magic?’ And it was then that I started teaching myself Pilates from my dorm room.”
Elisabeth picked up every book she could on Joseph Pilates, practiced throughout the rest of her time at Walnut Hill and continued when she returned to Bloomington at Indiana University, where she at first majored solely in Ballet.
At the nearby Lotus Pilates studio, Elisabeth took so many classes that the studio manager asked her if she wanted to get certified to teach. By sophomore year, she was teaching a regular schedule on the roster in addition to her studies at IU, where she was inspired to pick up an additional Kinesiology major to bolster her Pilates knowledge. “I loved learning the science behind all of it,” she said, who added that her ballet training also deeply informed her work as both a student and teacher of the fitness method.
After graduating, Elisabeth danced professionally with the Rochester City Ballet before moving to New York in 2014 and performing in everything from music videos to short films and contemporary repertory companies. She taught Pilates in the city between dance gigs, then chugged along for years until COVID-19 hit, “and life changed.”
A serendipitous run-in with her old studio manager Cassie Bednall — who worked at MPHC — would change her career course. “Cassie asked me how I was and I said, ‘I’m teaching 30 hours a week on Zoom in my studio apartment and I’m losing my mind!’” Elisabeth said. “She said, ‘Would you like to teach humans in-person?”
Pilates had been a part of the larger MPHC offering, but to create a new, standalone studio, the gym dismantled its old spin bike corner and health food store (which closed during the height of COVID-19) and brought in an architect to work with Elisabeth to overhaul the space. “We completely revamped it,” she said. “We’ve got top-of-the-line equipment and a modern, New York-industrial feel.”
Since opening on January 30, there’s already been enthusiastic local response, and the public availability of Plaza Pilates classes has attracted those who aren’t already MPHC members. “It’s been amazing,” said Elisabeth, “We just had our first waitlisted class! We’ve seen a little bit of everyone show up.”
She hopes increased local awareness will lead to more programming with the Broadway community. “We want to cater to the fact that we are right here next to the theaters,” said Elisabeth. “We want to hold classes for people who want to warm up for a show, people who are strength training, people who are coming back from an injury or trying to prevent injury — we hope to add some classes that are a bit more specialized in the future.”
But Plaza Pilates is for everyone, regardless of age or experience level. “We are all about whole-body, individualized training,” said Elisabeth. “Our classes are small enough that I can personalize each client’s training with individualized feedback and adjustments. We’re here to help anybody be their best, most embodied self.”
As for what she’s learned after decades of training and teaching Pilates to others? “I’m a big believer that Pilates doesn’t have to be done only one way for the rest of time,” said Elisabeth. “Since Joseph Pilates created this system, 100 years of exercise science studies have given us more information. For us, it’s all about keeping people moving and tailoring training so people can live their best lives. As Joseph Pilates said, ‘You’re only as young as your spine is flexible,’” she added. “We can’t make anyone younger, but we can keep your spine flexible!”
Plaza Pilates is open seven days a week and offers classes from 7:15 or 8am to 7pm (schedule changes daily).