Second-generation Pilates instructor Michele Larsson, owner and founder of Core Dynamics® Pilates in Santa Fe, New Mexico, has been practicing the Pilates Method for 41 years. A former dancer and choreographer in New York and San Francisco, she studied intensely for years with first-generation master teacher Eve Gentry (1909–1994). Gentry trained and worked in New York with Joseph Pilates and taught at New York University School for the Arts. In 1968, she moved to Santa Fe, where Larsson began taking Pilates from her 2 years later. Larsson has preserved Gentry’s rehabilitative, classical approach while also developing her own intuitive and innovative Pilates style. She created and now directs the Core Dynamics Teacher Training Program and teaches advanced education workshops worldwide.
How did you first become involved with Pilates?
In 1970, I was a modern professional dancer with the San Francisco Dance Theater. My mother lived in Santa Fe and suggested I see Eve Gentry, who was teaching “something interesting in movement.” Eve had trained with Joseph Pilates in New York until he died and then moved to Santa Fe to open her own dance school and Pilates studio. Every time I was in Santa Fe, I took lessons from Eve. I was absolutely intrigued by the mat and reformer lessons. Eve focused on mat work, since no equipment was available in San Francisco. In 1982, I convinced Eve to train me to teach Pilates. She said I needed to be in Santa Fe for 4 months and spend 5 days a week from 9 to 5 at her studio. After 4 months of rigorous training, she hired me as an instructor. I worked for her until 1991 when Eve, Joan Breibart and I founded the Institute for the Pilates Method, a membership organization. We moved into a larger space and hired more teachers. I created a teacher-training program, produced videos and provided continuing education.
When did you establish your current studio, and how would you describe your business?
[In 1996], the Institute became the PhysicalMind Institute®. [That year,] I founded Core Dynamics, which I own to this day. My primary business is providing continuing education for Pilates teachers. I began a new teacher-training program with six locations nationally. This is my last year running the new teacher trainings. I’ll continue to do advanced teacher training and teach local clients. At my local studio, the business model I use is to rent space to other instructors who bring in their own clients. It’s worked very well. Four of us have large client bases and “anchor” the studio. Other teachers train 5–10 hours a week and fill in the gaps. I only teach private sessions—no more than 15 per week.
What is your teaching philosophy?
I teach the client. I don’t teach the exercise, because the exercise has nothing to learn from me—but the client does. If the client can’t do the exercise, I skip it, modify it or add another.
You have a reputation as the “go-to” trainer for clients with special needs—people with injuries, osteoporosis, arthritis, etc. What approach do you use with those clients?
When I look at a client with a serious problem, I tackle two aspects: (a) get the person out of pain; and (b) help him or her to become as biomechanically efficient as possible. I spend much more time on the cadillac than the reformer, because the cadillac is the main piece of rehab equipment. Once I get someone to become efficient [with the movement patterns], the client can go to “the gym,” another program I offer at my studio. The gym is for these special-needs clients who cannot afford to continue with three private lessons per week. Once these clients can work independently, they “join” the gym. Each person has his or her own routine, but everyone trains at the same time under an instructor’s supervision.
I’ve trained three other teachers to work this way. Clients pay a fixed monthly fee, and they can participate in any of the 7 hours per week that the studio offers as “the gym.” They also get 30 additional minutes of private time with a trainer to upgrade their program as needed. It’s a very successful way to deal with people with issues, because they take responsibility for their own well-being and they are absolutely faithful [to their program]. I have some people in this program who have been training at the studio for years.
How do you adapt your method of teaching to older adults?
Regarding older clients, we need to understand the aging process. Eve and I were always fascinated with neuroscience—the way the brain communicates with the body. Aging has an incredible effect on our sensory perceptions—vision, hearing, taste and smell, our pain response, our vestibular system and our kinesthetic sense. All of these changes are positively affected by exercise. It strengthens bone, muscle, connective tissue, our mental alertness and emotional stability.
The two most important things we need are to stay strong and to keep our balance. I do a lot more standing work with older adults that you would not see in a typical Pilates workout. I also carefully observe my clients and teach according to their ability to understand. For example, what I see in younger instructors is that they don’t adjust their teaching to serve these changes [that occur with aging]. They don’t observe that a client doesn’t hear them out of his left ear and that he needs more time to process instructions and to pay attention to his movements. Trainers need to use different language for older clients, to focus their attention differently. A person can really absorb only one correction at a time. If the trainer structures the routine and picks the appropriate exercise for the client’s level, the client is not going to get hurt. With experience, as you observe someone, you give them [just] one cue to think about, such as ‘Don’t roll your knees in.’ This one cue will correct many things that are going on with that person.
What other tips would you offer to new instructors working with older adults?
Don’t be afraid to challenge older people, to use enough weight, to offer difficult exercises. Clients should have to work. You need to challenge balance. For example, I do use a ball with older adults, and I do use chair exercises. They can do it. Especially, one-legged standing moves on the chair—it’s so good for people.
Anything else that you would like to add?
I’ve seen a lot of fabulous Pilates teachers coming out of different training programs. We need to be open-minded and continue to work with different teachers and schools. To be a great trainer, you need a lot of training yourself, as well as good movement instincts. You must continue exploring movement. Everything you learn will help you with clients, especially those who have problems.
These exercises are essential building blocks recommended for a lifetime.