Building a Pilates Oasis: A Conversation with Martt Lawrence | By Maya Kitayama

Martt Lawrence (right) training SF Pilates Center apprentice.

Martt Lawrence (right) training SF Pilates Center apprentice.

Maya Kitayama: Tell us about your training and performing background.

Martt Lawrence: I danced professionally with Houston Ballet and Cincinnati Ballet. I did Pilates as an injured dancer in Houston and that’s how I decided it was something that was valuable. After my injury I came back a much stronger dancer, so then leaving Cincinnati Ballet and deciding where to be and what to do, I ended up in San Francisco, dancing with some small companies doing modern dance. I danced locally with Janice Garrett and with Project Bandaloop here in San Francisco, but I had already started doing Pilates training at that time because I really wanted to bring Pilates to dancers since it had helped me so much.

I did a San Francisco certification in Pilates and eventually realized my goal of working with dancers, and I got a job teaching Pilates to the dancers of San Francisco Ballet, so I was there teaching them for 5 years – both big mat classes for the students they had during the summer and then I would work privately with the company. I had ordered specific equipment because they redid their building and they had a budget to redo their Pilates [facility]. I had continued to be active in the modern dance scene in San Francisco, I had done choreography and some work I had presented here at the ODC Theater. I had done the Pilot and other ODC programs. At some point I had heard that they were planning on building the ODC Dance Commons. I had my sights set on this as a possibility, and then when it came around and they were looking for Pilates instructors, I wrote a proposal.  I had been teaching Pilates privately throughout the city, not only at the San Francisco Ballet, but I had taught at other small Pilates studios in the Marina. I had a client that had continued to tell me he was going to give me a loan any day I wanted to open my studio, and I was really never ready, but sort of the stars aligned when I heard that ODC was opening the Commons. I wrote a proposal to Brenda [Way] and I also recertified with a different program, so in the event that she chose me, I could be really ready to be a business owner. I recertified with my now mentor-teacher in Seattle, Dorothree VandeWalle. That’s how it all happened, I applied, Brenda chose me, I had my financial support in line, and signed up for this space.

MK: Could you give a brief introduction to the SF Pilates Center?

ML: We are a classic Pilates training studio. That means that we are directly linked to the work that Joseph Pilates did. He had a lot of different students and some of them were injured and some of them were healthy dancers. Our direct lineage is this woman named Romana Kryzanowska, who just passed away last year. She had done Pilates as a dancer and mentored many other teachers. My teacher Dorothree VandeWalle studied for years with Romana, I actually studied with Romana for a little bit during my training. She was a little bit older at that point when I studied with her. So our lineage is classical Pilates, which is not as common in San Francisco. We’re a little bit of an East coast oasis of Pilates here on the West coast.

MK: What sort of style does the Pilates community in San Francisco revolve around?

ML: Generally, [San Francisco] does a little bit more rehab-based Pilates. It’s not that we don’t work with people that are injured, but we do it more for conditioning and fitness. Like I said, as I experienced it as a dancer, it’s this incredible training that gets you stronger, so that you can do more contemporary work and have the ability to be stronger in your body and prevent injuries. That’s my passion, preventing injuries and getting people stronger so they can dance healthy. That’s my focus of being here and bringing that through this classical Pilates work. I still have a very strong tie with my teacher in Seattle and I, since 2009, have been mentoring apprentices so that they are certified in the same technique. They’ve gone through the program with me, and then finished with Dorothree in Seattle. I’ve mentored now nine instructors and this year, September 2015, I’ll have my first ODC dancer who is going to certify in Pilates with me, and that’s really exciting. It really connects the whole community for me. I have been teaching several ODC dancers along the way.

MK: What do you try to communicate to your students?

ML: I like to communicate that there is structure to Pilates and it’s discipline and you get stronger through that discipline. It’s like a language, I always tell people, “you won’t get better if you don’t practice it.” Practicing Pilates can feed and help anything that you’re doing, whether you’re a professional dancer, or an athlete, or just an office worker. It helps with posture, it helps with conditioning, it helps prevent injuries for all types of people. I try to bring a lot of fun and enthusiasm into the class, because it’s hard, it’s challenging. It’s not easy work, but if you make it a little fun, then people will come back, and they also get the benefit of it.

MK: What have you learned and taken away from teaching?

ML: I have learned to bring even more ease, joy and enthusiasm into my work. As I’ve gotten more skilled at teaching, then it just becomes easier and easier to bring more joy and enthusiasm, rather than thinking about the skill. I’ve also just built a community here. It’s fun to see community expand and other people get excited about Pilates. My program where I’m mentoring apprentices has grown. This year I’ll not only have an ODC dancer [apprenticing], but I’ll also have two other apprentices. I’ve just gotten this big, strong community, not only here in San Francisco, but also connected with Seattle as well, ushering my apprentices to Seattle, and introducing them to more national contacts of this Pilates world, and it has been a really connecting process for me.

MK: What skills do you hope to pass on to apprentices besides purely Pilates technique?

ML: I train them to be people I want to work with. People that are enthusiastic about the work, inspired as I am to bring health and fitness to people and prevent injuries. It’s almost like dance, where you’re teaching people to move through the exercises and just have some fun, rather than think too much cerebrally about where their shoulders go or anything like that. Even though we do a lot of specific corrections, I’m trying to get my apprentices to move the body and correct them as they’re moving, which is a little bit of a challenge… some of the dancers like to nitpick and be detailed, which is a very good skill to have, but if you are too detailed, then the person in front of you is not moving, they’re afraid. Movement, joy, enthusiasm, fun.

MK: Do you have any memorable stories or moments that have been particularly significant or inspiring?

ML: This client who gave me the loan for my business came into the studio where I was teaching at down near the Marina. A very big, bulky jock. He reported that he had been walking by, because he lived in the neighborhood, and he thought, “what are those people doing?” [Watching us] on different pieces of equipment he had never seen. His doctor had recommended that he do Pilates, so he came in. He was so tight that he couldn’t lay on his back and bring his knees to his chest; I didn’t even know what to do. I was a young dancer and this was a challenge in front of me. He stuck to it though, he was disciplined and he stuck to it. He was really committed, and we worked together for about 8 years. I got him from not being able to pull his knees into his chest to doing some advanced work in Pilates, which was a huge leap. It took 8 years, but he was really appreciative because he understood that it was really the right thing for his back. He stopped having back problems and can prevent injuries by doing some of the mat exercises that he now knows. The most affirming thing was that he offered me the loan. He believed in me and the work so much that he wanted to keep that going in the world.

MK: What about ODC sets it apart from other dance studios and centers?

ML: The building is just incredible. When it first opened and we even had this beautiful furniture, I literally thought to myself, “whose furniture did we borrow?” I mean, I grew up in dance buildings that were old, bombed out warehouses in Massachusetts with really crappy furniture around, and barely even clean rugs or bathrooms, but we didn’t care, we were dancing. The facility here is amazing. The fact that we have all of this space and this light and all of this, it’s just a privilege to be in this building. The other thing is the community and the support in general. I reciprocate by being super supportive of the dance community. Many of my renters are dancers and performers, I go to their shows. Then on the other side of things, many of my dance teachers have come to my classes. The reason I wanted to be in the building was so I could have my life in one building, what an opportunity. I teach class for a couple hours, I go take a dance class, I have lunch, I teach again, then there have been times where I rehearse also, and perform too. Just to have the whole possibility of all that I can express be available to me in a building. I don’t think there is anywhere else in the world, for me, that has that possibility. That’s the huge, unique thing about ODC.

MK: Any other comments or thoughts to add?

ML: It’s just been a privilege to be here and grow with the organization as it’s grown, and see the dancers come, perform, leave, move on, and new dancers come. That exists while other dance companies are here performing, rehearsing. It’s just a privilege to be here.

Martt teaches a Pilates Challenge mat class on Thursday mornings at 9am, alongside working with clients and apprentices within the Pilates Center of San Francisco. Click here for more information regarding the center. 


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