Lolita San Miguel’s Living Legacy
Inner IDEA: The first-generation teacher shares her generous spirit and deep knowledge of the Pilates method, while colleagues and students reflect on how she has enriched their lives and their practice.
“Boundless energy,” “intense creativity” and “an enduring devotion to Pilates” are all phrases that Pilates professionals use in describing Lolita San Miguel. A first-generation master teacher, the 76-year-old San Miguel has taught and inspired Pilates teachers and students for more than 50 years.
“[I remember] when I opened the door to Carola Trier’s apartment in New York and was introduced to the Pilates Method. Carola was the first disciple of Joseph Pilates to open her own studio. Some of my colleagues were already working with her. It was like discovering a new world that I knew absolutely nothing about,” says San Miguel.
San Miguel, then a dancer with the Metropolitan Opera [ballet], had suffered a debilitating injury and was sent to Trier’s studio by Dr. Henry Jordan, a surgeon famous for treating dancers. “He said, ‘Lolita you don’t need surgery. But to maintain your strength and prolong your career after your leg trauma, I suggest you take Pilates,’” she recalls. This was in the late 1950s, and according to San Miguel, she trained as Trier’s client “on and off” for 7 years.
“Because I had been a client for so long, Carola said to me, ‘You are thinking of stopping dancing, and you love this work so much—why don’t you consider teaching Pilates?’ Through a New York career transition program for dancers, she was able to pay me as an apprentice and I became the only person Carola ever certified,” says San Miguel.
One of Trier’s assistants was Kathleen Stanford Grant, a first-generation teacher and a legend in her own right. San Miguel fondly recalls that during this period she and Grant became good friends. While finishing her Pilates apprenticeship with Trier, San Miguel told Grant that she did not know what to do with her training other than to incorporate it into her ballet teaching.
“I really didn’t want to open my own studio. And Kathy said, ‘Why don’t you go to Joe?’ And I said, Joe who? And Kathy said, ‘Joe Pilates.’”
San Miguel was shocked to learn that Joseph Pilates was alive and teaching in New York. “I thought he had been long dead in Germany. But Kathy said, ‘No, he’s three blocks away on 55th and Eighth Avenue.’” The same day, San Miguel and Grant visited the Eighth Avenue studio.
“The first person I met was Clara Pilates [Joseph Pilates’s wife] in her little white uniform and white lace-up shoes. She had a lovely sweet face with grey hair. Then Joe walked in, exuding the energy of a tsunami. He had never certified anyone. So when Kathy told him I had been certified by Carola, he seemed a little piqued at first, but we explained the process to him,” she remembers. San Miguel and Grant then applied to the State University of New York’s education department (division of vocational rehabilitation) to apprentice and certify at Joe and Clara’s studio.
San Miguel and Grant became the only two Pilates practitioners who were officially certified by Joseph Pilates. They received their certificates from the State University of New York on February 2, 1967. “I had had many years of experience with the Pilates method and was at the [Joseph Pilates] studio for certification, as was Kathy. We followed our own routine. I remember that Bob Seed and Hannah Sakmirda, [Joe and Clara] Pilates’s assistants, were always there. They answered whatever questions we asked, and gave us a little push and pull while Clara and Joe rotated in and out. They were all excellent teachers,” she said.
San Miguel has vivid memories of working with Joseph and Clara Pilates. “They lived very humbly, in an area adjoining the studio. While both of them were fabulous teachers in their own right, they had different styles, different ways of transmitting information. Joe always worked the whole body. He could look at a person and see exactly what [he or she] needed and adapt the exercises to get the results he wanted,” she explains.
Of Clara, San Miguel says, “She was probably a better teacher than Joe, basically because she had more patience. Joe was never big on patience. Clara understood the work and had a tender approach, less intimidating to most people. On his good days, Joe was delightful, and on days when he wasn’t feeling quite well—I call them his bad days—he suffered from periods of depression. He believed that his work had not accomplished all the things he dreamt of doing,” she recalls.
Joseph Pilates felt strongly that he was ahead of his time, says San Miguel. “Joe was a pacifist, a lover of nature. He truly believed that by [integrating] the body, the mind and the spirit, [human beings could make] the world a better place. He felt that a person’s posture, breathing, coordination, concentration, strength and flexibility, as well as the ability to relax, should all be part of a healthy lifestyle.”
Today, the Pilates world still faces many hurdles, according to San Miguel. Among the greatest challenges, she believes, are keeping Pilates growing as a method and ensuring that its teachers recognize new developments in science, especially those related to human physiology.
“Joe died in 1967, but life goes on—the work has to keep up with the latest developments. I think continuing education is an important key in order to train teachers who know what they are doing. Before you become creative, you must know your basic ABCs—you must know your Pilates before you start inventing or rehabilitating. We’re working with the human body, and therefore you have to know the human body. You need to learn and continue learning,” she says.
To that end, San Miguel, who has been certified by Polestar® Pilates Education and awarded a Gold certificate by the Pilates Method Alliance,® has developed the Lolita San Miguel Master Mentor Program in order to pass on her legacy. “First, you study Pilates and become certified—this is like attending elementary school. Then you work for a number of years with clients, implementing what you’ve learned.”
Meanwhile, she feels that good teachers should always be attending workshops, taking courses, reading books and advancing their Pilates study. “Once you have the proper knowledge and experience,” she says, “it is time to get a university education, which is the purpose of my mentor program. Pilates is a lifetime process of learning and growing. I feel that if you have somebody’s body in your hands, you have a great responsibility.”
Her dream of “passing on her knowledge to small groups of well-trained Pilates professionals” is being fulfilled through her mentor program. “There are about 80 of these wonderful teachers now, and in a year or so, there will be 100, which is my aim. They come from six continents and have bonded quickly. Pilates is the glue that brought them together. If you take my 200-hour program, it is because you’re extremely serious about the work,” she says. In addition, San Miguel is currently working on teacher-training manuals to preserve her knowledge in writing for “Lolita’s disciples,” as many of these practitioners call themselves.
San Miguel believes that the true Pilates spirit can best be described as one of well-being, of finding happiness in integrating one’s mind and body. “Let’s face it: no one who is sick is happy. Therefore, we have to find ways of keeping ourselves healthy and active.” She notes that the essence of the Pilates spirit is gained through persistence and discipline. San Miguel practices the method daily and has kept mentally and physically active all her life.
In addition to her significant work in Pilates, San Miguel is particularly proud of founding the Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rico and leading it as artistic and executive director for 28 years. “The key to my happiness is that I know I am performing a service that benefits others. Our greatest reward when we teach is when our clients look at us and say, ‘Oh, I feel so good. I no longer have pain,’ or ‘I feel taller’ or ‘I look much better and people notice.’ This is our reward,” she says.
San Miguel is a wonderful storyteller, and one of her favorites is about a woman who, during a workshop in Montreal, told her she was attempting to channel Joseph Pilates and had been unsuccessful. At first, San Miguel said, “I thought she meant swimming the English Channel. Then I realized she was referring to another type of channeling. What could I say? I told her to keep trying. On the last day of the workshop, I saw her in the corner of the room. She was waiting to speak to me while I was signing autographs. Tears were flowing down her face, and she told me, ‘You know, I was able to access Joe last night.’ I was a little taken aback. Then the woman said, ‘I told him I would be seeing you today, and I asked if there was anything he would like me to tell you? He said,’—the woman paused briefly and then continued—‘Just one word: unity.’ This impressed me, because we need more unity in our field today.”
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These personal and professional insights about Lolita San Miguel come from accomplished Pilates practitioners who have not only worked with her during her long career but also share a lasting and fond friendship with her.
My name is Luis Bravo, and I met Lolita 2 weeks before my 18th birthday, when I was auditioning for her classical ballet company. It was at this moment that I was introduced to the Pilates Method. Before we could touch the ballet barre, she had us on the floor doing foot exercises, hundreds and roll-ups. Following Lolita’s instructions, I thought, “I am here to dance, not to roll like a ball”—but what I did not know was how, at that specific moment, my life would change for the better.
For the past 27 years, Lolita has been a source of information and guidance. She encourages me to be the best teacher, student and practitioner [I can be], but also to be an independent thinker. “Always listen to what others have to say with an open mind,” she says. “Otherwise, you may lose the opportunity for growth.”
What can I say about Lolita? Humanitarian, Pilates advocate, class act—and always accessible, not for just a few but for many. One of the biggest lessons I have learned from my mentor is that the word exclusivity does not equal success or achievement. In fact, just the opposite: it represents exclusion, prejudice and apathy.
Lolita’s teaching demonstrates inclusiveness: always be aware of others, their process and their fears; be mindful and open to information that will make one a better, kinder and more pliable Pilates professional.
Pilates Program Director,
Core De Vie
I first learned of Lolita when preparing a presentation for the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS) in 1995 in Tel Aviv, Israel. For this historical overview of Pilates, I had the pleasure of interviewing all the first-generation teachers other than Lolita. But I learned about her from the other “elders,” particularly from Kathy Grant.
In the presentation I spoke of all these great teachers, including Lolita. I could not have dreamed that years later she would become not only a colleague but also a dear and treasured friend.
Many of us know Lolita as an exceptional teacher, a mentor and an inspiration. But it is her humanity and jovial spirit that capture my heart every time we speak or see each other. Lolita is the epitome of elegance. When she performs a teaser, her entire body radiates dynamic grace and beauty.
I remember hosting Lolita in my home about 10 years ago. She came into the bathroom as I was bathing my son, Elan, who was a baby at the time, and we both marveled at the tiny body with its developing muscles. Lolita is a true lover of the human body and human movement.
I was once scolded by Lolita in front of about 80 students. I was giving a workshop, and to my delight (and horror), Lolita attended. I was telling the students that they needed to keep up their own Pilates practice and do the work at least three times a week.
Lolita raised her hand and said, “Rael, I am surprised at you. They need to practice every day!” Lolita walks her talk, believe me. She is the best of what Pilates offers!
Rael Isacowitz, MA
Founder and Director, Body
Arts and Science
Costa Mesa, California
Lolita is an amazing person. She is so generous in her teaching, making it her mission to share the experiences and knowledge she gained from her time with Joseph Pilates. Her teaching and travel schedule would be exhausting for someone half her age, yet she keeps going full force. Lolita not only teaches, but she works out daily, takes classes and performs the entire Pilates repertoire, from beginner to advanced work, all with the energy of a teenager!
Because of her years of experience in ballet and Pilates, Lolita has developed a keen eye for detail and a demand for precision. Even in a packed classroom, nothing gets by her. She takes the time to get to know all of her students, giving them all individual guidance and assistance. She stays in touch, checks in and truly cares about her Pilates family. And the thing I most admire about Lolita is that despite her impeccable training and credentials, she continues to study and learn. It would be enough for her to just be Lolita, sharing what she learned from Joseph Pilates. But she continues to take courses, attend conferences and expand her knowledge. She is truly an inspiration!
Joy Karley, MA
Education Annex Director,
Pilates Reforming New York
Faculty, Balanced Body®
New York City
A mentor is a teacher, counselor or trusted friend. Lolita San Miguel is all of those to me. One of the things I value most about Lolita is her mission of continually learning. We share the belief that knowledge is neverending. When I see her at conferences, she participates with everyone else, even though her experience is so much vaster. Once she asked me to teach a workshop for her and her staff. I remember saying, “Lolita, I can’t teach you,” and she replied, “Why not? I can still learn.” I couldn’t believe that someone with such wisdom could show such humbleness. I appreciate Lolita for being an amazing teacher, and I feel fortunate to be her friend.
Director of Education, The
United States Pilates
Director, The Pilates Haus
Jersey City, New Jersey
I have been lucky to work with many instructors who have influenced and shaped what I teach today. Lolita San Miguel is one of them. She has warmth of spirit and openness of attitude, for which I have the greatest respect.
A few years ago we were walking around together at a convention in the United States. We stopped at an equipment stand, where a young woman asked us if we had tried the new apparatus that she represented. Knowing the company well, I said yes. Lolita said she had not, but that “it looked very impressive.” It was not a traditional piece of Pilates equipment but was well-known in the fitness world [as a tool] for group exercise and personal training. A series of Pilates-based exercises could also be executed on it.
The representative did not recognize Lolita, but because the woman was persistent, Lolita lay on the equipment and began moving. The woman then said with gusto, “It’s the best way of doing Pilates!” As we walked away, Lolita said it really was “interesting” but not for her. Later, as I walked past the stand alone, I told the woman that it was Lolita San Miguel who had been on her equipment earlier that day. She nearly fainted. That is Lolita: gracious, elegant and open to new experiences, which I sometimes find missing in other Pilates practitioners. She has a depth of knowledge about the method, while at the same time allowing herself to try new things. Her background in dance gives her movement skills that I can only work humbly toward. It is a privilege and blessing to know her.
I have had the pleasure of knowing Lolita for many years. We have taught together, taken classes together and shared many dinners and drinks together. Each time I am with her, I am impressed by how gracious, caring and passionate she is about life and especially about her Pilates work. About 2 years ago, Lolita called me with her idea of honoring Joseph Pilates in his hometown, Monchengladbach, Germany. She worked on this project with a zest and devotion that Mr. Pilates would have loved. She united the community by organizing the placement of a statue of Joe at the site of his birthplace and brought recognition of his work to his city, where only a few people knew of his international contribution to the fitness world. Watching the fulfillment of her dream with her students, her disciples and the mayor and city council of Monchengladbach was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Owner and Director,
Kathy Corey Pilates
Del Mar, California
I have been so blessed to work with Lolita! I have been teaching Anatomy in Clay as part of her Pilates Master Mentor Program and have been so inspired by her insatiable desire to continue learning. She participated and was asking such insightful questions that, at the end of a session, I felt as if I had learned more than I had taught! It is truly awe-inspiring how vibrant and passionate she is about Pilates and life in general.
Lolita has a beautiful ability to know just how much to push someone, which is a huge struggle for most Pilates instructors. I love her passion for the entire person, not just the physical body. She is continually asking me if I am “balanced”—and she does not just mean my muscles. She has taught me that it is truly important to know what is going on in your students’ personal lives, as it will always be reflected in their movement. I cherish the time that I get to spend with Lolita, and look forward to more!
Owner, Personalized Pilates
Faculty, Balanced Body
If two dancers who’ve worked in New York City meet one another, they automatically have a bond. Lolita and I bonded when we danced together in NYC. We have similar backgrounds [in terms of] physical experiences within [Pilates], and, to this day, she can do it all from beginner to advanced. I feel lucky to call her my friend, mentor and confidante. We have been working together for many years, and one of the things I respect most about Lolita is her desire to gather information and knowledge that she can apply to the Pilates method. You will often see her at a convention participating 100% in other presenters’ workshops. She will watch, listen, experience and question; then if their work passes all four of these criteria to her satisfaction, [something from their work] might be lucky enough to become part of her teaching. However, she is always the first to credit where she learned it. That is the sign of a master teacher—to be secure enough in what you do to credit other sources.
J.L. Body Conditioning
Faculty, Balanced Body
Del Mar, California
© 2011 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.
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