A physical therapist and student of Romana Kryzanowska, Lori Coleman-Brown uses a variety of languages to reach her clients.
PILATES STYLE Tell us about your childhood. LORI COLEMAN-BROWN I was born in Rhode Island and lived in North Haven, CT, from age six to 16. I was always a “mover”—I loved ice skating and dancing. As a kid I took the train to New York to take summer sessions at the American Ballet Theater. My family moved to Gettysburg, PA, when I was 16. It was very different than Connecticut. Gettysburg was all about the Civil War, monuments and keggers. There really wasn’t much dance there; in fact my new friends called ballet “bal-ette.” PS Where did you go to college?
Romana Kryzanowska Pilates Movements Photo Gallery
LORI My parents thought I should get a “real” education and be an engineer. So I went to Temple University, in Philadelphia. I called home every day saying, “I need to dance!” After a year, I transferred to SUNY Purchase, where I majored in dance. PS How did you discover Pilates?
LORI Sophomore year, I was dancing at a party with breakdancer Doug Elkins [who’s now an award-winning choreographer and educator]. I jumped, caught my sneaker on the carpet and injured my knee. My dance teacher Sarah Stackhouse showed me how carefully done tendus and pliés could help my recovery. She also told me, “Don’t go to the doctor, go to Pilates!” and showed me the Pilates room at Purchase. At that point, all the apparatus had been pushed to the corner, and the room was being used for storage. Fortunately, my friend Steve Giordano knew Romana Kryzanowska and that her studio was located in New York City.
PS What was Romana’s studio like back then? LORI It was crazy and vibrant with people everywhere! Romana definitely scared me. She was kind, but also really intense. Somehow, I trusted her healing powers in this whirlwind environment. Her experience, old-world knowledge and genius hooked me. The exercise that she gave me was to stand on one leg while holding the other outstretched. It was exactly what I needed—simple, whole-body posture, straight-leg endurance. My knee was better in about three months despite the doctor’s prediction that I would need to wear a brace and never dance again! The idea of movement as healing shifted my reality. PS Did you keep doing Pilates the whole time you were at Purchase?
LORI Yes, and I helped Steve reopen the Pilates studio there. We asked Romana to come, but she didn’t want to take the train up north, so she sent Phoebe Higgins. I studied with Phoebe at Purchase, and with Romana in New York. Steve also shared his knowledge with me from his lessons with Romana. I spent hours and hours in the Pilates room at school. I couldn’t get enough. PS How did you end up teaching Pilates? LORI At the New York studio, I was on the dancer’s scholarship and paid a really reduced fee. One day, Romana looked at me and said, “Go stretch that man.” She just put me to work! I also taught at Purchase after I graduated.
PS What did you do after college? LORI I danced professionally with a small modern dance company, performing in New York and Europe. But I had a romantic idea of what being a dancer would be like, and I was disappointed. And of course it didn’t pay well. I had to work other jobs to pay my rent—I was a nanny, and then a bartender at a bar on Wall Street. I really found my voice as a bartender. It helped me overcome my shyness. And teaching Pilates brought out the best in me; I got to use my voice and share my movement knowledge. PS Why did you decide to go back to school to get your master’s in physical therapy? LORI My Pilates clients had problems I didn’t understand, like pins in their knees and extreme tightness. (I was a dancer, so tightness was astonishing.) There was no Google back then, no easy way to get information. I wanted to learn what was under the skin. Job security was also a consideration—Pilates wasn’t a stable career back then.
PS What did you do once you got your master’s degree? LORI In 1992 I moved back to New York. My first job was at Performing Arts Physical Therapy (PAPT), which was owned by Sean Gallagher, whom I had met at Temple after high school. PAPT integrated physical therapy and Pilates (and contained a full Pilates studio). I worked with dancers and backstage on Broadway shows. I was there for six months before moving to Seattle. I had broken up with a boyfriend and wanted to get as far away as possible. This move turned out to be one of the best life decisions I’ve ever made—Seattle really agreed with me! PS Did you start a Pilates studio there? LORI Yes, Sean knew a teacher there, Lauren Stephen, and the three of us opened the Pilates and Physical Therapy Center of Seattle. Later, Lauren and I renamed it Pilates Seattle International. PS Did anyone know about Pilates in Seattle at that point? LORI Not really. We had to educate the public. The printer thought our name was “The Pirates Studio,” and put that on our first checks.
PS You invited Romana out to teach? LORI Yes, Romana came for many nine-day stretches, so we got to learn from her over breakfast, lunch, cocktails and dinner. We convinced our friends to take lessons with her. They did not know what they were getting into. They were like, “Who is this lady, and why is she grabbing my leg?” But they loved it. We got a rich education tailored to us in a very intimate atmosphere. It was an amazing time! PS Then in 2009, you ended up resigning from Pilates Seattle International? LORI Yes, Lauren and I accomplished a lot together and it was time for me to move on. (We had bought Sean out years earlier.) A former employee and brilliant teacher, Teresa Shupe, had recently opened Atlas Pilates in Seattle. I asked if I could come work with her, and she said “Yes!” Now I am the director of education at Atlas Pilates. I teach both instructors and “regular” clients. It’s important for my soul to teach all kinds of people. But it’s also really useful when doing teacher training to keep myself rooted in the work. I’m more compassionate when I’m using my teaching skills on the floor for real.
Teresa and her husband C.J. manage a topnotch studio. The business provides the support I need in order to focus on the work, educating students enrolled in our teacher-training program and providing educational outreach to instructors in our industry. It’s nice to no longer deal with the burdens of studio ownership. My appreciation for them overflows.
PS Some people believe that the order of the exercises in classical Pilates is unvarying. Was that your experience with Romana? LORI Romana definitely demonstrated how Pilates is not rigid or linear. Her approach was to follow Joe Pilates’ foundational work and teach each individual what he or she needed. Later, in the 1990s, in order to organize the vast amount of material for her certification program, she developed exercise levels: Basic, Intermediate and Advanced. Overall sequences didn’t change, but she did shift exercises within her level construct. These orders were for learning the material.
Romana could make authoritative but contradictory declarations. For instance, she said, “A teacher must teach with words alone,” as well as, “A teacher must not rely on words.” Another example is when she taught us a quick rhythm for the Mountain Climb. We practiced our speed! And when she returned months later and saw us pumping like crazy, she declared, “The Mountain Climb should always be done slowly!” When people studied with her for the duration of one group, or in groups with similar abilities, they got one strong message and carried that forward. I observed Romana for many years and in different locations and saw how she taught the group in front of her, giving groups what they needed, just like she did with individuals. The richness she offered still inspires me. What I got from her was an invitation to digest and integrate the chaos to grow, to make sense of it and ultimately to own it. PS So it isn’t about order or rigidity? LORI Right, it’s about structure and balance. I observe some teachers leaning heavily on the athletic and routine components of Pilates, focusing on challenges and doing the exercises in a specific, off-the-shelf, nontailored kind of way, which can lead to imbalance. Others lean heavily on corrective teaching styles, which can piece apart the method, causing it to lose its rhythm and cadence. Overtailoring can cause the workouts to lose the power of routine and flow, which is a huge loss. The orders allow habits to carry us forward with inertia, in a good way, while we overlay other principles and intentions to improve.
Proust Questionnaire with Lori Coleman-Brown
We’ve given the Proust Questionnaire, a Q&A popularized by Marcel Proust, a Pilates spin.
WHE N YO U ’ REN OT IN THE PILATES STUDIO, WHERE ’ SYOUR FAVORITE PLACE TO BE?
Walking my dog. It’s beautiful here [in Seattle]. I can walk from my house and be in a forest in a few minutes.
WHAT’S YOUR IDEA OF PERFECT HAPPINESS?
Sci-fi movies and dinner at home with my husband. Singing along to the Hamilton soundtrack. Losing myself in great conversations with friends.
IF YOU COULD HAVE STUDIE D WITH ONE PERSON , WH O WOULD IT BE AND WHY?
I have a couple. Ronald D. Moore, who wrote and produced Battlestar Gallactica. I love his exploration of artificial intelligence and humanity. The other is Isadora Duncan, because she spoke her truth and broke the rules of her time with movement.
IF YOU COULD ASK JOE ONE QUESTION, WHAT WOULD IT BE?
When you put your hands on people, what do you feel? I mean, how do you understand people with your hands? But I don’t think he would answer me. I think he’d just put his hands on me, push, and say “feel that?”
HOW HAS YOUR OWN PILATES PRACTI CEE NHA NCED YOUR
Doing my Pilates workouts gives me a sense of structure and calm. I’m enjoying exploring my fractal nature, understanding my rich inner landscape, which just keeps going deeper and deeper. In the past, Pilates would ping my former dancer self-judgment. But now the workouts give me equanimity and composure that really help me to be present in the world.
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