How often have you given a cue and had a client respond, “Oh, now it makes sense!” or “Wow, that feels totally different!” or of course my favorite, “No one has ever told me that!” A well-directed cue that hits the mark can bring about a change immediately. In many cases the client has been taught the move before and has been corrected many times, but hasn’t grasped the point. Now it is clear—and that is the magic of cuing: At one particular moment, the client is ready to receive a particular cue, of a particular type . . . and bang, it happens, with the magnitude of an epiphany!
Developing skilled cuing doesn’t happen overnight. The art of cuing is a complex process based on experience, experimentation, understanding and intuition. Perhaps this is especially true of a mind-body discipline such as Pilates. Sometimes the learning is highly cognitive, and other times, information must be conveyed, received and integrated in milliseconds. As awareness develops and the process of fine tuning and correction becomes almost subconscious, the time delay between a cue and the correction can be very short indeed.
To facilitate this process, it helps to know what kind of learner a client is. Most people lean toward a preferred type of learning. They may be primarily visual learners, auditory learners, experiential learners or tactile learners (although no one belongs exclusively to one group). Choosing the best type of cue for a client in a given situation speeds progress and makes the experience more fulfilling for both client and teacher.
Visual learners like to see a demonstration. Offer a visual example of the exercise or of the point that’s being addressed. Execute an accurate and well-practiced demonstration of the movement. Your aim is to be a role model of what the movement embodies on every level. This is a good reason to continuously practice the work and stay connected with the movements physically, mentally and viscerally.
I am very specific about the unique execution of this exercise, and I find that the best way to convey the correct action is through demonstration. No matter how much explaining I do, the point is often missed.
Emphasize this key point: On the way over, the movement must be created by flexion of the trunk, with the hip joint remaining at approximately a 90-degree angle. This eliminates the tendency to use the legs as a long lever arm to create momentum. However, on the return, emphasize the stretch by keeping the thighs as close to the chest as possible.
Auditory learners like an explanation, which might be analytical or figurative (imagery). Give a verbal explanation of the exercise or of the point that’s being addressed. Develop ways to articulate the movements verbally. If the verbal cuing is based on the analytical approach, be sure the information is scientifically sound and the analysis clear. First define the muscle focus of the exercise. Next determine the objectives. Only then can the cues be articulated and implemented with clarity and direction. Movement analysis is in fact one of the fundamental pillars that uphold succinct cuing and successful teaching in general.
If the cuing is based on the figurative approach, be sure the images make sense to the client. Imagery can be a very powerful tool when used skillfully, and most people respond well to this approach. An image creates a shortcut in the learning process, sometimes conveying in a sentence what would otherwise take a long time to explain.
Yet, inappropriate imagery can be counterproductive (even when given with the best of intentions). Images that are not scientifically sound can sometimes create confusion. For instance, many a dancer has heard the cue, “Lift the leg from the back”. This image is intended to create an effortless, elongated movement. However, surely no one would dispute that the leg is not lifted forward with the hamstrings. The point here is that imagery can be based on concept or science-—and both are legitimate-—but a clear distinction should be drawn between the two to eliminate misunderstandings.
Experiential learners like to do the exercise immediately. Step back and let the process “happen.” Allow the client to experience the movement or the point in discussion. Rather than bombard the client with corrections right away, allow a movement experience to take place. Once your client has achieved a basic understanding of the exercise, corrections and directives can follow, within reason.
Tactile learners prefer touch from the teacher to sense the work. Because touch is so direct and time efficient, tactile cuing is possibly the most valuable of all the cuing methods in teaching Pilates. However, owing to the nature of touch and its many possible implications and misinterpretations, great care should be taken when using this mode of cuing. (Note that in some U.S. states, the use of hands-on techniques requires licensing.) Prior to using tactile cuing with a client, it can serve well to mention its effectiveness in teaching Pilates and ask permission to use it. When using touch, be professional, deliberate and confident. If, however, the client is uncomfortable with touch, choose other cuing methods.
Example: Knee Stretch Round Back
The most difficult aspect of this exercise to master is keeping the trunk (including the pelvis) still as the legs move freely forward and backward. I find tactile cuing the most successful approach.
Place one hand firmly on the sacral area of the lower back/pelvis and the other hand on the lower abdominal/pubic symphasis area. Essentially, create a clamp for the pelvis to help keep it still. Note: As with all tactile cuing, but particularly when touching the pelvic region, the touch must be professional and confident; in addition, a trusting and comfortable relationship must already exist with the client. Each individual who uses tactile cuing has the responsibility to follow professional guidelines at all times.
Skillful, Focused Teaching
Ultimately, the effectiveness of your cuing will determine the effectiveness of your teaching. No one is just a visual learner or just a tactile learner. In the best-case scenario, you will be well versed and competent in all modes of cuing and able to combine them in subtle ways for the best effect. To achieve this level of skill as a Pilates teacher, you need to practice the work, integrate it into your life and gain experience in teaching the movements.
Rael Isacowitz, MA, dancer, athlete, yogi and founder of Body Arts and Science International™ Pilates education, has been teaching for three decades. He is internationally recognized as an expert in Pilates with over 25 years’ experience in the method.