For Ellie Herman, the key is to keep moving.
The onetime dancer and choreographer was rehabbing a knee injury (from a short stint as a wrestler named “Ruth Less”), when she was introduced to Pilates. The core strengthening practice not only healed her, but also improved her dancing. She was hooked.
Her love affair with Pilates only intensified while she attended NYU’s Master’s Dance Program and, ultimately, she dropped out to train as an instructor. Ultimately, the trainer opened her first studio in San Francisco’s Mission District, now over two decades ago. Since then, she has published eight books, invented a key tool called The Pilates Springboard, earned a Master of Science degree in Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine and opened three beloved studios in Brooklyn, New York.
Here, Ellie Herman explains why this type of exercise improves life on multiple levels:
Live The Process: Can you trace your interest in movement to childhood?
Ellie Herman: Yes, I was a very athletic child. I did gymnastics, played field hockey and lacrosse and did the high jump and hurdles in track and field. I was the captain of my gymnastics team in high school for two years in a row and my best apparatus was the mat/floor, where I choreographed dance and gymnastic routines to music. I sucked at all the other concentrations.
I didn’t start dancing seriously until college at UC Berkeley, where they had a strict Martha Graham program. My college thesis was a feminist performance piece about the objectification of women’s bodies; the piece was entitled, “I’ve Been Sleeping All My Life for a Dream Like This.” I was very ideological back then. My first performance troupe was a feminist dance theatre company called, “The Flying Buttresses.” I was the only dancer in my family until later, when my mother took up ballet at age 58. Now she dances three times a week at age 77. My father is extremely athletic—a swimmer and rower in college—and then did thirteen marathons. Now he bike rides at age 82.
LTP: How did you discover the benefits of Pilates?
EH: I found Pilates after I injured my knee in a wrestling match. Yes, I was a professional wrestler for about five minutes in my early twenties. That was a huge mistake, but ironically changed my life [for the better]. Pilates taught me core stability, which I sorely lacked prior. After doing it regularly in rehabilitation for my knee injury, I was a better dancer. The practice focuses on proper skeletal alignment, balancing all the muscle groups. Pilates helps all athletes—not just dancers. All movers need to strengthen the muscles that are underused and maintain proper alignment, no matter what physical modality they’re practicing.
LTP: How did you come to found your own studios and ultimately create your own springboard?
EH: I started my first studio organically. First, I had an old gymnastic mat and a Pilates Reformer in a loft space in the mission district of San Francisco, where I was also living. Then, I purchased the complete set of Pilates large equipment and decided to hold a teacher training, so I could have more teachers. I was very connected in the dance world in San Francisco, so I naturally attracted professional dancers to the program. The rest is history: Once I had good instructors, the business grew and grew and I hired a receptionist and then a manager. I moved to a larger loft space and then purchased a two-floor building in the mission district and moved down the street. Next, I purchased a Pilates studio in Oakland from someone who was moving away.
Ten years ago, I moved to New York to be closer to my family and sold my studios on the West Coast. I opened my first studio in Park Slope, then added the Annex space four years later to allow for more large classes and more affordable options. Then, four years ago, when I was pregnant with my daughter, I opened my third studio in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. It was probably the hormones that made me do it.
The Springboard also developed organically. I thought there must be a cheaper and more streamlined option to the “Tower,” so I worked with a carpenter friend and we designed the it together. I approached Balanced Body (the largest Pilates equipment company in the world, who I had been working with for years) and we went into contract. They have been manufacturing and distributing the Springboard for over ten years now.
LTP: In addition to Pilates, how do you keep yourself feeling balanced and healthy?
EH: After having a baby, I had a really stiff lower back and it was excruciating. So, I started a barre program at my studio and it completely healed my back. I realized that standing up and strengthening my core in an upright position was necessary after breast feeding and hunching over with a baby.
Now, I enjoy doing regular barre classes and Body Burn and Yoga in addition to Pilates. I feel that I need cardio and more intense physical exercise as I’ve gotten older and especially since having a child. I have to keep up with her and I just turned 52!
My body feels amazing at the moment. When I do have occasional back pain, I take care of it by seeing one of my wonderful physical therapists who works at my studios. Having a child is the most physical thing I’ve ever done.
I eat mostly vegetables, love to cook and drink vodka at night and smoke an occasional joint. This keeps me feeling healthy and happy.
LTP: What does happiness look like to you?
EH: Being with my daughter and my Pit Bull on the beach and frolicking.
LTP: What does it mean to you to “Live The Process” and how can we all do that more each day?
EH: I have a personal philosophy that if you exercise, then no matter what else happens, your day is never that bad. The more you move, the better you feel!
I am a 57-year-old, leaver of 35 years in corporate America, transitioning to pilates instructing. I’m currently training through Club Pilates and plan to be finished in March. I have really enjoyed reading your website and love your vibe.
If you have any advice for a new trainee, please let me know!